Two weeks ago I stood on a stage in London as I gave a 45 minute talk to 300 to 400 people. It was the first time I’ve ever left the States. In the week leading up to my trip, I tweeted that every time I present, I stress, causing sleepless nights. I ended up getting a number of tweets, and direct messages, asking why – and some people seemed seriously concerned that I have social anxiety about presenting. I don’t.
I’ve been presenting for about 4 years now (a little over 2 years professionally in SEO). It’s horrifying, but I love it.
It’s not the audience that stresses me. It’s the content.
I think every person who has an opportunity to speak should let the anxiety run deep (you can always tell the presenters who don’t).
I’m privileged to have the opportunity to have the undivided attention of hundreds of people for the better part of an hour. People are there to listen, to learn, to be motivated and to be entertained. Forget the fact that the people paid nearly a thousand dollars to attend, or that they may be spending thousands more to travel and put themselves up at a hotel for days. Of course they want you to deliver, but more importantly, you have a platform to deliver.
An opportunity to cherish. I didn’t always have this opportunity.
Check out these images from my Facebook that I uploaded in 2009.
Fanboy pic of Rand (sorry to be a creeper). Playing cards with Kate Morris of Distilled. Matt Cutts killing me in a game of Werewolf by convincing people I’m a blackhat. Meeting Aaron Wall and shaking his hand. Listening to Todd Friesen and Vanessa Fox. I had lunch with Rae Hoffman. I saw my first link building presentation, which was Wil Reynolds. I believe he talked about monitoring Twitter to give away ACs to people who complained about their office being hot. And in Vegas, I saw Todd Malicoat speak on his steps for launching linkbait. Those two presentations were huge influences on me.
I remember sitting awkwardly at networking events and in session rooms, nobody really all that interested in talking to me. Jen Lopez at SEOmoz, and a few other people, knew me from Twitter. (By the way, Jen is one hell of a community manager. I still remember her saying hi to me.) When I uploaded these images to Facebook (I was such an excited geek), I had no idea I’d know personally, or have at least met, all of the people in the photos in a year.
I remember these people and presentations every time I present.
There is something amazing about being able to personally connect with a collective room, but even more important, is the chance to influence change in people’s lives, the industry, and even the internet. Considering my audience is often filled by professionals who shape the face of content, social media, community, and technology on the internet – this time is enormously valuable.
It’s impossible for me to take this for granted.
The morning of any presentation, and again in London, I reflect on the tattoo that sits on my left forearm. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a Hylian Crest, from the video game Zelda. This symbol is tied to my roots, which I’ve written about before.
For a period of time as a kid, I lived in police protection, similar to a witness protection program. It’s a program for mothers and children from abusive households. I lived here, with other families, because my father may have ended up killing me, my sister and mom otherwise. Countless days of awkward dinners with strangers and no going outside. You disappear. The police won’t even take action when your extended family contacts them because you’ve gone missing. As an adult, I’ve driven past this home, knowing the secret protection it provides behind those covered windows. The day my family got out was on Christmas Eve. The following morning, I headed over to my neighbor’s house where I saw my friend playing a video game he got for Christmas. That game was Zelda: A Link to the Past, but he never let me play it. I spent the next several months talking about this game. Eventually, someone gave me the game as a gift. It was given to me by a police officer named Danny, who was the officer who arrested my father. I spent the next few months, an entire summer, escaped into the world of Hyrule. A pleasant, and fond, memory in an otherwise dark time. Memories of innocent happiness. A period I plan to never forget.
I made this impossible to forget. When I moved to Seattle and got a job at Distilled, I got a tattoo of the crest from Link’s shield on my left forearm, where I see it every morning. It’s there to remind me of where I’ve been and where I am now.
This is why I cannot sleep before I present. I don’t want to forget. I strive to never become complacent. Blog posts, presentations, slide decks, projects, and jobs conjure that bright eye kid who flew to Seattle with two suitcases two years ago. I might not be changing the world, but these were the skills I was given, and I’m going to pull myself, family, friends, and colleagues up with me.
So as I sit eating breakfast in London (seriously, London, wow), talking to Rand and Partrick, who lives in Japan (how cool), my tattoo reminds me that I was once a young boy from Springfield, TN, who grew tobacco with my grandpa as kid. Or that in 2009, I took my first plane flight as an adult to SMX in New York. These common interactions with people at conferences are always slightly emotional for me.
Remembering this has been a secret to my success.
It has literally taken me around the world.
When I think life is bad, it puts it in perspective. When I have drama at work, it makes me laugh at its insignificance. When I’m scared, it tells me not to be. When I want to sleep, it tells me to grab some coffee and keep at it for a few more hours.
So if I can share some advice from my life, it would be to keep treating everything like it’s your first. Remember the kid that set you down this path. Present like it’s your first time, every time. Create content with a purpose. Stay grounded. Cherish the breakfast with strangers in London. Keep stressing. Have sleepless nights. Once in a while, care so fucking much about something, that you can’t shut off. Keep your triggers close, so you never forget. This is my secret weapon.
And when you get lucky (and boy did I), give it back. Pour your life back into the system, so that others can pull themselves up as well.