19th October, 2011

Another lesson learned

I learned many things at Brooklyn Beta last week, but one lesson in particular will stay with me for some time. Taking to the stage to announce our ambitious new web app capped a humbling and fear-inducing afternoon. Despite years of experience presenting to crowds, I was a mess.

We often find it encouraging when people share their mistakes or bad experiences. As both a reader and a speaker/writer, I too find value in such cathartic exercises, and I’ve never been afraid to refer to my errors. By publicly exploring my latest fuck-up, I want to share what it feels like when something major slips out of your control, and to try and understand why this can happen.

Before the Fanzine demo at Brooklyn Beta

Figure 1: Me a few minutes before the Fanzine launch (captured by Jon Tan)

I’ll mention a few kind responses at the end, but up front I want you to know that this post is in no way designed to illicit sympathy, or have you adding kind comments to make me feel better. I already feel better. I just think there’s some value in sharing this tale with you, and I’ve learned a little more about myself by doing so. No hugs, please.

Not confident, but not shy

I wasn’t a confident kid, but I was never afraid of audiences. I started as a narrator in school plays, and I would sometimes be asked to read my English work back to the class as a good example of how to write (so I was told). Later on I would wax lyrical in crit sessions and coursework lectures through art school, and at my exhibitions or whatever. In recent years, I’ve learned to feel comfortable speaking to web industry audiences ranging from ten people up to almost a thousand. I’m also shit-hot at Karaoke.

So, doing a short demo for our new music app at Brooklyn Beta shouldn’t have bothered me. I’d even given a four-hour workshop at the same event and in the same building twelve months before. Yet on this occasion, something went wrong in my head.

The build-up

I had no idea when I’d be doing this demo. My slot was moved around all day. I totally understand the reasoning, and should be professional enough to cope with it, but as the day neared to a close, I realised I’d spent the entire day getting more and more het up. I’d be ready to go and do it, and then with every last minute change of plan, I’d go and sit back down against the far wall and try to memorise my script, each time getting more and more stressed.

I also knew that unlike most demos on the day, I would do my best to come in under the five minutes allotted time, so that my friends Cameron and Chris could get their schedule on track. I figured that as I usually just get on stage and enjoy myself, I’d be likely to overrun (I went half-an-hour over time in Vancouver this June).

So, although I absolutely hate it when people read from their notes, I opted to stick to my script. All day I paid barely any attention to the wonderful speakers and conversations happening around me. I just kept staring at Evernote, hoping at least one or two lines would stick in my brain. They didn’t.

The intro

I finally took to the stage at around 4.30pm or something like that. No idea. I’d already downed a beer like most of the attendees as I needed it. The audience was warm and friendly, and a number were excited to finally see a glimpse of this secret thing we’d been working on. They gave me a huge round of applause, and I could see lots of familiar faces. Despite this, I was shaking, stressing; a complete bag of nerves.

After just one sentence, Evernote crashed. Bang. Gone. I looked at my phone, looked up at two-hundred faces, said “Sod it”, and thought I could remember the next twenty seconds of script without my crutch. I couldn’t. I went completely blank, and realised I was underselling this thing by failing to share the finely-crafted opening gambit we’d worked hard to prepare. Fuck.

The video

So, short intro over, now it was on to the three-minute video. Greg had done a stunning job pulling it together, and I’d scripted and recorded the voiceover when I arrived in Brooklyn. This process worked out well, and we were happy. However, as the video began to play, I had what I can only describe as an out of body experience.

None of us like to hear our own voices, and I’m just like you. I learned to get used to it early on, which is kind of essential if you’ve spent twenty years doing lectures, talks, workshops, and meetings. But at Brooklyn Beta, I stood on stage for three minutes whilst my nasal East Midlands accent came echoing out of speakers around the venue. I could hear myself, and yet make nothing out. I stood there with my voice coming from somewhere else entirely. Not from me, but from somewhere in recent history. I’m probably not doing this justice, but it was completely weird. Totally, completely, weird.

I realised that a nasal East Midlands accent does not a good demo video make. I’m so used to hearing a familiar American accent on these voiceovers, that mine just sounded dumb, backwards. It didn’t help that later on I was informed that my voice was not very good for demo videos. True, but ouch.

The outro

Evernote restarted, I plunged straight back into the script. I failed to build upon the excitement of the video, and with all personality sucked from the talk, I could hear myself reading from my notes like a child, “And — the — fox — jumped — over — the — fence…” style. And even though I had my notes back, I completely forgot to let the audience know when we’d be launching, making it seem as if we were ready that day, resulting in numerous tweets, DMs, and emails asking for invites.

The aftermath

The demo was done, and I was aware of a big round of applause. How big, I don’t know. As big as I’d hoped? No idea. I don’t remember much, to be honest. I immediately ran outside where I shared a couple of cigarettes with Greg, and we analysed what had happened. He was upbeat, but I put him on a downer as I quietly but continuously criticised my performance through clouds of smoke in the rain.

Shortly after, we checked the Twitters. There were a handful of really encouraging, excited tweets. Some folks nailed it, some were guessing about bits we hadn’t covered. A couple were sceptical. It was hard to judge the response right there.

The talks over, I crept back upstairs to get my stuff, and then just hid around the back of the lift, out of the way. I decided that I wasn’t mentally ready to respond to what the attendees might have to say about our new app. I was aware that we’d only shared a small part of what we’d designed, and that we’d only planted a seed in their heads. I knew many would question things or make suggestions that we’d already covered during the process, but that it’d be very unfair to counter every comment with “Yeah, yeah, we’ve thought of that” or similar.

I needed distance so that when the conversations started, I would be tolerant, and would listen. For the most part, conversations about the app itself were great, and very enthusiastic. We found out who the true music fans are, and they helped us understand a bit more about our audience, and gave us lots of great suggestions. I think Greg handled all that better than me though. I wanted cigarettes, beer, and a quiet room.

Some close friends could see I was upset, or troubled at least. I witnessed some genuine friendships come to the fore, and in response to my grumbles about my performance, I received a few wise words and big embraces to help me get my head straight. Andy, David, Lachlan, Cennydd, Tyler et al: thank you.

The lesson

I’m not sure I learned one single lesson at all. I think it was more a composite of many, many things. In some ways I’m glad it happened. I’m not cocky, not arrogant, but I guess we all get comfortable in certain roles, and to be shaken out of that lazy stupor might not be a bad thing at all. We’ll see.

I learned straight away that speaking regularly at conferences and sharing one’s own line of inquiry or investigating a hot topic is a very, very, very different thing to doing a five-minute demo for a product or service. I’m still not exactly sure why, but I think it boils down to the sheer potential a product or service has; that it could change your life, or make a genuine difference to a lot of people.

I also realised that speaking and running workshops is a solo affair. Sure, you owe a great deal to the organisers and obviously to the attendees, but really you stand out there on your own, and if you fuck it up, you mainly let yourself down. Life will go on, and you’ll have tarnished your own reputation. In sports terms, this is Tiger Woods.

With an app that you and several others have been working very hard to bring to fruition over the best part of the year, you are involved in a team sport. Standing on the stage and sharing this journey with two-hundred people, you are representing that team, like a football striker or quarterback. They put their faith in you to sell the idea and do an amazing job. If, as I did, you feel you’ve screwed it up, then you feel that you’ve screwed it up for everybody concerned, and that’s a bloody awful feeling.

Finally, as all good speakers should know, your own standards and expectations are way, way above those of the audience. That’s not to say that attendees don’t expect something mind-blowing, but they don’t live inside your own addled mind with it’s endless pursuit of unattainable perfection. Only the speaker every really knows how amazing the talk could be, how many salient points should be made and are missed, and just how off-script he or she has gone. In truth, I guess you really have to go a long way to balls it up and truly trash your entire career or new app from the stage. Even if the worst happens, people in our community are mostly very forgiving.

Everything is always OK in the end

In the end, I think it’s all OK. My team mates all slapped me on the back and told me I’d done a good job. They were honest enough to listen to my worries, and acknowledged a few issues we could all agree on. Then we moved forward. The roadmap is in place, and there’s significant interest from the right quarters. We’re not picking amongst the burnt embers of a dream here. Sure, I didn’t do a great job on the day, but we designed and built this thing as a collaborative force, and we’ll get to share it with you soon enough. For that alone I should be very happy, and grateful.

There are lessons for us at every turn. I’ve learned another one, and I hope it’s been in some way useful to you out there.

What have you built, anyway?

It’s going to be amazing — we hope, but having written all of that stuff up above, I don’t feel right sticking a pitch on the end. So, all I’ll say is that you “should” (as they tell us to say) follow @fanzinefm on Twitter and keep up with the cool kids.


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