Supposedly People Fear Public Speaking More Than Death. What If Not Getting to Do It is a Greater Fear?
I’ve often said that we’re all in recovery from something and we all have stories to tell.
I’ve also said that the more we can share our darkest stories with others, the more we can help eradicate shame and change the public perception of words that have long been viewed negatively.
I knew, despite no experience, that I wanted to be sharing mine from a stage.
I just had no idea how to start.
And so I did what I do best: I hustled.
Pitch Yourself and Don’t Care When They Don’t Respond
“Rejection is God’s protection”
Because I had experience appearing on TV, I theorized that speaking agents would be chomping at the bit to sign me.
I was wrong.
I did the requisite Googling for agents, crossed the biggest agencies of all off my list because I figured I didn’t need to set myself up for automatic rejection and sent off what I thought were charming missives to 10 agents.
I got exactly 0 responses.
It was time for Plan B.
I Asked Until I Found Someone Who Said Yes
“Flaming enthusiasm, backed up by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success”
After questioning multiple people I knew who had careers that put them in at least the semi public eye, eventually I stumbled across one who said why yes, he had a college speaking agent.
He told me about the most laborious and least pleasant sounding process ever—a process, he said, that was required if you wanted to book college speaking gigs.
It involved making reels, paying to submit said reels to college speaking conferences, almost never being accepted into said conferences and then if you were accepted into one, flying yourself to whatever Godforsaken city it was in, putting yourself up and paying even more for the opportunity to perform 20 minutes of an hour long talk you’d spent a year perfecting.
The audience you would then be performing it to? College students—aka, a group as difficult to entertain as, arguably, children. You’d be competing for their attention and approval along with established comedians, people talking about sex and famous musicians.
Because I can be a masochist, I asked for his agent’s name.
This time, when I wrote, I got a response.
It was two lines: I’m willing to take a chance on you. Send me your reel.
Fake a Reel
“Fake it ‘till you make it”
Trying to get a speaking gig to make a reel brought me right back to trying to get my first job waiting tables. No restaurant in the world, it seemed, wanted to hire someone without any experience waiting tables. And you couldn’t get a speaking gig until you had video of yourself speaking.
I had two options at this point: get someone to shoot me speaking either in front of people or get someone to shoot me in a room where we could pretend there were people. For reasons unclear, I opted to go with the people and so I asked a teacher friend if I could speak to his class at NYU.
I worked on the talk for probably far too long—coming up with a thesis and writing and rewriting and rewriting some more until I felt like it made sense and was captivating.
I kind of bombed that day. But that’s what’s amazing about a reel: you get to take the few minutes where you didn’t suck, place it over background music, splice in some other stuff…and look like a star.
We spliced in quotes about me that had nothing to do with my speaking abilities; they were actually blurbs for my book. But hey, they were about me and so we just used them in title cards in a different context.
Same words, different context; you can call that dishonest. I call it effective marketing.
Yes, The Process Was Laborious
“All things are difficult before they are easy”
Once my reel was in submit-able shape, my agent encouraged me to apply through her to that hellish-sounding conference I’d heard about.
The conference is called NACA and it stands for the National Association of Campus Activities. It’s been around since the 60s and people like Billy Joel and Springsteen got their start there.
Okay, so that’s the good news.
The bad is that it you actually pay to apply ($100 for each of the 11 regions).
The competition is fierce, which is to say that the college students who are watching your reel are comparing it to hundreds of others acts in order to decide who will showcase at the conference.
If you are accepted, after paying an additional $300 and then flying yourself to the region, you are given 20 minutes to do the strongest part of your talk in front of anywhere between hundreds and thousands of teenage decision makers.
I can’t quite explain how nerve-wracking my first NACA was. There’s something about going up on stage after a comedian who told sex jokes and called it relationship advice and got a standing ovation that can kill a girl’s spirit.
But I didn’t let myself get discouraged. I did my 20 minutes and cleared the stage. I had stuff to do: to get specific, I had a booth to go stand around.
How to Not Care If No One Wants You
“I’d rather hear ‘I hate you’ than be ignored”
Standing around the booth was arguably the most humbling part of the process.
What it entailed was placing myself at my agent’s display, hoping that one of the college kids would come up and tell me how great my talk was and how much they’d like me to come give it at their school.
Alas, all the students who approached the booth wanted to talk to my agent about booking other clients.
Still, being able to stand at a booth and bask in attention or non-attention is a NACA luxury.
That’s because NACA allows people to join for a fee, which means that plenty of NACA applicants don’t have representation at all. It’s by having an agent who’s a NACA member that you get to save the annual fee (which ranges from $264-$839).
I booked exactly one gig from my first NACA and 0 from the next NACA I got into. The other NACAs I’ve applied to since? I haven’t earned a showcase.
Just like anything worth doing, this process is not for those who discourage easily.
So Why Do I Keep Doing It?
“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second”
Despite not getting much action from NACA, my agent has consistently gotten me speaking gigs over the past five years. I’ve spoken at schools in Bellingham, Washington, Sioux City, Iowa, Anchorage, Alaska, Lawton, Oklahoma, Fargo, North Dakota and New Haven, Connecticut, among many other places.
I’ve had people come up to me at all of those schools and share things with me that they said they’d never told anyone else.
I had a mother of a student email me that she brought her son to my talk and it made him willing to get sober.
I’ve also had the experience of flying to Billings, Montana so I could then drive to Sheridan, Wyoming, so that I could then realize that there were four people showing up to hear me talk and three of them were part of the campus activities group and thus obligated to be there.
I’ve had the experience of bribing students to come to my talk with the promise that I’d give them copies of my books that I’d planned to sell.
And yet I’ve been paid up to $3000 to speak for 45 minutes.
In other words, I’ve had—just like with life—the entire gamut of experiences.
Over this past weekend, I reached a goal I’d never even had the audacity to have: I spoke at a $10,000-a-head event alongside Tony Robbins (among other incredible people, including JP Sears and Peter Diamandis).
Beforehand I was cursing the fact that I’d agreed to do it.
After? Well, it was like an e-ticket ride: terror followed by exhilaration followed by the desire to do it again as soon as possible.
If I Haven’t Discouraged You Yet, Here’s What I Recommend
“Put blinders on and plow right ahead”
Everybody talks about going to Toastmasters if you want to learn public speaking, and there’s a good reason for it. It’s free training.
Another place where you can get free public speaking training (where I, ahem, got it): 12-step meetings. People will say, “Come for the drinking, stay for the thinking.” I’d like to add to that “And also stay for the amazing practice public speaking.”
(PLEASE don’t misunderstand me; 12-step groups saved my life. That’s why I go. And yet this is also where I learned how to speak in public. These things are not mutually exclusive.)
Once you’ve gotten some practice, it’s time to put together your talk.
Ask yourself these things: What is it you want to convey to a crowd? What matters to you? What do you think that veers from what most people do? How can you best convey that?
Write it out.
Memorize it. The best way I know how to do this is to tape record yourself giving the talk and then listen to it as you walk, drive or clean. Then tape record yourself saying it without the speech in front of you and listen to that.
If necessary, create cue cards that remind you of your transitions in the talk.
Do whatever you can to wear the talk, as they say, like a loose garment. The more obsessive you become about trying to get the exact words right, the more destined you are to screw it up.
Instead focus on the concepts and transitions.
Once you’ve got it done, show people your reel and ask if you can come speak at their classes or companies. This is how I’ve gotten practice at rehabs and a friend’s high school class at a military academy.
If you can’t swing that, fake that reel audience and just have someone videotape you on a stage. That’s what I did here. Truth talk: can you tell that’s an empty auditorium or that it was shot and edited by a great guy I found on Upwork who did it for me for a few hundred bucks?
If you need elements to splice in the middle of it, gather some quotes from people and place them on title cards between the clips. Think: “Jessica had the entire school mesmerized” – Malcolm Johnson, high school principal.
If you want to lay music down under or between the clips, there are plenty of sites where you can get free instrumentals.
But the most important thing I can tell is this: just like with anything, first impressions count so make sure those first 30 seconds kick ass.
(Addendum: make sure the whole thing kicks ass.)
What I’ve Learned Makes for an Effective Talk
“You’ve got to experiment to figure out what works”
Through plenty of trial and error—mostly the latter—I’ve figured out what works for me when I’m coming up with a talk.
When I break it down, it’s essentially five things:
1) A compelling opening anecdote that sets up the concept.
2) A strong thesis backed up by examples throughout.
3) Opportunities to engage with the audience (in the talk I’m doing these days, for instance, I talk about ADD, which gives me an excellent opportunity to ask audience members to raise their hands if they’ve ever theorized that they have it; ironically, for people who are listening to a talk and therefore should be able to focus, many do).
4) Authenticity. Sometimes with talks, particularly talks that I’ve rehearsed and done many times, it’s difficult to stay connected to the feelings that inspired me to want to do the talk in the first place. When I have trouble with that, either in the writing or the delivery, it helps for me to focus on pain points the audience might have. If I’m making a point, in other words, about something that hurt deeply when I first experienced it but I’ve talked about it so much that I can’t still access the feeling, I’ll try to focus instead on what the audience may be experiencing that would make them relate to it.
5) The understanding that most audience members don’t remember most of what you said, but they remember how you made them feel. So the more I can be who I really am—whether that’s weird, messy or anything else that a so-called polished speaker would not be—the more successful the talk is going to be.
If you think you have a message that you could tell from a stage, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible.
Yes, you’ll suck at first.
Then you won’t.
In my experience, accepting part a will lead you to part b.
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