Confessions of a First Time ATD Speaker

Photo Credit James Olson

Last summer my colleague and boss at the time, Adam Costakes, suggest we go to lunch.  Not unheard of, but I could tell something was up. Over two massive bowls of pho, he shared with me a particular thought had recently.  Over the previous three years, we had driven and supported our learning organization through a significant transformation by launching a rather successful microlearning initiative. He suggested that people would be interested in hearing this story.  He suggested that we apply to speak at the 2019 ATD ICE conference. I was dubious.

I’m as confidence as a squirrel when he buries an acorn.

Sure, it might be a good story to tell someone about over a drink. If they had asked, anyway. But an international conference? That was a stretch.  He has a sales background so my objections were just a matter of course. He didn’t even blink as he laid it all out. A short while later, I was willing to put some ideas on paper and collectively submit an application. Lo and behold, ATD accepted our application.

This kicked off months of brainstorming and content revisions. We had a story, but what were the most important points? What would people care about? Would anyone even show up for our session? These questions danced around my head and through my dreams from one season, into another and then into yet another.  All the while, both of our families grew one child larger and I relocated back to my home country, Canada. To say we had a lot going on was an understatement.

We met for dinner, for the first time we’d seen each other since September of the year before.

As time marched on,  ideas came and went. Draft decks got refined. Eventually we had our session.  Given our situations (growing families, two countries, and full-time careers) we didn’t have a lot of chance for practice.  And by that I mean, we didn’t have a chance to practice. Bedtime routines can be very demanding.

Months later, at 5 pm on a Saturday, I stepped off of my plane and into Washington D.C. We were scheduled to present our material to a crowd, size and temperament unknown, at 11 am the next day.  We met for dinner, for the first time we’d seen each other since September of the year before. Somehow it had all come together. After catching up over hipster fare, we decided that it would be the sensible choice to take advantage of the opportunity to actually practice our material together.  To really get our timing sorted, and discuss the best way to breakdown ideas. The prospect of honest-to-goodness practice was thrilling.

In a hotel room, where the air conditioner that was doing it’s best to contend with the spring heat, we set up a laptop with our presentation, hooked up both of our clickers, and eventually got through the first half of our content.  It only took three hours. Within 12 hours we would be given 75 minutes to share our story. Truth be told, we’re both confident men. In fact, I’m as confident as a squirrel when he buries an acorn. Is it misplaced confidence? Maybe. But I always manage to find the acorn. It might take a while, but I find it. While we may not have reviewed the entirety of our session content, we successfully solved some of the world’s problems. So as to not risk solving too many problems, or worse, over reviewing our presentation, we decided to call it a night. The next day had potential to make or break us. Or our careers, at least.

For the first time, the next morning we walked into the room in which our session was going to take place. Eyebrows slowly crept up our foreheads. Plenty of seats. More than I expected.  We got to the room early and planned on getting into the ‘zone.’ In the hour and ten minutes before kick off I expected to put on my headphones and go over a couple transitions, maybe some notes. Really smooth out the edges.  A whole ten minutes later, the first person walked into the room. An hour before we were going to start. This was sacred time that I planned to get into the right frame of mind. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. But squirrels always have a back up plan.  This is when the session stopped being about me. Sure, it was our story, but it was meant to help the people in those seats. So, like a good host, I started chatting and working the room a bit, hoping that no one noticed me sweating through my sport coat.

It’s a strange feeling, staring down a modest crowd

I remember thinking of my father a couple of times. As a young man, I worked for my parents, who owned a garden centre. My parents were horticulture professionals and I had the chance to see them share their own insights in more than one horticultural society meeting. My dad would usually be the one to hold court. Inform and entertain. This is a fine line. Too much one way or the other and it might not land.  Make them laugh a few times, and share the valuable story.

The moments before the session were spent double and triple checking notes. Once we started the session, my memory gets a little hazy.  I wish I could say I was on auto-pilot, but calm waters run deep. Speaking to the room with the giddy part of my brain, reviewing a mental checklist with the practical part. Make good eye contact. Ok, that person looks uncomfortable so maybe less eye contact. Don’t pace. Don’t sway. Smile. But actuallysmile, don’t just squint.  

It’s a strange feeling, staring down a modest crowd, wearing a smile. It’s both exhilarating and intimidating. The strange desire to both protect yourself, and also give it all away. Imposter syndrome creeps up every now and then, and you hope that they don’t actually find out that you’re a fraud. What gives me the right to stand at the front of the room and share anything? I’m just some guy who was in the right place at the right time.  Lucky, is all. But luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Remember that squirrel-esque confidence I mentioned? A couple of laughs out of the crowd and it’s as strong as ever. I found my acorn. Imposter? Ha! Tell that to my lav mic. Yep. Lav. Not even lavalier. I’m that good.  

And then that was it.  Those fleeting moments were the peak. Maybe one walk-out, and most folks seemed to genuinely enjoy the session.  How much? TBD, but this was as good as we could have hoped for.

That’s when I was hit in the face with my real prize.

Four years of experience, distilled for six months and poured out over seventy-five minutes.  I think I gave us the better part of a day to really enjoy it. Then I got to hold our session up against sessions hosted by a few seasoned L&D professionals.  It was humbling. This was not only my first time as a speaker, but it was my first time attending. What an absolute privilege to hear some of the brightest minds share their insights.  To watch the best of the best put on a clinic, showing how they make the overwhelming seem simple. It was humbling.

As a rule, I don’t claim an expert status. The second the pond that you’re swimming in starts to get a little snug, you need to find a bigger pond. I’m fortunate beyond words to have had such an incredible experience, sharing our story with so many of our peers. I didn’t think it could get better. That’s when I was hit in the face with my real prize. The map to the real treasure. Shedding light on how I can take my game to the next level. How I can give more to the people that take the time out of their day to hear what I have to say.

It might not be fun to take something that so much love was poured into, and put it under the microscope, only to pick it apart. So if you create something, I say take a moment.  Give it a chance to live and breathe. See what it can do. But we can always do better. Enjoy it, but don’t let it restrict your next project.

I will be damned if I settle for what I did last year, last month, or even yesterday. I’d encourage you to do the same.

Originally published on LinkedIn. May 29, 2019