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June 12 2011

23:12

An Introvert Reflects on his First Presentation

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“You’re all set to go up in twenty minutes,” the organizer tells me. I quickly flash to myself in front of hundreds of people – frozen, and consumed by anxiety – having completely forgotten what I’m supposed to speak about next. Will that actually happen? Wait a minute; will I make it happen by worrying about it right now? “Hey,” I silently scream to myself. “Stop freaking out!”

As a bit of a self-diagnosed introvert, this was my experience over the weekend, as I prepared for my first presentation at WordCamp Kansas City. So the question is: if the thought of speaking for an hour in front of hundreds of people terrifies you, what’s the solution? Do you accept your emotional limitations, or do you instead force yourself into uncomfortable situations?

I’m willing to wager that, in general, we web developers suffer somewhat when it comes to – ya know – interacting with the outside world. Now, that doesn’t mean we spend our days curled up in the corner, typing “My Precious” into our laptops over and over. We’re not that bad; but, nonetheless, many of us may have chosen this profession because it allows for some form of escape from the real world. Again, I’m stereotyping here, but there’s certainly a reason why it’s a stereotype to begin with!

As we grow, we learn to accept our limitations. During our younger years, we may attempt to become someone we’re not. Who hasn’t tried on a handful of hats in their years?

But, invariably, we return to our core at some point in our 20s. At my core, whether I like it or not, I’m a shy guy (not to be confused with this shy guy). It’s not a trait that I’m particularly proud of, and it makes the process of mingling at parties infinitely more difficult.

As an example, my step father is the type of person who can approach a complete stranger, and find himself still chatting with them twenty minutes later. Sadly, potentially like yourself, this is an ability that I do not possess – try as I may. I’m a good actor, but, still, I’ve been known to answer phones that never rang – all in an attempt to get out of innocuous discussions. Feel free to use the words introvert, anti-social, “that guy who doesn’t talk much,” I.T. guy — whatever works for you. They’re, more often than not, one in the same.

But as we so often do, we come to accept ourselves for who we are. I’m a nice person; I just need to get to know you well before I can genuinely relax and let my guard down. I prefer 2-3 very close friends, as opposed to 50 semi-friends. Are you the same? If so, you’re going to have trouble attending or speaking at web development conferences — particularly if traveling alone, like I found myself doing this weekend. Even the thought of hundreds of people staring at you on stage frightens me!

What’s the Solution?

The best we can do is force ourselves into uncomfortable situations.

When it’s a proven fact that salary and job promotions are linked to one’s people skills, what’s the solution for the introverted among us? Must we accept our fate? Are we destined to make less than the outgoing guy in the office who is far less productive?

Well what do I know? I’m just a guy. But, in my 2.5 decades, I’ve learned something: people simply don’t change. The best we can do is force ourselves into uncomfortable situations as often as possible. If you find yourself bee-lining for the door when an uncomfortable situation arises, the best course of action is to resist that urge as much as possible, regardless of what your brain may tell you. Remember, in social situations, your brain is the problem. Don’t trust it!

So, you’ve followed this advice, and, against your better judgment, you’ve taken the plunge and signed up to speak at a web development conference. How do you keep yourself from being overcome by fear?


Lessen the Anxiety

For the more anxious among you, there are a variety of things that will help mitigate the level of nervousness you feel leading up to your speech.

  1. Valerian Root – Available in any drug store, and “promotes relaxation and tranquil rest.”
  2. Tylenol – Even if you don’t have a headache, a Tylenol or Aspirin will thin your blood and provide a modest level of relief.
  3. Whiskey – No; don’t get drunk before your presentation. That’s not a good idea! But, that said, there’s no denying that a little Jack mixed in with your coke will help alleviate that anxiety “rock” which rests in your stomach. Please be responsible if you choose this route.
  4. Shake it Out – Ten minutes before your presentation, consider excusing yourself to a private place, where you can release as much built up energy and anxiety as possible. Shake your hands rapidly, run in place, give yourself a pep talk. All of this helps! Just make sure nobody sees you. :)

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

It’s natural for any presenter to worry that he’ll forget his lines.

It’s natural for any presenter to imagine himself forgetting his lines. This fear will remain with you up until those final moments of your speech. The only cure – or prevention – is to prepare like crazy. When nobody else is around, practice your speech in front of your bathroom mirror. A word of caution when doing this, though: ensure that no one else is around! Otherwise, you will endure countless levels of ridicule from family members. Send them out for ice cream, and give the mirror the best you’ve got. Once you’ve finished, start over and do it again.

If you’d prefer to write and memorize your script, that’s okay too, just as long as you realize that, come speech day, you’ll undoubtedly forget many of those lines. Perhaps it’s better to write your script, and then convert it to bullet points when you create your presentation slides. In addition to providing the audience with memorable notes on your speech, your slides can also be used as mental reminders and triggers for yourself. Further, a bonus to this method is that your speech won’t feel as memorized to the audience. A bit of spontaneity is a good thing! If you find yourself going on a tangent during your talk, that’s perfectly okay (in moderation)!


Put on a Mask

Be the person that you wish you could be.

No, no – I’m not suggesting that you literally wear an “Eyes Wide Shut“-like mask during your talk. That would just be…weird. Instead, I’m referring to the way you perceive yourself. Presumably, no one at this conference knows who you are. That means, for one hour, you get to be a kid again! Choose a hat…any hat! Be the person that you wish you could be. Want to be more outgoing on stage? Be an actor, animate yourself, and channel that type of person. All that matters is getting through the presentation, having done as excellent a job as possible. If you need to wear an invisible mask to get it done, then by all means, do!


Don’t Be a Stick

Regardless of how interesting the topic is, no one can deny that it’s difficult to sit and listen to another person speak for an hour. We’re not built that way. In fact, I once read that we humans have trouble retaining focus for any period of time longer than fifteen minutes. As a speaker, though, you make things infinitely worse when you come across as a stick, for lack of better words. As Brian Flannigan’s ex-professor would say, “Speak up; let the class hear you!” Nobody wants to listen to a dull monotoned speech for an hour. Here’s some simple techniques that I found to be helpful when creating a more dynamic presentation.

  • Smile, fool!
  • Adjust your tone of voice from time to time.
  • Don’t stand in the same position for your entire presentation. Walk around — feel the space, as some might say.
  • Make jokes. Even if people don’t appreciate your humor (which they often don’t, as I found with my constant Mr. T references), they at least appreciate that you tried. Better yet, the biggest laughs tend to come when you least expect them.
  • Laugh at yourself. You’re not giving a speech to the world. If you stumble on your words, lose your place, or screw up a slide, laugh at yourself on stage. Nobody expects you to be flawless. Flawless is boring.
  • Fluctuate your pacing. Speak slowly during some portions of your presentation. At other points, pick up the speed a bit.
  • If you have real world examples of your speaking points, take a break and reveal them to the audience. People enjoy these sorts of things.
  • Engage the audience. Ask them questions. Allow them to interject with their own thoughts, clarifications, and questions during your speech. This might throw you off, but it allows for a more dynamic presentation.
  • Drink some water, for goodness sake! I personally fall into that group of people who views any period of silence as tense silence. On stage, ten seconds of silence feels like an eternity…but it’s not. The audience barely notices. So, when you need a moment to gather your thoughts, relax, take a drink of water, and continue on.

Conclusion

Please keep in mind that I’m quite possibly the last person who should offer speaking advice. I am clearly a novice! That said, however, the ideas and techniques listed above will hopefully encourage the fearful among you to dive in and test your limitations. When applied to my own first presentation, I didn’t crash and burn. And well…that’s success for an introvert like me!

April 25 2011

10:00

How To Stay In Love With Freelancing When Things Get Tough

Full time freelancing requires a commitment equal to marriage. One doesn’t make a leap of faith for an affair; they do it for a marriage.

I bet in the beginning, you felt all warm and fuzzy when you started freelancing. After all, you didn’t have to answer to anyone, could work your own hours and best of all – you had creative freedom! You were full of enthusiasm and zeal and your business was off to a great start. A honeymoon couldn’t have been more perfect.

A few months later, reality begins to set in. You realize that instead of your boss, you now have to answer to your clients. Working your own hours now translates into late nights and creative freedom is dependent on your client’s vision. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem as great as it was in the beginning.

You start to get disgruntled. Fights erupt with your muse and you stop talking to each other. Your work begins to suffer and before you know it, you’re thinking of divorcing your freelance business and going back to a corporate job.

To avoid signing on the dotted line, learn to keep the passion and stay in love with freelancing even when things get tough.

Don’t take freelancing for granted

It’s easy to forget why you started freelancing in the first place. You start taking the freedom freelancing gives you for granted and end up hurting your business.

You didn’t start freelancing so you could wake up late, work in your jammies, or become a hermit. You did it so you could have the freedom to pick and choose projects that interest you, earn more than you did in a corporate job and do all the things you’ve wanted to do in your life.

None of that is going to happen if you slack. Your freelancing business is just that – a business. Treat it like one.

Never go to bed angry

Whether it’s a difficult client that has put you in a bad mood or a problem with the project you can’t seem to solve – going to bed angry and frustrated only means you’ll wake up the same way.

Instead of working all night with no results and waking up groggy the next day, clock out early. Watch TV, go out, do whatever you do to relax and plan for an early start the next day.

Waking up at 4 am to work on a difficult project is better than pulling an all nighter and going to bed frustrated and angry. Once you’ve rested, your mind will be fresh, relaxed and better able to find solutions.

Taking the time to cool off, separating yourself from your work works wonders when you find yourself stuck in a frustrating situation. More importantly, don’t think about work while you’re away from it.

Be flexible and accommodating

Even if you’re meticulous with deadlines and progress updates, your client might not be. If you get impatient and worked up when you don’t receive feedback on your work immediately so you can proceed to the next stage, you’re in for a lot of tension. Your client and their work is of utmost importance to you, but the same can’t be said of your client. They have other responsibilities to take care of and getting back to you with feedback is not on the top of their list – unless it’s a high priority project.

Whether you keep sending them email reminders to send you feedback or make sure upfront that you want feedback within 24 hours of sending it – you’re setting yourself up for stress. Not to mention that you’ll be alienating your clients too!

No one likes to work with someone who doesn’t make certain allowances, isn’t flexible and accommodating.

Being flexible and accomodating isn’t just about feedback. It can be about payment terms, project deadlines, late fee etc. If you’re set in your ways then freelancing won’t be fun for long.

Learn to compromise

Your marriage to freelancing won’t last long if you don’t learn to compromise. Now, I don’t mean compromising on the quality of your work or your work ethic. It means you have to learn to accept that you can’t always have it your way.

As a freelancer, you will have your own ideas of how a project should be done and what would work better. After working on it so hard, you’re emotionally attached to the project and want to see it do well!

If you insist that your ideas or vision is correct and the client’s isn’t – your work relationship with the client and freelancing will sour very soon. It will also frustrate you, stress you out and even anger you. All of these emotions are toxic for your freelancing business.

Always keep in mind that ultimately, the client gets to make the final decision. Sure, you can make suggestions and offer advice but  the client is under no obligation to act on it. So every time you start getting all riled up because a client isn’t taking your advice on a project – remember that your duty as a freelancer is to make sure your work reflects your client’s vision – not your own.

Once you realize that all important point – your freelancing life will become easy.

Take time off

Work too hard for too long and no matter how much you love your work, you’ll burn out. Keep the flame alive by taking breaks.

About once a year (at least), take a couple of weeks off from work. You can travel, hike, camp, visit family and friends or do whatever you want. Stay home if you want to but don’t work. Let your clients know you’re taking a break. Submit work beforehand, refer someone else, delegate or ask for an extension. It’s not that hard to do.

And if you absolutely can’t take time off from work, take a working vacation. Lessen your work hours and go have fun the rest of the time. Work a couple of hours in the morning before heading out. Or work at the beach. The possibilities are endless.

And if you can’t even manage that, take a day off every two weeks.

Learn new things

If you’re a specialist, then before long you’ll start feeling stifled. Sure you’re exceptional at your chosen niche and love it but after a while it starts to feel tedious.

Avoid this feeling by learning new things. It will keep your interest in freelancing alive and give you additional skills as a freelancer.

Have fun!

If you’re not waking up looking forward to your work day, you’re not having fun and your freelancing is beginning to feel like a burden.

Working on personal projects is a great way to reduce stress and keep your interest in freelancing alive. Take some time out – even if it’s just an hour on the weekend, to work on something of your own.

Your personal project could be anything as long as it’s something you’re interested in and can’t wait to work on.

Not only will it revive your interest in freelancing but it might also give you an option of creating a passive income stream leaving you less dependent on client work. It’s a win-win situation!

What do you do to stay in love with freelancing? How do you keep the passion alive?

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