Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jennifer Cohen's very public first talk

I saw Jennifer Cohen give a talk at Ignite! Baltimore recently--and while her topic, "Fired: Four Times," was immediately compelling, just from the title, I got even more enthusiastic when I spoke to her afterward and found out that (aside from teaching), this was her first real public speech. It's a tall order for a first talk: You get 5 minutes and 20 slides, with the charge to "make a difference," and your slides are advanced every 15 seconds, no matter what. I asked Jennifer to contribute a guest post to describe the experience. While you're reading, keep in mind that this is a first-timer's experience. I think there's a lot to learn from it! A final note: Ignite! will be posting does not have video of all the talks from this session and I'll so I'm sadly unable to add the video of Jennifer's talk as soon as it's available.

I was checking the Twitterstream one day and saw an interesting tweet directing me to Ignite! I really liked the concept of having five minutes to discuss anything, so I thought about what I would say in five minutes. I thought long and hard…five minutes to make a difference, what could I possibly say that could bring something to someone?

I decided I had a great topic and would share my trials and tribulations of being fired four times (plus I was looking for speaking opportunities for practice and to put myself out there). So I submitted my proposal for my five minute inspirational presentation about being fired four times and how I was still standing on my own two feet.

It was accepted!

Then I realized the true challenge of having five minutes…there would also be a 20 slide presentation to accompany the slide. The 20 slides would automatically rotate every 15 seconds. Crap.

As the deadline approached, I became nervous because it was down to the wire and I waited until the last minute to gather my thoughts. Although it was a personal story and I knew I could tell it with my eyes closed, I had to find a theme for 20 slides and coordinate my speech!

It was the true definition of the old saying “To speak for an hour, you can prepare for five minutes. To speak for five minutes, it will take an hour.” Well this took about four hours just to outline.

I wrote my speech in slides. I created the slides, then went back to tweak my presentation, making it more and more informal and tried to insert quick one-liners. I made the slide deadline and had four days to practice and perfect. Due to other obligations, I only used about three of the 96 hours.

Two hours before the presentation, I panicked! Was I prepared? I never practiced in front of anyone else, was I prepared to speak in front of a few others? What if I got flustered and stumbled? I decided I didn’t want to do it. Then I realized I drove two hours to get there and if I didn’t do it, I would have to tell everyone I chickened out. That was not going to happen.

I went up to give my presentation where the organizer promptly told me there were 500 people in the crowd. I instantly felt my body temperature rise. 500?! I thought there were only going to be about 50! Eeeek!

It was my turn.

I brought my notes with me so I would have something in my hand and something to reference if I started floundering.

I introduced myself and the five-minute clock started ticking.

I spoke slide-by-slide and told my personal story with passion. I knew what I wanted to say and added my own spin while I was in the flow. The laughs and nods from the crowd served as instant validation, but I was hoping they couldn’t see my knees knocking, hands shaking and hear my voice fumbling.

When it was over, I exited the stage…and almost fell off. My legs felt so weak, but I was relieved and excited! I walked over to my business partner who had the biggest smile I’d ever seen on his face! I nailed it!

Then came the best part of the night…Audience members approached me during the intermissions to say I was inspiring and to thank me for sharing my story. No one said I looked nervous or messed up; they just thanked me and congratulated me on a job well done.

It was exciting and it felt great to accomplish the goal I set when deciding to seize the opportunity! If I made one person feel inspired, positive or excited, it was worth it.

The connections and people I met that night were great. The experience gave me confidence to continue to inspire and to seek out additional opportunities to make a difference through the gift I was given…The gift of speaking.

-Jennifer Cohen
Something Creative LLC

Related posts: Pushing yourself to speak: Ignite!