Paying it Forward – Why I’m a Speak Easy Mentor

The first time I spoke in public was a complete disaster.

I was working in London as a Managing Consultant running the Software Quality Management practice for the UK and the MD of the region asked me to give an overview of the business – at the annual meeting of the entire company! Now I had spoken dozen of times in private at project and sales meetings, but this was different, as I had never gotten up on stage to present in front of hundreds of people. But being filled with my usual unwarranted self-confidence, I readily said “of course” when asked and then set about trying to figure out what I was going to do.

Some of the preparation was easy. Compiling the stats on sales, profitability, and the usual business stuff that was in the hundreds of annual meetings I had been subjected to, but there was something different the MD had asked for in this presentation that threw me for a loop. They wanted to know my opinion on the testing industry! Never being one to shy away from giving my opinion (unsolicited or otherwise), I was well versed in spouting off about what I thought was wrong with our industry. But as I was soon to learn, talking in the pub with colleagues is a very different game (at least to it was to me) from standing in front of my entire company and formally presenting my ideas.

I’m a firm believer that most of what happens in your life is down to luck and the only part you can control is how hard you work, so as I did (and do) set about researching all the things I wanted to say about software testing. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to amount to much! Of course I had opinions, but as I tried to validate them I quickly realized that my “factory” view of testing was not easily supported by science. Panic set in. I cobbled together some stats and graphs and even chucked in that timeless classic – the rising cost of defects curve!

On the night of the event I could feel the pressure about to pop which had built from when I woke up to nearly unbearable proportions as they called my name to the stage. My hands were sweaty and shaking, I couldn’t remember any of the witty things I wanted to say, and basically by the middle of the 2nd slide I had completely bombed. I remember looking at people in the audience trying to read their expressions and feeling that what was going through their heads must have sounded like this:

Although my friends at the event told me that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, I could tell that my performance was lacking. So instead of giving up, I went about trying learn everything I could about public speaking but missed one essential trick – finding a mentor. At the time there wasn’t a great network of public speakers like Speak Easy to connect people to the kinds of people who want to help new speakers find their voice. I could have greatly benefitted from an objective reading of my material, a walk through of my story, challenges to my opinions, and at the very least a private walk through of the talk  to a friendly face. And that is what’s so great about the Speak Easy program – increasing diversity in tech conferences through paying it forward from experienced speakers.

Over 15 years later, I’ve spoken and presented in public at loads of conferences, media events, and industry forums and over time have found my voice and confidence. But  I still carry with me that moment in time when I was scared out of my wits waiting to go on stage all those years ago. Hopefully through this program I can share those lessons learned (and others) with new speakers and let them know that everyone started somewhere!