Wednesday, December 3, 2014

In Their Element

I recently attended a week-long conference to learn about some of the latest developments in my field. Each day was organized into morning, afternoon, and evening programs. As is standard for these meetings, the programs were divided into a number of so-called parallel sessions that took place simultaneously in different meeting rooms. However, for one of the mornings, only a single session was scheduled. As this was attended by everyone, it took place in the main ballroom of the conference center, an expansive space with multiple levels and seating areas. Row upon row and section upon section of chairs were laid out in grand and sweeping arcs. Fronting this imposing venue was an enormous elevated stage over one hundred feet long. For this session, the stage was bare except for a single podium for the featured speaker. Throughout the immensely enjoyable presentation, the speaker clearly demonstrated that he was fully in his element.

At the top of most people's list of fears is public speaking. Even just forming an image of standing up on that stage with all of those eyes staring up at you, might cause folks to get a bit of the shakes. It is easy to appreciate how one might feel insignificant in that huge space and lose their voice, why one might grip the sides of that podium so tightly that knuckles bleach. However, some folks in this environment absolutely shine. Nothing comes across as forced, they are fully comfortable in their own skin. They speak with ease, confidence, authority, and grace. It is clear that they are quite enjoying themselves. Instead of allowing the moment to take control of them, they seize the moment and simply own it from start to finish.

I have had the opportunity several times in my career of speaking to a packed auditorium of my peers at such a conference. In some of those presentations I was more than a bit overwhelmed and nervous, and did not do as well as I would have liked. In others, I felt like I did a pretty good job. When I don't do well, I find that the whole experience of my talk was little more than a hazy blur. It's like I wasn't able to be fully present in the moment. The majority of my attention was focused inward on my nervousness and anxiety. When I do well, it seems like I am able to direct my attention outward toward the room, wasting very little of my energy thinking of self. It is only then when I am able to be fully present.