I recently attended Hippocampus Magazine’s annual writing conference. It was a small and friendly atmosphere, and seemed like the perfect place to try my hand at presenting. I was on the debut author’s panel and led a session on blending genres in nonfiction. I hoped speaking would help me come out of my shell, but I didn’t realize just how much I would learn from the experience.
The first time I went to Hippo Camp, I was too shy to speak to many people. This year, I vowed to turn that around. I applied to present a breakout session, because I hoped it would force me out of the backrow. It worked. Being a speaker shift my mindset from, “talking to people is terribly scary,” to “I am a professional and I have a responsibility to do the talking thing.”
As a bonus, people came up to me and initiated conversation. Since I closely followed the preconference news on social media, when I met other people they felt like new friends, not strangers. Even if you abhor the Twitter and the Book of Faces, it is worth following along just for the weeks preceding the conference if you are like me and not very good at talking to people.
Packing for HippoCamp, I made the terrifying decision to fill my suitcase with books instead of alternative outfits. If you understand my clothing anxiety, you’ll recognize what a big deal this was for me. Looking at the books the night before calmed me, as if they were comfort animals, or very close friends. I debated lugging them to the session—there wasn’t really time or space for people to peruse them after the fact, but I couldn’t stand to leave them lying on the hotel bed all alone. These were, after all, some of my very favorite books in the world. Carrying them along to the session was like bringing my peeps with me. I filled up half of the first row with them, but I didn’t care. It turns out, they came through for me when I needed them.
Once, when I was sixteen, I gave a talk and ran out of material with 20 minutes left to go. I did the only thing one can do in such a situation—I threw up and passed out in front of everyone. It is fair to say that running out of material is a fear of mine. Before HippoCamp, I wrote pages of color-coded lecture notes in a font-size large enough for me to read from a podium. I revised and rewrote and carefully spaced them so each page ended at the end of a complete sentence. My notes were a wonder to behold—and then I dropped them into an unsalvageable mess halfway through. Having the actual books there gave me somewhere to go. In the books versus clothing decision, I chose wisely.
Speaking of those beautiful and carefully wrought notes, when I abandoned them—technically I think they abandoned me, because I tend to blame others, even inanimate things like papers—and just talked about the subject, the clouds parted and I suddenly (I think) became more interesting. Next time, I will make a few note cards with quotes and time stamps to stay on schedule.
Another unexpected lesson was to never underestimate the generosity of other writers. A seasoned presenter, Laurie Jean Cannady, author of Crave and a writing hero of mine, helped me convert my word document into a power point 30 minutes before I had to present it. Again, this talking to people thing paid off. During my session a word got stuck in my mouth and I couldn’t get my tongue to cooperate, so I said, “someone please say that word for me,” and several people did, and my tension dissipated. At another point, an attendee gave me the perfect quote I needed to answer someone else’s question. I came away from my own session with new books to add to my TBR list.
I found that when I felt socially awkward, telling people that I felt awkward led them to commiserate and made us both less awkward. Let’s face it, I’m an anxious and awkward person—I’m told that it’s part of my charm. By owning my awkwardness instead of trying to pretend not to feel awkward, I was able to transcend it. When I was late for a presentation, I hung out with the volunteers in the hallway. When I screwed up my dinner plans, a group of people with name badges welcomed me into their conversation. People were happy to make room for me—all I had to do was ask.
The last thing I learned as a presenter was not to be afraid to establish myself as an authority. People want to know that the person who is leading a session has earned the right to be there. I had felt shy about this, but after the response of the attendees I won’t be afraid to lead with my credentials next time.
I was left with a love for my fellow writers, and can’t wait to go to my next conference. Hopefully next time, my wrap-up blog will be filled with less anxiety and more confidence. I did this thing, and I want to do it again.
Copyright © 2023 Lara Lillibridge
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