Speaking & Me

Robert Mills

It was January 2012, at the New Adventures in Web Design conference in Nottingham, when I first mentioned to people that I was seriously thinking about public speaking. I had alluded to this prior to then but it was starting to seem nothing more than crying wolf as I never followed through by actually doing it.

I had spent the few years before working hard to contribute to an industry I loved. My network slowly expanded, I pitched article ideas, had some rejections (still do) but I was also given several writing opportunities for national blogs and magazines. I also wrote a book for Five Simple Steps. I mention the book a lot but why not, I am immensely proud of this achievement and I want people to read it, naturally.

Designing the Invisible

With all that writing under my belt, a good network of friends and associates and being settled happily in a day job as a studio manager, speaking seemed like the next natural step for me. Every time I attended a conference I wanted to be the one on stage. I envied their confidence and guts. I pondered how they felt afterwards. I wanted to be part of this and share my experiences with others.

There in lay the problem. I always felt a bit unworthy. Generally in life I suppose. I’ve always worked hard for what I’ve achieved and have a good work ethic but I’ve also experienced, like many others, impostor syndrome . This is defined (on Wikipedia) as:

A psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

I’d imagine that’s quite common. Many would just say they are lacking in confidence or are shy. For me it’s more than those things. I am comfortable in new situations or chatting to people for the first time. I tend to get on with folk and I enjoy being challenged and out of my comfort zone. It comes back to not feeling worthy.

That has a lot to do with the fact I’m not a designer and yet I write and talk about designing for the web. Luckily for people like me, there are lots of ways into the industry and thankfully I was able to find a path that suited my experience and skill set and use that to build a career.

I don’t sit and design websites. I write content, manage content, advise on content, deconstruct websites, discuss audiences, plan stories. All of which I have many years experience of doing. I’ve studied the media for 15 years. I’ve been writing content for longer. I’ve worked as part of an audience research team and I’ve worked on web projects for 5 years.

A year after committing myself to following through with the public speaking threat, I have achieved it. I have four talks under my belt. My first talk was a joint one with Tom in front of an audience of around 100. The second was in front of 30 and I did it on my own. The third was 140 people where again I spoke on my own but for only around 15 minutes.

Last week I spoke at Second Wednesday, a fringe event to this year’s New Adventures in Web Design conference. I had come full circle. I spoke for 50 minutes, on my own, about a topic I loved. That’s where I’m lucky, I talk and write about content, story and audiences – there’s a lot to say about these things.

Second Wednesday


I worked hard on the talk. I designed all 120 slides myself, I practiced but I was nervous. It was a big deal and I loved every minute of doing it. The feedback was incredible (overwhelmingly so) and I’m really proud of how it went. People went out of their way to say hi, some even said thanks, others tweeted and emailed afterwards. It’s an incredible buzz and impostor syndrome seemed a distant concern.

I have now been asked to speak at two other events this year and I said yes. Impostor syndrome has already crept back. I’m convinced people think I don’t deserve to be on stage sharing my experiences. Perhaps this post is even me trying to justify it, though I set out to write an honest account of speaking and me.

I will continue to battle through these feelings and talk, so long as the following are true:

  1. I enjoy it (so far I have enjoyed each talk more than the last)
  2. People want me to speak at their events
  3. I continue to gain experience in between talks about what I am talking about. This allows for 4 …
  4. I have something to say

I’m happy to face criticism and answer those critics. It’s inevitable some will disagree with me. It’s probably true that some people don’t think I have much to say or am worthy of their attention. Again, all fine. My biggest battle isn’t against those people, it is against myself and the feelings of self doubt and unworthiness.

It takes guts to put yourself on that stage or write for someone. It may not always pay off, there will be bumps along the way but I want to contribute to the community that I get so much from. I’ve also experienced a lot of support, kind words and encouragement. For that I’m forever grateful. It makes each time I take to the stage a little bit easier.

Speaking and me, it’s all the ups and downs of a typical relationship and I’m in it for the long haul.

You might like to …

Listen to my first talk at Port80 (May ’12), Personality on the Web.

Watch my third talk at Handheld Conf (Nov ’12), The C Word.

View my slides from my fourth talk at Second Wednesday (Jan ’13), Designing the Invisible.