On the Edge

I couldn’t have done it without Anna.

There’s a joy and satisfaction in knowing you did your best, even (and especially) when it’s right on the edge.

It was Monday night at CloudFest in Germany. Jet lag was catching up with me and sleep was sounding pretty good.

At an event like CloudFest with hundreds of speakers the organizing team works hard to make sure everything runs smoothly. As part of their planning, they’d asked me to prepare a keynote incase a speaker couldn’t make their time slot.

My title was “An Overview of the WordPress Ecosystem” and I was on track to turn in my slide deck by Tuesday at 6 PM, incase they needed me to step in on Wednesday or Thursday.

I looked at the bed and considered my options. While I felt I had plenty of time and I wasn’t sure if I’d even be needed, I sat down and got to work.

The WordPress ecosystem is a favorite topic of mine. My challenge, then, was to condense it down to the points most worth conveying and to do so in a way that’d be valuable to the audience.

That’s what I focused on that evening, working through the key points and creating an outline to serve as the basis for the talk and for the slide deck.

I continued after breakfast the next day and felt comfortable with having everything done on time.

Around 1:30 PM I got a call from one of the organizers, asking if I could be ready to give a keynote that day at 4:45 PM.

Now, at this point, a few thoughts are racing through my head:

  1. I said I’d help where needed and help was needed here.
  2. I love just-in-time work and this was definitely that.
  3. We didn’t have any slides yet.

I checked with Anna (who’s help I’d need), she agreed, and we said yes.

Minutes later, I was asked to show up at 2:30 PM for tech check to review the deck and make sure we were good to go.

After going back to the hotel to change and returning to the venue, I had 30 minutes to go and still no slides. I found Anna, we sat down in one of the lounges and got to work.

I love working in flow states, where the creativity runs through you and the pieces click into place. I also love the rush of a deadline.

As we worked, I was enjoying the flow and the rush while at the same time feeling the pressure build – a lot more pressure than normal.

Creating slides isn’t my gift – I get too caught up in getting it “just right” and my work becomes inefficient. And as I’m working on a slide, I’m feeling that tension between getting it done (because we only have minutes left) and getting it right.

At one point, with just a few minutes to go, the pressure hit a peak and I felt the start of what might be clinically described as “freaking out”. I recognized how I felt, took a breath, and looked over at Anna who, though moving at a blistering pace, still had a calm about her. I talked myself through it. We’d do our best with what we had and that would be OK.

At 2:30, we closed our laptops and walked over to the tech check. The deck was good, just not yet great. I asked if we could have 15 more minutes, which the gentleman granted and we made a few finishing touches. We turned in our deck.

At this point, we have just under 2 hours to go.

As a speaker, I struggle with the idea of rehearsing. When I speak, I go all in and there’s a uniqueness, an energy, to each performance that, in my experience at least, can’t be duplicated. There’s a part of me that protests, “I don’t want to go all out and it just be the practice!”

Anna and I went to a quiet part of the park and did three things.

First, we focused on priming the material in my head. She asked me questions, focusing on parts that were new, and I worked through it with her till I felt comfortable.

Second, we did a timed rehearsal. I protested and knew she was right. I gave the presentation to her as she advanced the slides and we confirmed that the timing was right on.

And third, I took a few minutes to just sit quietly after it was done.

Minutes later, I was in the back, getting mic’d up and makeup applied. I stood in the dark, off to the side, waiting to be called onstage.

In that moment, I focused on the experience. I remembered my training and I reminded myself what I was there to do, to inform and inspire, to create value for the audience.

The hosts introduced me and it was showtime.