The Richter Scale

It was Christmas Eve, and I was sitting at a gorgeous grand piano, the lights dimmed in my childhood church. I had done nothing but practice my version of Jewel’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Oh Holy Night” for weeks now, but I couldn’t stop my fingers or body from shaking uncontrollably. This was probably the first time I consciously recognized that I was now petrified to sing in front of people. The confident child that had once belted out Christina Aguilera numbers and Disney songs for anyone that asked was now gone, and no matter how good I sounded playing at home, I wasn’t home anymore. I finally mustered up the courage to start. I didn’t miss a note on the piano, but my voice cracked ever so slightly as I hit the high note in what would’ve been the climactic second syllable of the word “divine,” the note I knew in my heart I could hit without even trying on any given day. Naturally, I considered it a complete and utter failure. Blame it on bullying, blame it on the fact that I had simply turned old enough to become blatantly self aware, but I was almost instantly and destructively self conscious towards something I had always loved so much, something that had always come so effortlessly to me.

Speech class in high school rolled around, and it was no better than my singing performances. I loved reading speeches, I loved writing them, and I could memorize eight minute long assignments without much effort. I would impress myself with captivating topic sentences, but none of it mattered. My speeches could’ve been the most interesting ones in the class, but it was hard for the room to focus on the subject matter with my legs swaying from side to side and my face the color of a radish. A few of the boys began ranking how bad the earthquake was at the end of each speech, usually somewhere around a 6 or 7 on the Richter Scale. I didn’t understand why my body would reject something I loved doing so much, why it had to destroy what my heart and my gut felt. Why in a second, it eliminated all of the hard work and practice I had put into preparing. I figured I was eternally doomed.

I graduated college, having never attended a job fair. There was something that felt so fake to me about waltzing up to a complete stranger, or worse, a designer you admired and cherished, to grandly announce your presence and accomplishments with the swagger of a seasoned car salesman. I envied the students that could walk up to a guest speaker after a presentation and flash a confident grin, smoothly asking them about internship opportunities. I wasn’t an introvert by any means, and I didn’t even consider myself shy, I just wanted things to feel more natural. As cheesy as this sounds, I just wanted to be myself.

I like to think that I ended up pretty damn well. I got my dream design internship after graduating, worked at an awesome advertisement agency in the Detroit area, and finally ended up at a truly wonderful software company, where I would quickly realize my heart belonged in user experience design. But throughout all of the growing up and success I had encountered, I still had to speak in front of people. I still had to present things, to pitch my ideas. And granted, I found it immensely easier to talk about things I knew so well, about things I had created and believed in, but I still got frustrated with the tells of nervousness I would often leave behind during any given presentation. I would confidently click through my mockups, and I would be truly proud of the work and the story I had developed to walk stakeholders through, but I would sometimes stumble through a few words or talk too fast. I always felt like there were so many coworkers that were better at public speaking, and I longed for that confidence and skill to someday show up in me.

As 2014 comes to a close, I want to look back on how I’ve grown. I love the attitude I have when talking to people around the office, and how I can now articulate things in meetings, but I still wanted that to carry over into larger presentations. As I began to sing for more and more of my closest friends again without fear of being judged or laughed at, I did the unthinkable at work one day. I willingly signed up to speak at our internal learning conference. It was an all day event held at a local conference center, and the purpose was to spread knowledge amongst employees and improve overall presentation skills.

My Keynote was chock-full of playful transitions, and I put tons of effort into the design of the slides and the speech itself. The room was packed. I remember thinking a few minutes into the presentation how quiet it was, and how my voice was the only thing I could hear. But this time it didn’t sound shaky, at least not in an obvious way. I had a podium for protection, but I didn’t lean on it. My legs stood strong on their own. And as I finished, I knew without a doubt that it was the best presentation I personally had given since I was probably ten, showing off my book of sea creatures from A-Z. I drew a kickass zebra fish in crayon if you were wondering. But fourteen years later, I finally had some of that spirit back. For the first time in years, I felt like I was giving off an accurate reflection of myself, and that was even more rewarding than the applause and compliments I received after.

Samantha NovakComment