Stepping Back from Speaking

Giving talks has been one of the pillars of my career. I’ve given keynotes at software events all over the world. Some of these talks have tens, even hundreds, of thousands of views on youtube. I keep being asked back, so I assume I do a pretty decent job. But those who don’t know me well are often surprised when they learn the most important thing about my speaking profession.

I loathe giving talks.

I far prefer a trip to the dentist to have fillings done. The prospect of a future of frequent speaking was the only thing that’s seriously made me consider leaving Thoughtworks.

It’s not always been this way. When I was a kid at school I felt none of the fear of public speaking that others talked about. I enjoyed being on stage, and with my loud voice and plenty of confidence, I felt good about being there. That continued to be true once I entered the world of work, and my comfort on-stage did much to boost my career. But over time, this changed. In my thirties I got sick of multi-day training courses and organized my training materials to be single-day affairs. When I joined Thoughtworks one of my happy thoughts was that there was no desire for them to have me do training courses any more. At that time conference and client talks weren’t a problem, but that too was to change.

I’m not really sure what counts as a panic attack, but before I go on stage I get intense feels of dread, an overwhelming desire to flee - to lock myself in a toilet or lose myself in some strange city. My heart rate goes through rapid fire bursts, I feel a tightness in my chest and my muscles all tense up. I’m used to this now, so I try to cope with steady breathing, and try to find something to distract me. It’s not stopped me from giving a talk, I’m too proud a professional to let that happen, and I don’t want to let down the people who have come to listen to me. After all my father worked in a factory that ruined his lungs, countless people take serious health risks in their daily work - compared to that I don’t feel I can complain too much about these bursts of anxiety.

While these feelings occur regularly right before a talk, they also pop up at other times. Often I get them while getting on the airplane to head out to the location. I slap on the seat belt, put on my headphones and try to concentrate on the music, not giving in to the temptation of running off the airplane. They can also strike earlier, usually in the few days before I leave home, throwing my sleep off or distracting me from other work. Even writing this I feel a tightness in my chest and am taking care to take steady deep breaths.

Once I’m actually on stage, the panics usually disappear within a minute or two. Adrenaline kicks in, and that’s what propels me through the talk. (That’s a problem with online talks, I find it much harder to find that tailwind.) That adrenaline also helps me cope with people who come up after the talk to ask questions. Afterwards there is the inevitable crash, and I feel walloped for hours, tired out but unable to sleep.

This kind of reaction is pretty common, many people consider public speaking to be one of their most frightening events. Certainly my experience has given me an understanding of why so many people in the performing arts struggle with drug addictions. It’s such a temptation to think that something, maybe just a beer, will help deal with the pre-event panics. Consequently I’m careful, and follow a rule of never drinking before giving a talk.

All of this certainly makes my relationships here at Thoughtworks rather complicated. After all, part of my role is to be a public face, to draw people into an event. I’m sure that if I wanted, I could spend every week doing events for our clients and marketing teams, and many find it frustrating that I work so hard to wriggle out of such opportunities. But I’m also grateful to the support I’ve received from Thoughtworks leaders over the years, such as the time I felt trapped in the crises of the contradiction of my position and it was two senior folks in the company who encouraged me to set clear and firm limits around my speaking (thanks again, Chad and Dave).

During the Covid hibernation, I’ve really appreciated not going through all this. I’ve managed to avoid online talks and had a year almost entirely free of this kind of stress. I don’t want to go back to it as we return to a new normal. So, in the future, I am going to try to refuse almost every request to do talks. I’m not sure how well that will work out, but I’ve reached the point in my life where I’m lucky enough to be able to avoid things that make me miserable, and want to take advantage of my good fortune. I will miss forming and growing relationships that I’ve made on the conference circuit, but I won’t miss the dread of going on stage. For those looking to invite me to speak at events, this is why I’ll be saying “no”. There are plenty of good speakers out there who can do at least as good a job as I can, many of which are my colleagues at Thoughtworks.

So what will I do with the time and energy I’m saving? Primarily it means focusing on writing, in particular working with colleagues to help them write about their lessons and ideas. As I steadily get more disconnected from the day-to-day of software development, I feel I provide my greatest value by helping improve communication from those who have that connection. Many of the best articles on martinfowler.com are written by other people. Some of those articles need little help from me, but others allow me to contribute a lot - mostly in choosing and organizing the flow of the material. I’m increasingly enjoying that kind of work and hope readers continue to find it useful. (I’ll also add that I’m trying to slow down a bit as well, as I get older I feel a greater desire to indulge in some laziness.)

Martin Fowler: 29 Jun 2021