Not everyone knows this about me, but when I first left school as a teenager I became a professional musician. I was a singer and bass guitarist, playing covers and gigging five nights a week. It was fun, hard work and gave me more transferable skills than I gave it credit for.
I can carry a full band rig of speakers, amplifiers and gear, up and down a fire escape without injuring myself (not fun), and pack gear into the back of a van or estate car using every inch of available space. Not to mention driving to different towns every night with just a road atlas and maybe an A to Z (showing my age). That alone required physical strength, endurance, problem-solving and logic.
I have no idea how many gigs I’ve done and songs I’ve performed. Going back over thirty years, it’s likely to be in the thousands and I still find when a song comes on the radio, I know every word and note. Thereby testing memory, recall, note-taking and learning abilities.
Being self-employed at 18, meant I was paying a mortgage, doing my own bookkeeping and paying into a private pension. Very rock ‘n roll, I know. But it did involve top notch organisation, prioritisation and planning.
Performing was a small part of the job, but the skills I learned for those two, 45 minute sessions each night, were more than just singing and playing. Using my voice to convey and evoke emotion from an audience; holding the attention of a room full of thousands of strangers and how to present myself confidently – even when I wasn’t feeling it – took courage.
I still perform in a band, although it doesn’t pay the bills anymore. Now that I’m an Agile coach / director however, you might think it was easy to start presenting at meetups and conferences with all that stage time behind me, but it wasn’t. I believed I had nothing to say. So when I was asked, I always said ‘no’.
Then, a few years ago a peer gave me some advice: you are the world’s foremost expert on you. We are curious creatures who love stories and personal perspective because it’s relatable. Being the expert on me doesn’t mean telling you about my life. It means when I speak about a topic, I don’t have to quote from a textbook – I can simply share my experience of that topic: what I’ve seen and heard, what confuses me and inspires me. These days I say ‘yes’ whenever I’m invited to speak, then find out the topic later.
So why am I telling you this now? Because I believe presentation skills are incredibly important. Presenting isn’t about slide decks and rooms full of strangers. A presentation is a conversation. You present every single day. One-to-one, in groups, and maybe even on a stage. We need to be able to advocate for ourselves and express our thoughts confidently and clearly, which takes practice.
When we kicked off WTF exactly a year ago on International Women’s Day 2018, I opened the first event by telling my story. How I came to work in tech, the struggles and isolation I felt plus the evolution of my career to where I am now. It was important to share because it was at the heart of why we started the group in the first place: to build a support network for women outside of their working environments.
After the talk, several women approached me saying how familiar that story was. I’ll admit now, a year later, that was a very emotional moment for me. That was the first time I’d experienced that sort of comradeship – especially as tech is so male-dominated – having spent my whole working life, even as a musician, essentially isolated. Although at least I could add self-reliance and independence to the list of transferable skills!
With this in mind, for 2019 I wanted a new initiative for WTF. Our first event of the year was on the topic of public speaking, and we had a brilliant speaker – Rachel Fowler – who took the group through some exercises in nonverbal communication. We also had the launch of our new feature ‘WTF Stand Up’; an opportunity to tell your story, share your passion, and practice talking to an an audience who are always willing you to succeed. Wendy Orr was our first community member to give it a go and talked about the value of resilience.
WTF Stand Up will feature at every event from now on, and we’re looking for volunteers to speak. Even if you’d like to, but are nervous and would like help ‘finding your voice’, we have a whole community of WTF members who’ll support you every step of the way.
Let’s stand up together!