02 September 2013

My success story, a story about failures

I have a lot of things to say about CAST, to people who would like to speak at a test conference, about personal development and about my own presentation. But first a few stories I want to share, hopefully busting any ideas about "some people are born to speak while others aren't".

Messing up a play
My first memory of something presenter-like was in 4th grade. 4th, 5th and 6th graders were mixed together in drama groups and something like once a month each group performed a play for the other groups. My group's first play was ruined. How? Well I couldn't shut up. I interrupted the other actors, screwed up jokes by explaining even the most obvious ones and was too nervous to remember any of my lines giving everyone else a hard time... The self elected leader of the group (a 6th grader) was furious when all of us gathered afterwards to discuss the play.

My first presentation
Moving on to 7th grade and the first time I presented to a larger group of people (~30). For this presentation each of us were given a famous author to talk about, mine was Charles Dickens. I was so nervous, but I had rehearsed a lot and prepared a rather detailed script so everything should be fine. I went up on stage, took a couple of deep breaths and said... Blaghl...bl..br, which unfortunately doesn't make any more sense in Swedish. I couldn't form a single word! I couldn't even say my name! I tried several times with every failed attempt just inducing more and more panic. Finally I threw away the script and just relied on my memory, which was no problem at all since I had rehearsed sooo much. When the torture was finally over several class mates came up and said: Wow, you were really calm when presenting... I was still shaking.

At the university
I volunteered to become a university ambassador. One part of that job was to speak to groups of high school students. One time the group was rather large, about a hundred people. I froze! I froze for something like 30 seconds (felt like 10 minutes) before I started and when I finally did I think I forgot to tell them like half the stuff I was expected to present.

Improving legacy code
Moving on a few years, now as an employed software tester. I had suggested a very vague idea, basically saying we had to work with the quality of our legacy code. So I was asked to present my ideas to the rest of the department. To make matters worse I got sick a few days before and due to that I had basically no time to prepare myself. I also knew that the material was way too abstract due to the fact I didn't really understand the details. Any professional would say: "I'm very sorry but I'm not ready to give this presentation" (a question I was even asked due to my sickness)... I didn't. The result?
"We need to work with the quality of our legacy code. A few things I've thought of izzzz...", what happened after that is a bit blurry but apparently one of the managers saw I was about to pass out and caught me before I fell, while someone else grabbed a chair. I got some water and actually finished the talk sitting down, still a bit dizzy... it was a memorable talk but not for the reasons I would have liked.

CAST warmup
Let's finish with a much less dramatic story. Just a few months before CAST I presented at a local test meetup in Malmö, Sweden. I would give a short talk on security testing. I felt calm until the moment I sat down in the room. After that anxiety rapidly (and for me surprisingly) built up. I think one of the main reasons was I simply hadn't rehearsed my talk. When Henrik Andersson offered us a beer I quickly grabbed one and it was perfect to ease the anxiety (something I haven't told him). However, knowing I "needed" a beer during one of my last public presentations before CAST was not really... comforting.

CAST 2013
Let's save this one for another post but short story is it went great!

Why am I telling you this?
Long ago I had the misconception that speakers at, for instance, conferences were natural talents who just had something I didn't possess. A misconception with an interesting twist as today I often hear people call me a naturally talented speaker. What I've learned, and hope my stories help you see as well, is that that something is mostly hard work. If you decide you want to learn to present there's no exotic gene stopping you.

Why am I telling you this... 2?
You might look at the stories I shared and say: "Why not focus on your successes?", but here's something cool: The stories above are my most important events as a speaker. Without them I wouldn't be in the position I am today as a speaker and if I sound insane, let me give you some examples:

Messing up a play
  • I need to sometimes stop myself and simply shut up.
  • I need to think about what's interesting to the listener, not just what I want to say.
  • Being well prepared (rehears) is key!
My first presentation
  • I can actually present.
  • I don't need a script.
  • Even the worst case scenario wasn't that bad (you could argue that passing out is worse than not being able to say a word but they're pretty close).
  • There are things I can't seem to learn/fully understand without actually failing first.
  • There's no such thing as a failure or success, we always fail to some degree and we miss out on a lot of potential success if we don't take the opportunity to learn from these small or big failures.
  • As long as I rehears, things seem to work out okay no matter what.
At the university
  • Silence is actually not that bad.
  • Less is more, I forgot a lot of the prepared material but in the end that seemed to make what I said, stick better (based on reactions from students after the presentation).
  • You can turn a bad start or problematic presentation into something great, it's never too late. This one actually turned out as one of my better presentations as an ambassador.
Improving legacy code
  • Doctors didn't find any problems with my heart, lungs or head (obviously physical health was enough). That's actually quite comforting.
  • Due to all the medical tests I had to leave a whole bunch of blood samples which eased my fear of needles and hospitals.
  • ... and that taught me a valuable lesson about fear: Fear is much about not knowing the outcome, not about the experience itself. Understand that and a whole lot of things stops being scary (very, very powerful insight).
  • I know my limitations better.
  • I know when to say no better.
  • I know the possible consequences which further helps me say no when I really should.
  • I've learned the value of understanding the content I'm about to present.
  • I need to rehears.
  • I need to rehears.
  • I need to rehears.
  • I've learned code quality is much more complex than I once thought it was.
CAST warmup
  • I need to rehears
  • I need to rehears
  • I need to rehears
  • Open season with K-cards is actually not that scary (I had not tried that as a speaker before)
  • Beer solves a lot of problems... kinda.

You can do it!
If you feel like presenting at a major conference would be cool but you hesitate since you're not a "natural speaker", Think again!

At work, local meetups, small conferences, at home or maybe checkout Toastmasters International (Credit to whoever gave the lightning talk about Toastmasters at CAST, just found out we have a local club where I live so I'll give it a try!).

Challenge yourself
Try new things, get out and speak in front of people, record yourself, test various formats, present without slides, try drama or stand-up, present in front of more people, present in a non-native language...

Wrap up
I think I'm a talented speaker today, and that's not just based on my CAST performance. But it has little to do with my amazing genes, it has to do with practice and challenging my limits. I'm pretty sure all your favorite speakers have similar stories (or at least I hope) and that their biggest secret too is practice.

So don't wait to become a great speaker, act to become a great speaker!

Oh, I forgot!
A key inspiration for this post as well as one of the real highlights for me during CAST, was Dawn Haynes' keynote. Make sure you check it out!

Oh, I forgot... 2!
During open season, several people asked me about my failures and how I dealt with them. Hopefully this post answers some of those questions. If not, please ask your question again (Peter, Simon and Jonathan were the ones I remember, did I miss anyone?).

Thank you for your time and good luck with your presentations!


  1. When I was 13 or so, I had to perform at a concert (I was studying playing piano). I had been sick but my teacher insisted I go there, so I did. I got on stage and played a few notes and... my mind went blank. I tried it again from the beginning but the same thing happened. I had completely forgotten how the piece continued... I think I tried a couple of more times, then got off the stage.

    Needless to say I couldn't perform after that and it was one of the reasons I quit music school some time later (but not the sole reason).
    Fortunately, this didn't leave a mark otherwise. A few years later when I had to do presentations at school, I was confident enough to put it behind me and do well.

    1. Thanks for sharing Helena!

      I actually think you miss out on something as I interpret your story...
      "I was confident to put it behind me"

      I often look at mistake like:
      "I'm glad I did that so I could realize/learn/experience...", if you haven't got any lessons like that you are aware of I think you should definitely go back and reflect on what you can learn from your experience... that could make your next awesome conference talk ever more awesome ,)

    2. Thanks, Erik!

      Ever insightful and helping me learn my lessons :)

  2. You were a great presenter, really enjoyed listening to your talk - so thanks for writing the background to how you became so good

    The tester that talked about Toastmasters was Olivier Mireault ( @mireaultester) I think

    1. Thank you and thank you Phil!

      Standing up saying "my challenge to myself for this conference was to ask a question after each presentation" I think helped putting even more energy into what I tried to communicate so thanks for that as well!

      And once a again thank you for sharing who the speaker was, I will definitely give him a shout on Twitter!

  3. Thanks for sharing.

    In my school days,Still now.. I am kind of Introvert.

    I speak very less and get confused with my thoughts..
    Then my class teacher said:"Keep asking questions, if you have any doubts"
    For that we have to go near to board and explain about the doubt we have.

    I now realize: I ask/speak to others with a question.

    "Questioning is art of testing" - Thanks to my teacher.

    Srinivas Kadiyala

  4. Erik, it was such a pleasure to chat with you at CAST! And thanks so much for sharing your story with me, and now with others! Brilliant!!

    My mantra just keeps spinning in my head ... "we all have something to learn, and we all have something to teach." Always.

    Our teaching does not have to be on a stage, but we shouldn't avoid it if/when the opportunity presents itself, even if we're not professional speakers. Follow the passion of what you can uniquely share -- whether in writing, 1-on-1, via a video, or on a stage -- it will be a gift to those in need (which is sometimes yourself!). At least that's what *I* believe.

    Cheers, Dawn