The motivation for public speaking

  Wynn Netherland • 2014-01-30
Speaking in Moscow

I'm enjoying Zach Holman's new site where he shares his thoughts on public speaking. He does a fantastic job of breaking down the process of developing a talk.

While I'm nowhere nearly as prolific as Zach, I do speak at conferences a few times a year. I get asked how I got into public speaking and if I have any advice for others wanting to do the same.

I respond by asking the same question I now ask myself when I sit down to develop a deck for an upcoming talk — why do you want to speak?


For many of us, the first time we spoke in a public setting was in school, because we had to. The fear of public humiliation can be a good motivator. Stronger yet might be the fear of a bad grade. If strong enough, such fear can fuel long hours of preparation to meet the expectations of the course.

These types of scenes get repeated in the business world. Swap the instructor for your boss and the class with upper management and you have the same fear-driven situation.

While fear can be a mildly effective motivator for speaking, it's not very enjoyable.


Many people see speaking as a gateway to a better gig, a way to market a startup, or part of expanding their personal brand. Some seek broader influence or access to other leaders in their industry.

There's nothing wrong with any of these as secondary goals. The trouble starts after you submit a talk to an influential conference and it gets accepted. Often you find yourself once again motivated by fear, only this time it comes with doubt. Imposter syndrome can undermine your confidence and your entire development process is riddled with anxiety.

I've noticed the decks for talks I've given when motivatated by fear or ambition took a long time to develop. The process was usually front-loaded with a long period of procrastination. I needed the adrenaline rush of seeing the event date approaching to focus my thinking and jump into the process. I've given too many talks this way, with slides created in the last forty-eight hours before the event.


There have been times, however, when creating a deck has come easy. I started the process well in advance and continued to refine the deck up until the day of the talk. Looking back, my motivation in those instances was not fear but desire - desire to tell people about something I cared about very deeply.

I can remember being genuinely excited eight or so years ago to tell the Houston Ruby group all about using Ajax with Rails. That deck practically wrote itself. Unlike fear, when desire is the motivation, the entire process can be enjoyable.


Sometimes the desire to share can become so strong you can't not tell someone. In the early days of Sass, I began to tell everyone I knew how it had changed my life. Only when you have genuine burden to share something you'll put up with the "get off my lawn" response that so often meets new ideas. It was that burden that led to another book.

Seeing so many smart people that I respect move from skepticism to fully embracing Sass was worth the persistent sharing. Thanks to their influence, now it seems the whole world is using Sass.

It was a similar burden that led me to talk about my shell-based workflow using Vim and tmux at BlendConf recently. I've received more positive feedback on that one than any other talk I've ever given. It was also a joy to develop and deliver.

What about you? What do you have a strong desire to share? What are you burdened to tell everyone about?

Wynn Netherland
Wynn Netherland

VP of Engineering at Abstract, team builder, DFW GraphQL meetup organizer, platform nerd, author, and Jesus follower.