If you haven’t read it yet, Jeffrey Zeldman shared a few memories and thoughts about his experience in public speaking since he began in 1998. Over the years, I’ve seen Zeldman give plenty of talks. He’s become a natural and is comfortable on stage, in-between a large screen and a large audience. His speaking style is one that I myself favor, story telling, a few slides and plenty of opportunity to ad-lib should the audience react to one direction over another.

After years and years of experience and success, Jeffrey has been inspired by other speakers to up his game by changing the format of his presentation style to one that I have come to fear the most:

This year, inspired by the rigorous (and highly effective) speech preparation regimes of my friends Karen McGrane and Mike Monteiro, I’m once again writing a speech out word for word in advance. I will polish it like a manuscript. Only when it is perfectƒlogically structured, funny, passionate, persuasiveƒwill I design accompanying slides.

I may read the speech out loud, word for word, as Mike sometimes does, or I may revise and practice it so often that I no longer need to see it to say it, like Karen. Either way, my talk this year should be tighter than any I’ve given in the past decade. Hopefully, that’s saying something.

The thought of having a fully prepared speech/presentation gives me the shivers. This reaction is in response to a horrible public speaking experience I had in college.

As a student studying advertising, I joined the related student club to get more hands on experience than the coursework offered. Like many national student programs, we had an annual competition. The American Advertising Federation sponsored an annual contest wherein students were given a client (in 1997 it was Saturn, the now defunct automobile manufacturer) an imaginary budget and constraints regarding the brand and the direction the “client” wanted to go with the campaign.

Our task was to create a national campaign that would reach the primary audience and convince them to check out Saturn through advertising placed in all markets and included print, radio and television. It’s not as easy as it may sound.

Many months were spent on research, costs, schedules, potential reach, and media buys with flights for optimal market penetration. The business side of our work had to be published in a book and sent to the judges in order to be invited to the competition (they didn’t just let anyone in, you had to show that you knew what in the hell you were doing as compared to what a real agency would recommend). Once our spot in the competition was confirmed another six weeks was spent producing all of the advertising creative work, which was to debut at the competition. Many days were spent into the pre-dawn hours (which included “borrowing” a few Macintosh SEs from time-to-time because the student lab closed at 11PM). And a lot of money was spent to get things developed, printed, fabricated and produced.

At the competition, each college team was given twenty minutes to pitch their campaign to the judges (aka The Client). Each pitch was required to provide a review all of the data driven decisions made and the debut of all of the creative work. Our presentation had to be well rehearsed and choreographed. As this was 1997, the only way to present our work on stage was with synchronized Kodak slide projectors that had a propensity to jam. In order for us to have enough visual aids for twenty minutes of dense charts, bullet points and creative work slides had to be sequenced in alternating carousels. Should a jam occur, we were given verbal instructions how to recover, which involved more luck than technique and time–which we would not have during competition.

For a solid week we rehearsed our pitch, before classes, in-between classes, after classes, on the plane to the competition and later in our hotel rooms, right up until it was time for us to go up on stage. During all that time, our slide projectors did their job and we eventually stopped worrying potential technical difficulties. Murphy’s Law caught up to us and right in the middle of our pitch, the slides jammed like two tectonic plates coming together to form a mountain range. It was a giant Kodak created mess.

Despite getting the slides back together, we never recovered. Six months of hard, extra curricular work and a lot of money was gone. More devastating for me, I lost all confidence in presenting or talking, especially with an accompaniment of visual aids.

To those of you who have invited me to speak or have have asked why I don’t speak over the years–there it is, your real answer.

Haunting Kodak memories be damned, last year I was invited to speak twice with my business partner Greg Hoy. Despite sweating through some anxiety, it went pretty well and, thankfully, our slides never jammed. Our presentation was in the style Jeffrey found comforting and I have to say, it really made a difference after not being on stage for more than a decade.

Though I don’t know if I’m ready to give the super polished talk another chance just yet, I’m am happy to be back on the stage and being a part of the community.

Meanwhile, I’m really looking forward to seeing Zeldman’s new presentation at AEA Seattle in March.