Kat Sweet

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Getting Back Up

This is more motivational-speaker than I usually go, but for the sake of those who are new to being in front of an audience, I wanted to document this as a way of saying, "I survived, and so will you". 

I've been a performer for as long as I can remember. I grew up doing theatre, music, and occasionally (terrible) dance. Though I'm newer to public speaking than the performing arts, I've now presented seven times at security conferences, served on several panels at the sci-fi convention WisCon, and taught lockpicking to groups of strangers. I'm far from perfect at any of these, but I've had years to learn a thing or two about stage presence.

Last Friday at CypherCon, midway through my talk -- a talk I've successfully given before -- I had a panic attack onstage.

I'm no stranger to anxiety (though I manage it infinitely better than I used to); people who saw me earlier that day can tell you how shaky I was. The perfect storm had been building: I came to CypherCon having just taken three midterms that week. I was letting myself get psyched out by my timeslot (sandwiched right between the keynote address and Johnny Xmas and Lesley Carhart's talk). The room was loud, which made it hard to deliver a talk that had audience engagement built in. However, I was completely not expecting something of this magnitude to happen, so public. As I bolted from the room, guilt and fear of the consequences immediately overtook my original presentation anxiety... what if the organizers hated me for not finishing? What if people thought I was just doing this to grab attention? How was I supposed to be a BSidesLV Proving Ground mentor this summer if I couldn't even get through my own talk? Why were people coming out into the hallway and being nice to me? Panic became the loudest voice, and it took a while for me to calm down.

On Saturday, though, something else happened that I wasn't expecting: The feelings of suckitude pretty much went away. I didn't dwell on my failure the way I thought I would. I got up and enjoyed the rest of the con. Friends checked in on me to make sure I was okay, and I surprised myself that I actually was okay... once the panic died down, I knew logically that people had survived worse, and this didn't signify the end of my ability to present at future cons. When I got home I decided to submit the talk to the CFP for CircleCityCon so that I could maybe have another go at sharing it. 

This is where I think practice with being in front of an audience helps tremendously. It leads to more opportunities to fail, and more opportunities to practice recovering. I've survived (to name just a few) my video dying during my SkyTalks presentation, botching a Brandenburg Concerto in a solo/ensemble competition, and saying "fuck" onstage at a voice recital. Weathering those smaller public-facing setbacks made it easier to weather a large one.

We try to get all of our failures out of the way in a private, controlled environment so that we'll be flawless by the time we're presenting in public, but it doesn't always work that way. The way to build resilience is to fail forward and fail repeatedly until it becomes mundane. Whether the demo gods are smiting you, or your neurotransmitters pick that exact moment to kick you in the ass, whether you're a first-time presenter, or you've been onstage for the better part of three decades, things can go south in unanticipated ways. When that happens: Recognize that it happens to everyone. Cry. Have a drink and a hug. Then get back up. Rinse, spin, repeat. The world won't end.