I genuinely cannot remember what led up to the point where a gun was placed to Leif Kendall’s head, and he subsequently picked up the phone to call and ask if I’d be a speaker at his prestigious CopyCon event later that year. It was 2019, for reference. Or 1999, if I’ve forgotten to go back and edit this bit (I always get those dates mixed up, for some reason).
The plan was not for me to be a main speaker, as such, but to deliver a 20-minute on-stage ‘breakout’ talk about something that would give value or inspiration to the captive audience of delegates whose interest had been piqued by the announcement of the topic and/or speaker. The topic I chose (unless Leif requested it, I can’t remember) was LinkedIn.
The idea was to talk not so much about the platform itself, but with reference to it as a place where I’d personally and professionally started to become successful through showcasing myself and my skills as a writer and a businessperson. I can’t bring myself to say entrepreneur, I’m sorry.
It was true that I was doing really well in using the platform as a key part of a cracking content marketing strategy. So, I was indeed keen to talk about it and how I genuinely believed my copywriting and freelance peers could apply and benefit from my expertise for themselves.
What I put together for that 20-minute slot on stage at The Barbican in London (oh my god, the pressure of ‘playing’ at an iconic venue that people have actually heard of), was a product of excitability. You see, I’d treated the talk like I’d treat a pop-up cameo on a social media masterclass or podcast, seeing as those were the things I’d become quite well-known for doing and making an impact with in the run-up to Leif ‘scouting’ me.
So keen was I to give so much value away and to showcase my energy as this effervescent creature of creativity, that I believe my session was actually less of a meaningful talk and more of an animated list. “Go do this, and then go try THAT!” etc.
What I neglected to think about, is that when someone pays you to speak at their event – and their audience subsequently pays them to bask in the benefits – whilst everyone does indeed want to take something away from the experience at the end, they also want, need, and deserve the opportunity to be spoken to on a deeper level. They want to hear something that resonates long after the train home from the event has pulled back into the
I think I actually picked up on this during the talk itself, because even by the second run in the afternoon (the requirement was to run the workshop twice across the day so that more people could attend), I was making improvements. I was cutting things out that didn’t seem to add value or land as well as I’d hoped in the first session. I was becoming more confident and therefore ditched any gimmicks I’d used in the morning slot (I seem to remember handing out Curly Wurlies, FFS).
And rather than ploughing through my list of things I thought I wanted to say, I cherry-picked the best bits and made more of a meal of them in
my second ‘shot’ (a strange turn of phrase for someone who hates cherries, I know). Even the tech fail – where my gigantic presentation screen went inexplicably blank part way through the talk – didn’t faze me. That’s my speaking superpower, I reckon. A Microsoft Windows blue-screened circle-of-death as it installs an unplanned update, or experiences an unexpected re-boot, just does not fucking surprise nor get to me.
What did throw me was the fact that my stage backed onto a part of the theatre where, at the same time as I was delivering my talk, Glenn Fisher (of All Good Copy fame) was delivering his workshop. I can’t recall what it was about (but no doubt I’d have made it my own selection from the sessions on offer had I been a delegate and not a speaker), but seemingly everyone in attendance was howling with hilarity and laughing their tits off in
I could literally hear people soiling themselves through the wall. There were nervous laughs exchanged between myself and my own audience as I made self-deprecating jokes to address the hella-fun in the (next) room.
Although my talk deliberately and naturally elicited a lightness and laughter that allowed for a knowing giggle or 2 to ripple around the room at regular points, I was irked with myself. In a space where writers work to distinguish themselves through a particular style, funny is all I have, and I hadn’t capitalised on it in the way bloody Glenn Fisher had been unafraid to do.
In those moments on stage, I’d been so committed to ‘giving value’ and sharing knowledge around my topic, that I’d not paid anywhere near as much attention as I owed to myself to crafting a talk that gave something a little more of me. Nothing about LinkedIn is funny, for God’s sake. I knew I should have talked about Troll Hunting…
2022 Jo – who is by her own admission bloody hilarious – remains appalled at the squandered opportunities at The Barbican that day whenever I reflect on my stint, and about being upstaged by an idol of mine who wasn’t even in the same fucking room. Cheers, Glenn.
Regardless of the fact that nobody present at my talk found it Fisher-funny enough to emit liquids from an orifice during my oration, I got great feedback after the event via email and DMs from new and existing connections who’d attended. I also got great feedback on the day itself, and it was lovely that people stuck around after the sessions or came to find me in a comfort break/networking opportunity to tell me they loved my talk or found it really interesting and helpful.
But as a freelancer, we focus on the negatives, don’t we? So of course I zoned in on the one person who handed out criticism about my choice of topic and the style it was delivered in, and I paid all the attention to the one person who expressed apathy and perhaps a little disappointment with what I’d just said and how I’d just delivered it on that stage.
Both of those people were me. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.
And what’s that, you ask? What was my favourite feedback from that day in London?
Oh, that’s easy. It was without doubt from the guy who came over at the end of the second session, and told me whilst expectantly holding up his iPhone in his left hand and his charger in his right, that the plug socket at the back of the room wasn’t working.
A less than electrifying performance all-round, it seems.
Regardless of my crippling self-doubt and relative inexperience in what I was doing that day, that talk at CopyCon 2019 – and Leif’s belief in me to take my place there – kickstarted my career as a professional speaker. Yes, I’d spoken at events previously and was more than comfortable and familiar with how to hold my own and grab my audience (both of those terms sound saucier than I meant them to). But those previous talks had either been representing someone, or something else, as part of my pre-freelance career. Or small events that didn’t carry the pressure of people having invested their hard-earned cash and spare time to be there.
People who had seen me at the event or heard presumably good things about how it played out subsequently booked me to speak on their stages, and my ‘speaking career’ (to coin a twattish phrase) went from there. And though I know for a fact that I’ve become better and bolder, and slicker and sharper with each appearance, that makes me feel kind of sad. I feel like I look back on that day at The Barbican and actively view it (rightly or wrongly) as not my best work. Those ‘first drafts’ for we creatives rarely are.
Whilst I certainly viewed my time on the CopyCon stage as the best of my ability at the time (I was so honoured and so fucking grateful to be there it’s untrue), what I have to admit is that my ability at that time wasn’t the best of me. And I need to go easy on myself for that. We’re all doing what we do, and hopefully getting better at it, each and every day.
Whilst representing ProCopywriters (as a speaker, contributor, and – of course – a writer) has always won me clients and opportunities (as well as the obligatory fans and fame, obvs), I’m under no illusion that I’m purely representing just myself in anything I do, here. I’m representing ProCopywriters – the people and the organisation who saw my potential, even if they knew I was a long way off from reaching it.
It’s the same whenever I’m paid by a person or establishment to put myself out there on their stage, and that’s an honour and expectation that will never leave me. If that reminder of WHY you’re actually up there – and who gave you the platform in the first place – doesn’t make you up your game and start flipping the board a little, then you don’t deserve to take that spotlight.
Who knows if I’ll get the opportunity to speak on that ProCopywriters stage again (wherever in the world CopyCon goes next), but I know for certain that when I visit as a delegate this year at the Brighton 2022 event, I’ll be watching all of the speakers closely – championing their confidence in putting themselves out there, absorbing their passion of what it means to talk about something on a level nobody else can reach, and stealing a little something of whatever makes each of those speakers truly shine on that stage… ready for the next time I step out on one myself.
Brighton, inspire me.