Splash Mountain Syndrome – It’s not what you think

A couple months ago my friend Christopher asked his friends about getting comfortable with public speaking. I’ve told this story to small crowds from time to time, but never put it all out there… so here is how I contracted Splash Mountain Syndrome, and what it meant to my public speaking career.

Most of my readers are familiar with Impostor Syndrome, where you doubt you’re good enough to do your job or tell your story, or that there must be someone better out there. Most if not all of us in tech have dealt with this at one time or another, feeling like the turtle on the fencepost.

Image via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Splash_Mountain_at_Disneyland.JPG (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

We’re going to Disneyland

Well, to explain what I experienced in my speaking career at Cisco, we have to go back to spring 2003. I was between jobs, and had gone down to Southern California to spend a weekend with a lady I was interested in. We went to the grand opening of Amoeba Records Hollywood, and also made my first trip to Disneyland.

She stood in line for nearly an hour with me for the Winnie the Pooh ride, so when she wanted to go on Splash Mountain, I figured I shouldn’t start letting her down quite so early in the relationship. So we went to Splash Mountain. The line was faster there for some reason.

As we went up on the ride to the top, I wondered if it was too late to back out. Maybe hop out at the basketball court and walk down, and probably get kicked out of the park. As we got closer to the mouth of the mountain, it became clear that I had no option but to hold on for dear life and deal with it. And as we emerged into the light, my legs clamped on the log car, I closed my eyes, and dropped.

As we walked away, I asked my companion if she’d heard a noise like a small rodent being strangled. “Yes,” she said. “That was you.”

How this applies to public speaking

I can say that it was more distance than drop ride disappointment that kept that from being a long term relationship, but similar feelings happened almost every time I got ready to travel for a speaking engagement.

I’d be eager to sign up for an event, whether a partner conference or partner sales event, Strata+Hadoop World, or Cisco Live. But the closer it got, even if I already had my presentation pretty much committed to memory, I’d start to think I made a terrible mistake, that I would dread the whole trip, that I’d get my first heckler, or that I should just let someone in marketing handle it.

The dread would intensify as I was packing, probably because even after six years of work travel, I still sucked at packing efficiently (I’m still not that great, despite lots of YouTube videos). But I’d still finish up the packing, with a laptop bag heavier than my clothing and coffee bag, and head off to Seattle or Atlanta or Manhattan or Las Vegas or Denver or wherever.

Of course, I’d do fine, entertain people with the fairly unique mix of facts, experience, humor, cultural references, and sarcasm that I became known for, and get good feedback afterward. We’d find a good restaurant for dinner, and then move on to the next adventure.

But the next time a trip came up, I’d go through the same cycle. At least I didn’t make the noise again.

As Martha Stewart would say, it’s a good thing

I think it was a good thing. I’ve seen speakers who are way too comfortable and lose their edge, their connection with the audience, or even their talk track. We’ve all been in sessions where the speaker is there because of title and clout rather than their scintillating message and delivery; I wonder how many of those people have lost Splash Mountain.

Splash Mountain Syndrome helped keep me on my toes, and definitely made sure that I didn’t get so comfortable with my content that I went into autopilot and lost audiences and credibility. It still led to an uncomfortable hour or more leading up to my trips, but I came out of it stronger and more confident.

Have you experienced anything like Splash Mountain Syndrome? Have any tips for people preparing for pulbic speaking? Share in the comments if you’d be so kind.

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