By Caitlin Kelly
The email arrived about two weeks before a major annual conference of news photographers. Someone had dropped out — would I come and speak?
I began my career in journalism as a photographer, selling images to Time, the Globe & Mail and others. I had three magazine covers while still in high school. But being asked to speak to others seeking wisdom and advice, while a terrific honor, is always scary. What if I had little or not enough?
So I did what I always do, I wrote out notes — never a formal speech — and started practicing and timing it to the minute. I had 75 minutes, and decided to fill 45 of it with my advice, and 30 minutes for questions. What if there weren’t any? What if no one came? I’m semi-known as a writer —- but not a known quantity in this world.
It was great to have Jose there (collecting an award and giving feedback on portfolios) to introduce me and smile from the back of the room.
Tables full of Canon and Sony and Nikon equipment for sale…
About 50 people attended my presentation — a wide range of ages, men and women at all levels of their craft — even some sitting on the floor. So that felt good.
We talked about how to pitch — the scary and inevitable process every creative person must face if they are to sell their work into a highly competitive marketplace. We talked about rejection. About how to find ideas.
Afterward, to my delighted surprise, a line of a dozen people waited patiently to say hello and ask more personal advice. One was a college student and one even a high school student — both young women.
It’s such a privilege and joy, certainly when I have no children, nephews or nieces, to feel my insights are valued and can help the next few generations.
I came away with fistfuls of business cards and, I hope, some new friendships. I was deeply moved by the talent I saw and met, like Moriah Ratner, a talented 23-year-old (!) who had already attracted major industry attention for her images. So inspiring! Of course, she’d already worked alongside one of our New York Times friends and colleagues.
Here’s her work in (!) National Geographic.
The industry of journalism — whether words or photos — really is small, so creating and maintaining a good reputation from the start is essential.
I met a Canadian from Montreal, Andrea Pritchard, who made a documentary about three of the industry’s female legends.
New York Times photographer Michelle Agins (left) and Lisa Krantz, a staff photographer for the San Antonio, (Texas) Express-News, describe their work and offer insights into how and why and when they shot some of these images. Both are 2019 winners of the Sprague Award, the highest award offered by the National Press Photographers Association. The image above is by Agins.
Like all conferences, some of the best conversations happened in the hallways and the bar and the bathroom as we dug deeper into why we were there and what we each grapple with — whether health issues or money or lack of support or sexism or where to find ideas. The medium matters less than how we can excel in it.
To get ready to do my talk (and I’ve done lots of them), I read this great new book by client/friend Viv Groskop, a UK-based stand-up comedian, author and executive coach. The book is Own The Room and it’s full of helpful, smart advice for women who can feel terrified of public speaking — even as it can hugely boost our careers.
I’ll also be speaking May 5 in Manhattan at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, as I have many times.
Conferences can be exhausting and we did retreat to our hotel room for naps.
Do you do any public speaking?
Do you enjoy it?
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DAMN girl, get off your ass and Jam! I’m super proud just to know a little bit about you and even more so to be known by you. Talk about your social cachet, right? I’m sure you were great. Is a video of your talk available, perhaps?
OK, enough about you, let’s get on to the good stuff. I have never done any public speaking like you just did, but I worked as a volunteer instructor at my friend’s Tae Kwon Do school. There was sort of a dynamic of style because each different class required it. I could really get rolling on this but I hear the price of a column inch of internet just went up.
Oh, yeah. Taking a nap in a nice hotel is a little piece of paradise.
No video…sadly! Jose was there, so at least I have a witness. It was a lot of fun and I feel like I came away with some lovely new friends.
The hotel was not that nice…but very glad to have it! Retreating to peace and quiet amid all the ruckus is essential for me.
Recently, I’ve done some public speaking at work for programs my office coordinates. And I took an effective briefing course at work two months ago where I got to give a ten-minute presentation on any topic I wanted on the final day (I chose what makes a good horror story, and even got most of it on video).
I might do some public readings when the novel comes out. If I can get a venue to speak at. There’s a bookstore not too far from me that I would love to give a reading at, so when publication gets closer I’ll speak to them. Fingers crossed, they’ll be receptive.
Good luck with it…a reading needs personal backstory to be engaging.
I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the advice.
You can’t just read text…people want backstory. How you wrote it, why, how hard it was…
I think I can do that.
One Of these days, we will actually meet in person. When you talk about those wonderful conversations and hallways and bathrooms, I know we have a few of those yet to have. I have a feeling that whether it’s wine or coffee, we could sit for hours :-).
I know! For sure…
what a wonderful opportunity, even if it was kind of last minute, and you clearly rose to the occasion. i so admire those who can deliver public presentations, it is one of my worst fears, along with dentists and clowns. while i can happily talk the ear off of any small group gathered around in an intimate setting or in a on-on-one situation, i become very nervous in a public speaking arena. it sounds like you garnered so much more than just the admiration of your audience, and you are so right, it is in the hallways and relaxed spots that the greatest connections are sometimes made. bravo –
I used to act in musicals every summer at summer camp (got the lead usually) and also played my guitar and wrote and sang songs — 300 people in audience then? So I’ve never feared an audience…I WAS nervous, for sure, this weekend, as this was not my usual crowd and only one person I knew in the room, Jose….at my usual venues, many friends in the room.
Viv’s book is VERY good (she sent it to me as she was one of my coaching clients) and she’s very good at addressing fears like yours.
The secret…? PRACTICE like mad and time remarks carefully. That gives you a sense of control. Plus a glass (not a plastic bottle) of cold water for dry mouth.
I also listened to several other (very good speakers) to see how they delivered and resonated. I’m the only speaker I know who NEVER uses visuals like PowerPoint. I think it’s distracting and un-necessary unless you’re showing a lot of complex data (science, tech, math, etc.)
I totally understand that thing about being nervous offering writing advice… everyone’s experiences are different. Scary stuff, especially at short notice. But what an opportunity! It’s always great when the audience come up afterwards to directly engage afterwards. I do a bit of public speaking, though not often – mostly associated with publisher promotions. I’ve only once presented at a writers’ conference (they are few and far between here in NZ, and I’m not in the right in-crowds).
This was tricky because it wasn’t focused on writing at all —- because it was an audience of photographers only. So it was solely focused on pitching and handling rejection.
I would think that handling rejection has got to be one of the most valuable skills anyone could have. Writers of any stripe, musicians, visual artists, dorky high school boys, everyone is going to have to deal with it sooner or later.
Yeah yeah yeah, Come on Caitlin, write a book already, why dontcha? I don’t know, this could be a good one. No pressure.
Having tried 2 book proposals and 7 agents in 2018, I’m fed up with the effort. Would love to write more books, but it has to be easier for me to bother with it.
Hi Caitlin, Thanks for this post. I liked reading about this experience you had at a conference. I am an extrovert and enjoy public speaking. It is something I have not gotten to do often in the last couple of years, however, I did it for four years for a role that I held and spoke on air, in person and taught adult learners for the whole time. I miss it. This is something that I have found to be unusual among my peers, to enjoy looking into a sea of people and sharing something inspiring – particularly from a place where you took a hit, and had to come back from – or when you had to do something particular outside of your comfort zone, as you describe pitching to be.
Glad you’ve had some experience with it, and so enjoyed it. I think some people are SOOOOO scared of it and, once you’ve done it well a few times, it can be quite fun.
I only crashed once (scary!) but it was a very bad fit between the audience and my message — the person who invited me basically led me into the lion’s den. So I am very careful to make sure I have something useful to offer THAT specific audience.
I tend to start writing/working on my remarks a few weeks ahead and, inevitably, come up with some more insights as I think it over and keep practicing.
Crashing sounds familiar too. At least one or two memorable crashes come to mind. I have found it important to draw on a precious handful of speaking lessons I received back in 2012 from Reesa Wolf, PhD and at various other times from countless other teachers to bounce back.
UGH! Poor you! Mine was addressing a group of retail executives in Vegas (I was on crutches at the time) and the reception was truly glacial. I wished I could have left that evening. It was horrible.
When I feel sure I have something useful, I feel more at ease. I was relieved to hear a lot of very positive feedback from many people after this conference talk.
Poor me indeed! What a Vegas memory to retain.
Being able to clearly communicate something truly useful is the best thing.
Feedback is king, positive even better.
It takes a lot more practice than people realize. I never get in front of a crowd without that.
I had a guy corner me at the conference and say “Can I give you some criticism?” Uh, sure. His comments weren’t rude or unkind and were helpful. But, eh.
Wonderful post! One of the smartest things I ever did in high school was join the Speech and Debate Team. The skills I learned there have continued to help me in so many aspects of my life.
Thanks! Once you know how to do it well, it’s not quite so scary.
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An inspiring post, Caitlin. And thank you for sharing the work of Moriah Ratner and Andrea Pritchard. I was so deeply moved by Moriah’s work as she followed Lola Muñoz in her heart-wrenching battle with the disease, DIPG, which I had never heard of before. Thanks to your sharing, I am in awe of the work of both of these women … thank you.
The world of photography overflows with so so much talent — much of it female!