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»I would die!« Why I Speak in Public

Because I regularly give talks, sometimes someone says to me, »I don’t know how you do that, I would die!« Those who say that are almost always women. But »I would die!« doesn’t count for me.

When I first started giving talks, I didn’t know how to do that either. But in my mid-twenties, after a particularly embarrassing moment in front of a group at art school, I decided I wanted to be able to speak in front of large audiences. I didn’t want to be one of those women who gasps: »I would die!« when it comes to going on stage. And once I decided that, I looked for opportunities to practice.

I started with Pecha Kucha nights, where the talks are only 7 minutes and 40 seconds long: 20 seconds per slide. Then I told students at various universities about my path to being a freelance lettering designer. Finally, I’ve talked at design conferences in front of several hundred people—at TYPO Berlin and the Berlin Letters Festival.

But it’s not just the lectures that practice for me. When I go to events where there is a Q&A session after a presentation, I also make a point of getting over myself and asking a question. Usually with a racing heart.

Chris Campe beim Pecha Kucha Vortrag in der Kulturkirche Altona, 2013

The Pecha Kucha talk at the Kulturkirche in Altona was one of my first talks in 2013. And probably the only time in my adult life that I have stood in front of an altar.

Taking Up Space

This coming fall, I’m traveling to the U.S. because I’ve been invited to speak at a major conference. I’m nervous already. To calm myself down, I counted how many talks I’ve given in the last ten years: it’s been over 30.

So I don’t die when I give a talk, because I’ve practiced it. But I am still far from being a gifted speaker. On stage, I cover up my nervousness by acting so uber cool that I almost seem sedated. And where to put my hands? I still don’t know.

Take Up Space – Lettering von Chris Campe

But I somehow manage it, and that’s the most important thing. Because I don’t just give talks because it’s fun, because I want to get my ideas out into the world, or because I love the spotlight, but out of principle: It almost doesn’t matter what I say, it’s always better when I speak and contribute my perspective than when another man explains the world.

I give talks to get more women on stage and in the public eye. And I ask questions to prevent discussions from being dominated by men.

Chris Campe hält einen Vortrag bei der TYPO Konferenz Berlin, 2017

Following the motto »practice what you preach«, I wanted to accompany my talk at TYPO Berlin 2017 not with a digital presentation, but with analog slides: lettering on paper in large format.

Every time my two helpers held up a new poster at my signal, a wave went through the audience because everyone stood up to see it better.

Knock Down Open Doors

After my talk at TYPO Berlin a few years ago, I said to one of the orga team, »That talk was so fun! And I think it’s so important to contribute to having more women speakers at conferences!«

The woman replied, »I wish there were more women who wanted to speak.«

And then she explained, »But the reality is, you contact ten women you’d like to see on stage. Nine of them immediately say, ›No way! I would die!‹ The tenth woman might be persuaded—if you work her for weeks. And we just don’t have time to do that because we’re organizing a huge conference.«

»I wish there were more women who wanted to speak.«

With that in mind, here’s my direct call to action: If you have even the slightest ambition to give talks and appear in public, approach the organizers of a favorite event, tell them what you’d like to talk about, and ask them what you have to do to get on stage.

You’ll probably be well received, because the people who organize these events are happy for women to speak on their own initiative. I know this for a fact because I organized a festival myself in 2019 with 25 speakers and experienced first hand how difficult it is to find female speakers and balance the line-up.

At the Summer’s Tale Festival 2016, I even sang during my presentation. I’ve never been this close to my secret dream of being discovered as a singer!

Chris Campe hält einen Vortrag beim Summer's Tale Festival 2016

Yes, you can.

If you’re thinking »public speaking—not for me!« then maybe think again.

I know few women who don’t care that female and queer perspectives are still underrepresented in many contexts. Most women I know find this frustrating.

Being dissatisfied with something is one thing. But changing centuries-old structures takes a lot of work, and it requires the participation of many. So when you go on stage as a woman or queer person and take up space in public, you are not only doing yourself and the organizers of the event a favor, but also everyone else for whom you are a role model.

»Lettering is all well and good, but this, this is important.«

If I had seen someone like me on a stage when I was young, it would have encouraged me. It still encourages me to see other queer people on stage.

And speaking of encouragement: After my talk at TYPO 2017, ten or twelve women came up to me individually. They were at very different points in their careers.

One of them was 21 and in her 2nd semester of visual communications, she told me she had no idea where she wanted to go with her degree until now, but now she did. Two women in their mid-twenties, stuck in their first agency job and frustrated by their choleric boss. And a woman in her fifties who has been running her own agency for twenty years.

And they all said, »Thank you, that was really inspiring and encouraging!«

So I thought, »Wow, that’s really cool. This is important. Lettering is all well and good, but this, this is important.«

Chris Campe hält einen Vortrag über Lettering beim Berlin Letters Festival 2019, Foto von Norman Posselt

This photo and the one at the top are by Norman Posselt, Berlin

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