Preparing for Open Space

I’m getting ready for Agile Open Northwest tomorrow. It’s definitely not my first open space conference. I’ve been attending open space conferences for a while now, so I have some idea what to expect.

I’ll start off my morning with that panicky, I-don’t-know-anyone-here moment. I do that at the beginning of every conference. I’ll suffer through that for about 15 minutes before I realize that I do know someone. In fact, I realize they are some kind of an agile rock star. Someone I really admire…and look, OMG there’s another one! This is where I transition into my imposter syndrome. So, I sit with that for a while, just kind of stewing in my own inadequacy. Then some kind soul will announce that the Danishes and coffee are available. That generally leads to a transitory sugar and caffeine high. This is where I switch, ever so fleetingly, from an introvert to an extrovert. It’s not that hard for me, just add sugar and caffeine.

Once my 5 minutes of extroversion are complete, the opening circle usually gets started. So I sit in the circle and try not to look at the 200 people who are not looking at me. Then they open the marketplace. At this point, my imposter syndrome comes roaring back as I try to write up a title for my talk I’m interested in leading that day. Then, just like everyone else, I have to stand up in front of 200 people and announce my name and the title of the talk I’m inviting them to. Some days this is easy – Especially if I have a friend or two sniggering in the crowd. Nothing mellows me out like being laughed at. I figure if they can’t take me seriously, then I certainly can’t either. However, there are other days where it’s all I can do to squeak out my name in front of a room full of poker-faced strangers. As an experienced public speaker, I know anxiety well, so I usually have my lines written down somewhere just in case, even if it is just on the palm of my sweaty hand.

That’s the toughest part of the whole event right there. After that, it’s all downhill. I give the talks, I listen to others, and I generally relax and enjoy myself. Usually I leave the event feeling pretty gosh darn smart and usually pretty appreciative for all of the things I’ve learned from other folks. 

It’s with that in mind that I sit here the night before the event. The emotions are familiar. I’m resolved not to let my anxieties throw me around too much, but they will be there like old friends. 

If this is your first or even second open space, a few thoughts to help you get the most out of it:

  • Try not to let the people jitters get in the way too much. You aren’t really required to get to know everyone. In fact, give yourself the space to not do that. One of the beauties of open space is its flexibility. You don’t have to participate until you feel the urge take you. If you are an introvert like me, give yourself the space to decide when to be sociable and when to go for a walk.
  • Impostor syndrome affects nearly everyone, even the rock stars. So don’t throw away those ideas for talks because you suddenly think they are stupid in comparison to others. I did that once and felt awful. Stick with your plans – one of the common open space sayings is to “be prepared to be surprised!” I would add, be ready to be surprised by yourself and what you can do. A seemingly lame idea can transform itself into something wonderful quite unexpectedly. I gave a session once called, “Slowing down” that was probably one of the best, most effective talks I’ve ever done. If you had asked me if it was going to be good beforehand, I probably would have said, “No chance.”
  • If you are prone to nerves (and seriously, who isn’t?) then jot down your name and your talk title in advance on a 3×5 card. That way, when the nerves hit, you can muddle through it. One year at the conference I was on a steroid prescription for a mild infection. I didn’t realize how a steroid like that messes with your brain. Unsuspecting, I got up in front of a crowd of 200 people and was hit with a positively mind-blowing panic attack induced by the steroids. Shaking and sweating, in a raw panic, I held up my 3×5 card and read directly off it. Nobody noticed it but me. I nearly had to go breathe into a paper bag to calm down afterward, but I got the job done. So be prepared. You can get through anxiety just fine if you have a script.

The open space community that I have experienced has been one of the most supportive and helpful groups I have ever encountered. Perhaps it’s because open space is so inclusive. If you invite everyone to be a speaker, then you need to have a community that will eagerly support everyone, no matter how unskilled, uncomfortable or inexperienced. That’s a pretty high bar for safety, and somehow, they manage to do it.

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