As you all know, the ACA annual conference is just around the corner and is in San Francisco! Now being a small town boy at heart I have never been to the west coast, in fact I believe the last time I flew it was to visit a dying relative in Arizona about a decade or more ago. I prefer staying in my comfort zone which is in my office helping others or on the farm doing the same but with the addition of “tractor therapy” for me whenever possible. This does not mean to convey that I never wanted to go to the west coast, just that I have never had the reason to do so until now. I had hoped to present at the conference but I was among the hundreds who submitted that were not selected; you can bet I will try again next year. I am starting to miss presenting as I have taken some time off from presenting due to health reasons. I have enjoyed it is the past; meeting people from around the globe can be awesome. I believe the longest travel that a person made to come to a presentation I was part of was Australia! So very cool. While I will be on the sidelines this year, I am looking forward to walking around the conference center, taking in the great presentations as a spectator and hopefully making a new friend or two. I plan to bring my business cards, not as a way to increase actual business but as a tool to help connect with other professionals. What a cheap way to build professional and personal contacts. Consulting with peers is a great way to keep your practice in line and your techniques fresh, especially if you find yourself working out of your comfort zone. In a real sense this conference feels like a revisit to my roots. My first national conference was when I went to Washington D.C. as a teen to present at the Child Welfare League of America’s annual conference (I was thrilled to be asked to return the following year). I was about 17 or so and somehow prior to the internet, cell phones or modern conveniences, one of the Directors of the conference had heard about my presentations that I had been giving around the state of Connecticut. Suddenly this kid who had never left Bristol or the surrounding towns was packing his bags and on a train to present at the nation’s capital, met with high powered politicians in their offices and to lecture in a room that was the quality that I only imagined movie stars and Oprah had the privilege to work in. It has been a long time since I was 17 and an equally long time since I have been to the nation’s capital. It has been almost a year since I gave my last formal presentation (not counting the ones at Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm). People often ask me how I got started giving presentations and have also asked me to share more storied from my beginning career. As a way of being more responsive to email, here is my first attempt. Presenting can start from many ways. You can join organizations; write proposals or an array of other ways. As for me, well I spoke up at a presentation and that has lead to 20 years or so of public speaking. I did not plan it to go that way. Actually I had no plan at all. Imagine if you will a 16 year old teen father and former high school dropout who had just returned to school via an alternative education program (I was not there due to behavioral issues but as a result of petitioning to be allowed to enroll into the program instead of traditional high school due to their policy to award credits based on work performed; I figured I could make up 2 years in 1 if I tried hard enough (and I did just that). I had never spoken out in school or anyplace before and was trying to keep a low profile. The school offered periodic presentations from outside groups and this one was on teen pregnancy prevention. They spoke about what they had to offer, ways to prevent teen pregnancy, programming etc. As they spoke I felt the urge to speak out growing and growing. I knew about these programs as I had tried to enroll in one and was denied because I was a teen father. One lady at the program when I asked what roll I could play stated “if you have a car and a license you can drop of the mother and baby and pick them up.” At the time they offered nothing for the father (I am happy to say that when I left they had programming for the father); the presentation consisted of comments from the young mothers about how their baby’s father walked out and was never seen again. Finally I raised my hand to speak. In what was probably a shaky voice and a tightened face due to anxiety over speaking for the first time in a group, I proceeded to tell them that I felt they should call the programs “young mothers” programs as they discluded the fathers. I talked about my experience and how they should not be surprised that most parents broke up in a system that seemed to encourage it. I spoke about how I had custody of my son, that I did not run off and I was raising him without any help from the mother. As I spoke I saw the presenters get more and more uncomfortable as the supervisor of the presenters and the head of the alternative programs faces turned deeper shades of red. When the right shade of red became evident I said something like “I think I will sit down now.” The tension was palpable. After the presentation concluded and we returned to class I was called down to the office. As I entered I saw the presenters, the supervisor and and head of the school waiting for me. I thought I would be expelled but to my shock they said that they acknowledged the problem with the program, had known about it for some time but never had anyone confront them during a presentation before. They then asked me to join their panel so that I could present some of my views. I declined but thanked them and went back to class. Over the next several months I was called at home many times and asked to reconsider and eventually I did. This began a series of presentations around the state, tv shows, news and radio interviews and memories that I hope will never fade. There were growing pains. I was uncomfortable with their format that called for the presenters to sit down; arms folded and speak to the audience. I thought of the presentations that I enjoyed, they were lively, moved around and were not “stuffy.” I spoke to the supervisor about this and she told me to follow the format because it worked. I tried my best to follow it until one day at a statewide conference when it came time for my portion of the presentation I stood up, walked around, told “my story” and ignored the dirty looks and prompts from the supervisor. I think I mouthed “trust me” once or twice to her as I continued. After the presentation you can bet she came right up to me. As she reminded me about the rules, format etc. I looked at her and said “you passed out the evaluations; if they do not like my style you can either fire me or I will go back to the format but if they liked my style I will continue: deal?” She agreed and thankfully the reviews were stellar and I kept my job. As you develop your style there will be some ups and downs. I preferred to study my material as well as possible and then just wing the presentation; that is to say that I pull it out of my head as I go along. I may use a cue card with some bullet points but for the most part though the subject matter may be the same from presentation to presentation, the words and flow differ. I have tried using written scripts at the urging of bosses over the years but those presentations never jelled for me. I will never forget the presentation when I decided that I would never use a script again. I was delivering the speech and noticed that it was obvious that I was reading. While I adlibbed some lines here and there it just felt stiff. Finally I said “I am sure you all hate coming to a conference to be read to…” as I tossed the presentation and just went into the lecture. I have never looked back and have even declined offers to speak when it was demanded that scripts be used and reviewed prior to presenting. Like your counseling style, your presenting style needs to be congruent to you otherwise it will likely fail. As I watch from the sidelines this year I will be remembering my start in the field, enjoying the great people in San Francisco and hopefully taking some time to enjoy what the area has to offer. I hope to see many of you there. Who knows, maybe a few of you may even say “hey Doc” as I wonder around; meeting new colleagues is one of the best parts. Be sure to bring your cards.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).