Me (in Four-Minute Doses)

I work at Automattic, a distributed company, which means that my nearly 500 colleagues and I work from home, or wherever we may be in the world.

Our company meets in person once a year at our grand meetup, which is approaching in several weeks. (We’re always hiring, by the way.)

Typically, I have a bit of a freakout in these months before. There’s a tradition at the meetup in which everyone gives a short talk — a “flash talk” of up to four minutes — and can talk about or do anything they’d like. They sing. They talk about one of their side projects. They show photos from their last family vacation. They play a prerecorded video. They stand there in complete silence. You learn random, sometimes unexpected things about your coworkers, which is the best part, and the talks help to break the ice when you’re mingling in a room full of people you might know by name or avatar, but haven’t actually met.

I’ve become more laid-back and reserved as I’ve gotten older, especially among large gatherings like these, but over the years, I’ve been generally fine talking in front of an audience if I prepare in advance — and ultimately enjoy it. I can’t “wing it,” talk on the fly, and could never stand in front of people and just talk — if you know me, you know that’s probably my worst nightmare and I’d rather poke an eye out. To make it manageable for myself, I approach flash talks — and public speaking in general — as, well, blog posts. Drafting a four-minute talk is surprisingly challenging, but when viewing it as a spurt of writing, I know how to shape it. Still, it’s a bit stressful in the weeks before as I brainstorm ideas, and then subsequently think each idea is stupid and not good enough.

I also have this internal battle: Keep it simple. No, that’s boring. Keep it simple. No, you need to challenge yourself. Keep it simple. No, there are many people you haven’t met yet so this is your chance to introduce yourself. Keep it simple. No, you’re a perfectionist so make it fucking perfect.

After the usual back-and-forth I have with myself, I finally settled on a topic.

And so I now have a list of 11 abandoned flash talks, which now sit in Simplenote like my many half-ripe ideas and drafts in my dashboard. Some of the talks never got past the idea stage, while others were fully drafted — with completed Keynote slides, too — before I decided I hated them:

  • The secrets of my family’s adobo recipes (my sister-in-law Stephanie adds a bit of coconut milk to hers, while my cousin Jacque makes the most incredible pork spare ribs)
  • Wine tasting notes (a selection of wines I’ve liked and have described in ridiculous ways — “it’s what you’d wean baby vampires on”)
  • The junk art and sculptures of Patrick Amiot around my town
  • My personal collection of “stock images” — or my go-to images that I use again and again, like these:
  • Things I like (an abridged version of this list)
  • Things I’m scared of (I really liked this topic, but ultimately decided to avoid something negative — for the record, I’m terrified of snakes, black-bottom pools, and looking at mirrors in the dark, among other phobias)
  • The playlist of my life thus far (10 albums representing defining years or moments, including Bel Biv DeVoe’s Poison (1990), Bjork’s Debut (1996), Urbal Beats, Vol. 1 (1997), and Sasha and Digweed’s Northern Exposure (East Coast Edition) (1998))
  • 10 things about me
  • My 10 all-time favorite travel photos
  • 10 things about me, in snapshots (this talk combined the two previous ideas)
  • Utah and Arizona via iPhone lens (which pretty much repurposed this)

It’s worth noting that my talk from last year, which you can watch below, was “Ten Topics I Considered For My Flash Talk” . . . so I suppose even list-making tendencies and indecisiveness can bear fruit.

Flash talks

I’d never thought to share my talks from previous years on my blog, and rarely post videos here in general, so here they are:

Making Shit Up: Lying in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction (2013)

On Home, Space, and a Tiny House (2014)

Ten Topics I Considered For My Flash Talk (2015)

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including

21 thoughts on “Me (in Four-Minute Doses)

  1. This is so cool Cheri ~ you seem a natural in the speaking and in a sense “teaching” sphere, great talks. Your first talk about ‘liars’ is actually pretty powerful and something I think finds its way into many places in life. In business, there is lying which is better known as the “art of persuasion” or even manipulation, not a day goes by without some part of this happening and for me how I’d used statistics to make my point ~ yet, also knowing I am manipulating the argument by focusing on the result I want. Great topic.

    Now, back to this post of 4-minutes doses of CLR. How cool, and I like this idea of giving people a peek into your persona. This is a great idea, and would like to do something similar with my team in China… it is an opportunity like you say to learn something random and yet wonderful about a person.

    I like this peek into your life, feel a little like voyeur 🙂 You’ve got a great stage presence, wonderful voice ~ this says it all & – * …
    Cheers to a great weekend.

    1. Yes, these little talks are a neat way to get to know colleagues, especially when they’re not about work! I’d suggest offering alternatives, too, especially for those who are afraid of public speaking. A video or prepping something in advance may be less intimidating, or doing something with another person or as a group.

  2. A lot of my writing is creative nonfiction, so I loved your flash talk. I don’t lie in my stories, but I omit at times, if the omitted piece of the story would be too hurtful for someone I don’t want hurt. And, there’s always perspective. In a former job, I had to lead a group that was learning about investigating reported incidents at the workplace. As an exercise, I arranged for someone to burst into the roo, grab my purse and run out. We had 24 people in the group with 24 different versions of what happened, when it happened and by whom. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

  3. You are a brave, brave woman, and Automattic sounds like a wonderful but also utterly terrifying company to work for.

    I’ve only had to do something like this once, this during my last year at Lucent (fortunately, I got to roll the brief talk into running a workshop on the software I’d been eating, sleeping and breathing for the five years prior). I’ve long since lost the presentation, but I still have the rubber duck I used to demonstrate how I do basic server troubleshooting. Hint: if the rubber duck on top of your server melts, it’s time for a new fan. Or a new server room.

  4. Loved this. Thank you for being vulnerable and letting us appreciate another side of who you are. I look forward to seeing what you decide to speak about this year. Good luck. I’ve found that I am less anxious and better able to face my fear of public speaking when I remember why I am doing it, and focus on speaking about the things that I’m most passionate about. (Rather than listening to my inner critic or worrying about my hands shaking.) You’ve got this.

  5. Cheri, I really enjoyed all of this, and not only do I share a fear of black bottomed pools, but some of your words actually have clarified a few things for me that I’ve been struggling with, such as where a “home” really is, including one’s online home. Thank you for sharing and allowing us into a part of your world.

  6. Oh Cheri much loving and Light to you! You are doing great. From what I see ….. your presence is gorgeous & just be yourself. It’s a blessing and a gift.

  7. Oh the ‘keep it simple oh that’s so boring’ inner conversation is so relatable. It was neat hearing you speak – you become more real, more than ‘just a pretty face’ 🙂
    Patrick Amiot’s art is wonderful. And wonderfully whimsical.
    I don’t need to script, I can just talk, as long as I feel I know what I’m talking about.

  8. Love this, Cheri. I’ve also learned to script myself. Like at a reading when introducing myself or my piece. In my fantasy, I’m winging it and everyone’s laughing and loving me. In reality, I’ve rambled and bombed. So, yeah. This is solid gold advice. With only four minutes, too, you can get conversant enough with your text that you can probably reduce it to bullet points and can talk it. Maybe even appear to wing it! But you’ve thought it through. This process keeps my ego in check as well!

    1. Thanks, Richard. Yeah, I wish I didn’t have to stick to a script for things like this, but I know my limits and what I’m comfortable with. In my fantasy, I’m interesting and charming in person, and a talker — the life and spark of a conversation. But that is so NOT my reality!

  9. First of all, you have nothing to fear — what a wonderful repertoire of life experiences you have. I’d go with the wine one, by the way. Your vivid imagination will most definitely put you heads above the rest. I love your pictures, especially the typewriter one, Cheri! Is this yours are is this a pic from a creative commons license because I would love to use it.

    Great post and I would say good luck, but seriously, you DO. NOT. NEED. IT. :).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: