There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

May 15, 2013 | 2275 Views

There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Monique Donahue, CHT

Director of Professional Development & Academic Markets | RMA

It was an accident, I swear. I didn’t mean, at my very first CHART conference, to volunteer presenting a breakout session. My shameful confession is that I was simply trying to get a free lunch.

Flashback to Boca Raton, 2003: I was a first time attendee, still trying to understand what CHART was all about. (I was a little intimidated by all the hugging, to be perfectly frank.) At the time, one of the conference days was deemed “lunch on your own.” However, for those who were willing to brainstorm on a handful of conference-related topics, a working lunch would be provided. Space was limited, so I quickly signed up to contribute my thoughts on future breakout sessions. But mostly, I signed up for the free lunch.

My background, by education and experience, is in instructional design. And from my work within the hospitality industry, I knew that trainers most often move into their roles from operations, with no formal instruction in adult learning or how to develop the most effective training programs. Armed with that insight, I saw that the topic of instructional design could be beneficial to many CHART members. I also supposed that I could benefit in learning from someone more seasoned than me. But the facilitators of that working lunch (Mike Hampton and Josh Davies, for the record) didn’t see it that way. I still vividly remember scribe Josh Davies noting my suggestion on the flip chart, then turning around, pointing at me with his marker, and announcing that I had just bought myself a breakout session. As if I had won the grand prize. And sure enough, it was so. At my very next conference (San Diego, 2004), I was indeed presenting a session on instructional design.

Readers, I am an introvert by nature (voted “Most Shy” by my high school peers back in the day) who is far more comfortable behind the scenes developing training than in front of a room delivering it. Add in a lively group of trainers who are experts at facilitation and sure to notice my every mistake, and I was quaking in my boots. My voice was shaky, my mouth was dry, and my hands trembled throughout that session, which I had to deliver not once, but twice. (To those of you who may have suffered through it, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for pretending not to notice and boosting my confidence with kind words.)

Somehow, the really great people at CHART turned a blind eye to my stage fright and gave me enough encouragement that I agreed to do it again. And again. And again. By my count, come Miami this July, I will have attended 16 CHART conferences and been a speaker at 12 of them (sometimes even doubling up on pre-con workshops and breakout sessions at the same conference), with another 5 speaking engagements at CHART Regional Training Forums. And I have to go all the way back to 2007 on my calendar to find the last time I attended a CHART conference where I did NOT wear a speaker flag on my name badge.

I am either a serious glutton for punishment, or extremely grateful for the many opportunities CHART has given me over the years to stretch my comfort zones and grow a skill that only gets better every time I present. I’ll let you, the reader, decide which, but I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the former.

My most recent CHART presentation was once again in San Diego, and when I got my evaluation results, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I have come full circle from that FIRST San Diego breakout session 9 years earlier. I went from trembling in terror in 2004 to “Awesome session, by far my favorite” in 2013. And I could never, ever have done that without CHART.

Now, every time someone tells me I am a “natural” speaker who looks at ease in front of an audience, I credit CHART for giving me confidence and letting me “practice” in a friendly environment. Because despite feeling intimidated that first time, it turns out that my CHART comrades are the most encouraging, supportive group of people I know.

And so it is that my “free” lunch, back in 2003, wasn’t exactly free after all. I’ve paid for it many times over since then. But I’m still the one who came out so far ahead. Giving back some of my own expertise in instructional design is the least I can do in return.

The moral of the story is this: Find your niche, your way to get involved, even if it feels outside your comfort zone at first. Let me repeat that: GET INVOLVED, whatever that looks like for you. Your CHART experience will be so much richer and more rewarding for it. My involvement with CHART has been the best thing that’s ever happened for my career. Not to mention that I’ve made some pretty amazing friends in the process.

And keep an eye out for those free lunches. They have a way of launching you in directions you never could have imagined, but that you will never regret.

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