RIBA 2023 Guerrilla Tactics Conference: How Hosting Changed Me

Earlier this year, I was offered the opportunity to host this year’s RIBA Guerrilla Tactic’s conference for small practices for 200 architects at 66 Portland Place, the RIBA’s headquarters in London. One day, eight speakers, four Q&As, a workshop for all 200 attendees, and then a Roundtable at the end with the Steering Committee – a group of architects from small practices who defined this year’s theme: Agile Practice. 

To say hosting this event was a professional stretch for me is an understatement. I have always been happy staying behind the scenes; getting in front of people triggers my anxiety like nothing else. All my internal fears dance out in front of me: I feel afraid of looking stupid, sounding stupid, not being taken seriously, and gah, what do I do with my hands!? Plus, I’ve done some public speaking events before and am quite sure I was a total weirdo, so suffice to say it was more comfortable and easier to stay in my lane, than try to do something I was sure I’d suck at. 

I hated to admit it, but a part of me knew that if I didn’t deal with this fear at some point, it would hold me back, but I was comfortable with pushing that further down the field until I was “ready”.

Then the RIBA came knocking. 

I had a choice: continue to hide and avoid putting myself out there, or stretch myself, however uncomfortable it would be. I jumped at the chance, all while freaking out that I’ve put myself in front of 200+ potential clients or collaborators, and was totally going to fuck it up. 

My fear of public speaking is gripping. My heart pounds, I cannot engage my brain, my mouth becomes dry, my hands shake, and I talk way too fast. I am not unique in this, I know. As Jerry Seinfeld has said, “[a]ccording to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Yes, Jerry, I would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy, and this had to change.

I sought help through the work of Linda Graanoost, a PR and Media coach who also happens to be a hypnotherapist. Yes, you read that right. I went woo-woo. Now, before this opportunity, I didn’t even really register that there were people who could coach you on how to put yourself out into the world’s stage. It was naive to think really, as there are coaches for everything these days. Together, we dug into my mindsets and the narratives I told myself. There are some corkers that noodle around in my brain and run wild without me asking or even knowing.

There are some classics here:

“I’m not good enough.”

“I don’t know what I’m talking about”

“I’m not safe to be myself”

“People will think I’m boring or dumb.”

So. Much. Fun!

Linda helped me process this stuff through hypnosis. Whether you believe in hypnosis or not, whatever she did worked. Linda explained to me that through this work, we rewire the circuits in our brains. The stories we tell ourselves get built over time, and, like ruts in a groove, they become a well trodden path in our minds. Through hypnosis, we tap into our brain’s neuroplasticity, and create new pathways, new narratives that combat the old ones. It now feels physically difficult to think in those old ways. It’s hard to describe, but it is an incredible experience.

Hypnosis isn’t like we see on TV. I don’t cluck like a chicken whenever someone says ‘tomato’. Rather, it’s deep and restful, you’re conscious, but your subconscious is what’s doing the work with your therapist. 

By the time 7th November arrived, I felt ready. There were nerves, of course, but they were different this time around. They were less panicky, less frantic. It was excitement, not fear. 

(That all said, because I’m me, that didn’t stop me panicking because I wasn’t nervous – I wondered what I was missing, what was wrong with me! Hypnosis is not a silver bullet, while it retrains your mind, it also helps you understand your patterns because once that pattern is broken, you see it clearly: I was looking for things to be anxious about because anxiety is one of my favourite sports.)

In the end, we had a brilliant time. Phenomenal speakers, great insights, and a lot of engagement from the delegates. The energy in the room was focused and positive; attendees were there to learn and the speakers were there to teach them. And I got to be the glue that stuck it all together. It was so much fun, and although I was riding on pure adrenaline, I discovered there is nothing like the experience of speaking to 200 people as if they were old friends, just there to have a great time, learn from each other and think about our businesses. The photos tell this story.

A few weeks have passed since the event which has given me time for further reflection, and even more now than then, to me the famous Stoic maxim “the Obstacle is the Way” rings quite true. Life throws up instances where we can decide to take the harder route, to take the risk, with an opportunity to strike gold, or stay safe, yet stagnant; comfy, yet unchallenged. 

Turning towards that which scares us takes us down an unknown path, an opportunity for a new way to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones. It is true, new ways of thinking lead to new ways of being. Oh sure, I still have hang-ups and anxieties (what DO I do with my hands?), but these are a sticky byproduct of being human. The rest I can work on. 

All photography by Karla Gowlett