Public Teacher, as in Public Speaker

How Reconceptualizing My Role on Stage Might Make Me a Better Speaker

One thing I have always envisioned about my future is speaking on stage. I don’t fully understand why this is. I know it has something to do with the shift from making to wisdom-sharing as I age. It has always seemed to me that the creative industry favours the young, and that it’s just a fact that most of us age out of the profession eventually. It has always seemed to me that the people I admire, who stay in the game, get onto stages to equip and inspire the next generation of creative people.

Of course, many of us, myself included, will feel indignant about the notion of getting too old to be usefully creative. Who says we can’t keep making and continuing to experience growth as creatives well into old age? It’s talent, not age, that matters right? What better way to stay sharp than to keep working on the front lines?

I fully plan on continuing to work on the front lines, to keep illustrating. In fact, the older I get, the more comfortable I am growing in my creative skin. While many of the thrills of starting up and growing as a creative are behind me, my best days of expressive creativity are still ahead of me. Having done a lot of the uphill battles of discovering my strengths and voice as an artist, I am now primed to actually create work from a place of joy. (This is parallel to the progression of life in general, where we become less self-critical as we age). I do not want to take this for granted.

That being said, I think it’s also wise to observe the patterns. Illustration is an industry that thrives on novelty. New styles, new techniques, new technology, new ideas, new artists. It’s not just illustration; it’s everything. As a runner, I see that there is a natural aging out of a certain calibre. Races are often categorized by age, and the older you are, the slower the finish times necessary to get a decent place. The older you get, the slower you get. It’s the next generation’s time to shine. Older runners aren’t respected for their new achievements, but for what they achieved in the past. Then they become coaches, and some even write books. Athletes with long careers are always the notable exception. Of course, in sports, there is a clear link between age and performance. In art, the lines are more blurry. Some creative people out there are in their 50s, 60s and 70s and still killing it. Heroes of mine, like Paula Scher and James Victore are still in the game and continue to stay relevant (to say the least). Paul Rand stayed in the game almost right up to the end of his life. Just watch this video of Paul Rand presenting an identity to Steve Jobs and his team at NeXT—he’s got at least 40 years on the oldest person in that room.

What do all these folks have in common? They did amazing work when they were younger, but later they became known for their more senior roles. Scher is a partner at Pentagram, the world’s largest independent design agency. She is a familiar name on design conference programmes. James Victore is an entertaining speaker and writer on design and creativity. Rand wrote some of the most important essays on graphic design between the 1940s and 1990s. All have taught in some degree. They became wisdom-sharers. Meanwhile, all of these also continued (or continue) to practice their art in the field. But it was on the work they did when they were younger that they were able to build up to their later careers.

We don’t hear much about the later careers of many great commercial artists, particularly those that never transition into wisdom-sharing roles. Even many well-known designers and illustrators in my own generation have fallen off the map in the past few years. I’m not saying they’ve failed, but whatever they were known for, it’s in the past. I don’t want to be known only for what I did in the past; I want to be known for what I’m doing now.

For my heroes, the pattern seems to go like this: start in a big city, preferably New York. Hustle like crazy until you land a job with a reputable studio. Make a name for yourself as you create world-class work. Move into more senior roles. Eventually go out on your own or found an agency. Teach at a reputable college. Speak at conferences. Write books.

While of course my story is different, and my own success is quite moderate in comparison to these greats, What I can glean from the pattern is that successful creatives continue to work both in a hands-on way and in an increasingly directorial or senior role. In other words, they transition from being the hero to championing new heroes, whether these new heroes work under them, learn from them, or read their words.

All this leads me back to what I really meant to write about today: my self-conception as a teacher, rather than a speaker. I feel that part and parcel with being a wisdom-sharer in the creative world, including being a writer, is being a speaker. For me, I don’t feel that this is optional: get up, speak and be heard, or else hide in the audience.

But speaking is something I still struggle with. It’s not that I fear standing in front of crowds. I love the idea of sharing and, oddly, I like performing. Though I am a total introvert, I really enjoy speaking to crowds, particularly sharing my work and ideas. At the same time, I struggle to be an entertainer. I can be funny, but not very directly. I don’t consider myself to be much of a storyteller. I spend hours upon hours writing my talks and putting together slideshows that end up far more underwhelming than I’d hoped. I tend to ramble and go overtime. And while I consider myself mildly interesting and tasteful, I’m no Mr. Bingo.

I am most comfortable on stage speaking from a personal point of view, honestly, without pretentiousness. I enjoy sharing work I’ve done and how I did it. I enjoy breaking down processes and tearing back curtains. Many of my fellow speakers enjoy performing with mystique, smoke and mirrors. I like to get up and be the normal guy who makes pictures for a living. I’m the creative everyman. Pretty straightforward on the outside. No hair dye, no tattoos, just a button down shirt and jeans. I’m just a guy who’s happened to achieve relative success in the creative industry. But I’ve achieved something that has gotten me onto a few stages, from New York to Austin and of course, closer to home. But that’s a story most of us can enter into. “If that guy can do it, then so can I”. That’s part of what I want you to walk away from when you see me talk or read my books.

Strangely, the thing I have become known most for is teaching. I like to think that my teaching gets its authority from my actual experience and work. But I wonder how many of my students even know my work or see me first as an illustrator. It is entirely possible that I can teach better than I can do. There is that George Bernard Shaw line, Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. It’s snide and can be applied in a mean-spirited way, but I see Shaw’s quip as a challenge, not a fact. There is truth to it, and I think all teachers should strive to be great doers first. This is certainly what my heroes have achieved. Teaching is not a fallback for them, and it is not for me either. It is the next creative frontier, and one of the most enjoyable and satisfying endeavours. To see that what we have been making all these years is bigger than us. That we are part of a community. That, no matter how old we are, we are still able to bring something to the table. That no matter how young the next generation is, there will always be things we learned along the way that they can learn from. But teaching is actually more than the easy coast down the other side of a creative career trajectory. It’s a doing of its own. I’ve had plenty of bad teachers in my life, and I’ve seen quite a handful of awful, terrible on-stage speakers. My frustration in having to sit through these bad experiences is part of what fuels me as a teacher. When given the opportunity to speak or teach myself, I want it to be worth my audience’s and students’ time. When I teach, I aim to truly make a difference. To this end, teaching is not just about my art, it is my art.

Writing my book, while shrouded in uncertainty (since it’s my first time), is not that scary for me. It’s something I feel is completely within my abilities. What I feel less confident about is my ability to speak on a stage and deliver truly meaningful talks. It’s something I really want to do, but so far, I haven’t really found what my thing is. Like, why, really, do I belong up on a stage? James Victore once wrote, “If you’re not on stage to change the world, then get the fuck off”. (I think that’s verbatim from an Instagram post from 2019 but I can’t find the post anymore). At first, I was really offended by it. Because I have never gone on stage with that intention, and therefore felt invalidated by someone I look up to. But then I got over it. I don’t think “changing the world” is an inherently good value. Hitler wanted to change the world. Honestly, I don’t even think you can call it a value at all. Also, I think that artists can be a bit grandiose about the effect their work can have. In my own art, I am decidedly not an activist. And on stage, I don’t see my role to be to inciting change at such a grand scale, or inciting change at all. At least until right now.

As I have been writing today’s entry, I’m thinking about this idea of inciting change with my talk. I suppose the role of public speaking is to change people’s minds. That’s what the whole speaking industry is predicated on. And writing here, persuasively, is not just a showcase of my writing capabilities; I have a purpose, a message, an objective to change someone’s mind, be that yours or mine, or both.

But here’s what I’m getting at. I think there are different modes, or purposes, of speaking. Some speak to change minds, some speak to spark conversation, and others speak to educate, to explain how or why. I’m that guy—the how and why guy. I just think it’s helpful to understand what kind of a speaker I am so I don’t try to force-fit my message into the wrong delivery format. Knowing what kind of speaker I am helps me know why I am speaking in the first place. It gives shape to my messages. And that makes me a better speaker.

There are some artists and speakers who can and should speak to larger socio-political issues. When people, like Victore, say things like “if you’re not on stage to change the world, then get … off”, my mind immediately goes to social activism. But maybe that’s not what he meant. Maybe it’s just more of a challenge to say something meaningful and helpful. If you’re going to speak into a microphone, have a message prepared. Be relevant. But I would add, whatever it is you want to change, make sure it’s a change that matters to you and definitely matters to your audience. And more importantly, make sure you are qualified to speak on your topic. You need to be credible to be convincing.

In the contexts that I imagine speaking at—creative conferences, interviews, guest lectures, and of course, books—I imagine that my audience is interested in learning about how to navigate a career in commercial illustration. I am not a guru on the topic, but I have a lot of insights, and I enjoy breaking down processes and going in depth about why we might do one thing and not another, what works and what doesn’t. It doesn’t always have to be technical information. All the talks that have made an impact in my own life have been from illustrators who are doing great work in the field, and they have made something about the process of illustrating or experience of being a creative professional make more sense. That is what I want to do, and this is what I think teaching is all about.

I’m only 40, (and forty is the new thirty, right?), so I’m not at the end of my career by a longshot. I still have hope for more years of thriving and growing as a hands-on illustrator. But I’m no spring chicken either. I’m ready to start really growing in this next frontier of wisdom-sharing.

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare. www.tomfroese.com/links