Denise Jacobs is a teacher, author and powerful speaker who will discuss processes and techniques for dramatically enhanced creative productivity at this year’s Sydney-based Web Directions Conference. While talking with Denise about her inspiring professional journey, we learned how to overcome speaking fears and procrastination. Read on for her tricks and story about finding her true passion.
How did you get to where you are today?
It feels like a long story, but I started making handmade soap in 1997 to get back in touch with my own creativity. My friends really liked it, and people kept asking if I sold it. At first, I found it baffling and kept saying, ‘no, no, no!’. But when people started asking what was in it, I started offering to teach them how to make it themselves. I had two small classes of about five people each at my house.
From there, I started teaching at an adult extension school. I discovered that I really loved teaching! Though I was working in the web industry on project management projects, I found myself without the passion I felt when helping people. I was knowledgeable about web stuff and had built some experience teaching, so I thought I’d combine them to teach web classes at Seattle Central College. About five years later, that job ended and I coincidentally went to my first web conference. I saw Molly Holzschlag, an open web evangelist, speak. What we were doing was so similar – but she was speaking in front of thousands. I instantly knew I wanted to do the same.
About four years later, I finally broke into the web speaking circuit. I had just authored my first book, The CSS Detective Guide, and it gave me the confidence to pursue opportunities. I took it by storm, applying everywhere, building a reputation as a good speaker. Now I get invited, which is a dream come true!
When did you realize that you had an ability to help others be creative and produce great work?
It totally came from teaching. Through the soap classes, I realized that I was good at explaining, at helping people learn about the things they found interesting. Once I started at Seattle Central Community College, I knew I had found something that I was passionate about and wanted to do more of.
Today, you’re an accomplished public speaker. What tips do you have those with fear of getting up in front of people?
Two things. The first is to know that if you have one more piece of information to share than someone in the audience already knows, then you are helping. I find that people are afraid to speak because they feel like they don’t have anything new to offer. Remember, the lens of your experience is unique and people always need reminders. You are valuable!
The second piece of advice I can offer is to remember that people are rooting for you. Attendees aren’t sitting and casting an evil eye – they’re there to learn and be entertained. Think about this when you get in front of people. Know that everyone is supporting you.
You’re a featured speaker at the upcoming Web Directions conference. What’s special about this event? What are you most excited about?
I met one of the founders of Web Directions, John Allsop, at SXSW in 2006. I had long admired his work and used it in my classes, and he proved to be one of the best people I met! I’ve been wanting to speak at Web Directions for years, and was finally invited to do so this year.
I’m also really excited to go to Australia – I’ve never been – and a lot of my industry friends like Hannah Donovan and Daniel Burka are taking part. The crowd is sure to be amazing, and I know it’s going to be a great time.
A frequent traveler, how do you stay connected when moving around? How do you stay focused?
To stay connected, I make a conscious effort to see people I know when I travel. This includes friends, or in new places, digital contacts. Connecting with people makes places more feel meaningful for me. One thing I like to do is shop for groceries wherever I go – it’s an everyday, self-care thing. Restaurants feel less grounded.
For staying focused, I concentrate on the thing that is in front of me. If I can, I don’t think about things that are too far out. I use an email auto responder with my upcoming schedule, Calendly for meetings, and airline apps like Tripit to help take care of little details.
What was your proudest, professional moment?
This past June, I was the closing keynote at a conference in Columbus, OH (an hour from where I was born/grew up). It was the first time I was able to have my Mother at a conference. As if that wasn’t enough, my 91 year old Grandfather also came from Detroit to hear me speak, and friends from my hometown, including my favorite high school teacher, were also in the audience.
This was one of my best speeches as I was really on and felt an amazing connection with the audience.
I had structured my talk in a way that helped me really speak to technical attendees, and made it a point to tie in the opening keynote with several other earlier talks from the conference. I was so honored to receive a standing ovation from that crowd, and in awe over audience feedback. It was a really special, magical milestone in my career.
How do you maintain work/life balance?
I bracket my time carefully when I’m home, and make myself stop working by using alarms. I deliberately don’t work on weekends. I also recently decided to start imposing a ‘mandatory beach day’ for myself after each work trip. This comes after a recent four-day staycation in Palm Beach (my backyard) which left me asking myself, “why don’t I do this all the time?!”
How can someone overcome procrastination to be more productive?
Instead of focusing on doing the task, trying just getting ready to do it. Open your app or document, get your notes together, maybe jot down a couple of ideas. By just getting ready, you may be inspired to do it. Another trick to try is the Pomodoro technique — block off a small amount of time for the thing you don’t want to do, knowing you only have to work on it for a limited time. You’ll be surprised how easily it can kick you into gear!
What, if any, events/workshops/classes do you regularly attend or recommend?
I can’t recommend Improv classes enough. Not only do they teach you how to be creative, but they’re great for building self-trust. They also help you realize that you don’t always need to plan ahead, how to collaborate and rely on others.
BATS in San Francisco offers classes, along with IO in Chicago and Gotham City in New York City. Find a place and go!
Where can we find you online?
My website, Facebook page, and Twitter are all good places to keep up with me.
Last, how do you like your coffee?
I actually prefer a chai tea latte with soymilk over coffee (chai tea is the best!), but if I get a coffee it’s usually a decaf almond milk latte.