Don’t Let Being ‘Busy’ Get In Your Way

How I let ‘being too busy’ overwhelm me, and how you can avoid the same fate.


Mozcon: the biggest stage in search. (image

Update: okay, okay, I admit this is a bit sensationalized. My scores at Mozcon were relatively strong. The point is still valid, though: by using busyness as an excuse, I didn’t put my best stuff out there. I let myself down, even though the Moz audience was good with it.

Call it hero worship. Call it ideology. Call it youthful enthusiasm from a vibrant, immature industry. A huge amount of self-promotion is at play in digital marketing, an industry I’ve called my own for the past decade. It makes me bristle at times, but this habit of ‘marketers marketing to marketers’ can result in the sharing of great ideas. We are lucky (especially true in SEO) to have a passionate industry. We share our best ideas openly; we share our failings. We share our beer.

I’ve spoken at dozens of conferences. All of the major online marketing shows, and most of the smaller ones. I like challenges. I used to be scared shitless of public speaking. I got over that, only to find the real challenge isn’t standing in full display of a bunch of people. The real challenge is presenting something valuable and worthy of your audience’s time. I want to inspire, entertain, and educate. I want the audience stoked.

But agency life is manic. In a given day I juggle client strategy (and client fires relationships), internal team management, a hectic travel schedule, articles to write, presentations to build, and steady (almost monthly) conferences. And business development. And partnerships. And invention and iteration, innovation and evolution of our internal processes and methodologies. And the regular use of buzzwords and business-speak. The latter is especially exhausting.

When there are lots of demands on my time I don’t prioritize well. It gets harder to manage my days. I’m a poor project manager when under pressure. I get overwhelmed and read Techmeme. I procrastinate. I miss deadlines. I go to Twitter. I don’t prepare. I underachieve.

Overwhelmed and Underwhelming

The biggest stage in SEO (literally and figuratively) is Mozcon. I’ve been invited twice to speak, once at Mozcon 2011 [1] and again last year [2]. Moz puts on a truly original and first rate show. The stage is spectacular (even intimidating), and the speakers are impressive. The vibe is energetic. This is a conference worthy of your finest Powerpoint and roving, peripatetic style. Just seeing that stage made me want to WOW the audience, to surprise and inspire them. Then I nervously fiddled with the thumb drive in my pocket… I knew I’d underprepared. My talk would be mediocre.

Before we go any further, understand my preparation style.

I usually breeze into conferences, waiting for the last minute to build my deck and bringing it with me on a thumb drive to the session where I’m speaking. This is lame. It’s really poor form and unfair to the organizers. They work hard handling a lot of logistics and not hitting deadlines makes their job more difficult. I’ve only learned this by repeatedly being the World’s Most Unprepared Speaker.™

I sometimes build my decks the night before I go on stage, or more harried, two hours beforehand. That means the content flow isn’t well thought out and I haven’t had time to rehearse. I’ve always felt I knew enough that it didn’t matter. I could wing it, talk to a white wall for 30 minutes, and still have plenty of ideas to engage the audience. I no longer feel that’s enough. Presentations aren’t just about what you say, they’re about your presentation. The quality of your decks matter. Mine look like they were built in Windows ’95 with clip art (I’m working on it, with some help from my friends [3]).

that moment you realize your content isn’t that good (image Moz)

Shows like Mozcon take preparation up another notch. They are active participants in the content of your deck. They want to know exactly what you’re going to cover. They want it fantastic. They give you early access to the stage and let you do sound checks and even a dry run of your deck beforehand.

Of course I chose to do none of these. I was too busy. (Being “too busy” actually means you can’t prioritize [4].)

Don’t Let Busyness Be An Excuse To Fail

Cue Mozcon ’13. Deck created the day before, mostly incorporating pieces from other talks I’d given. By the time I got on stage and looked out at the audience of my friends, peers, and a thousand faces I’d never seen before, I felt deeply how underwhelming my content was. It wasn’t my best stuff. It wasn’t even a shadow of my best stuff. I had really cool data and client experiences at my fingertips. I had stuff to WOW my audience! And I brought THIS?!

I procrastinated, got overwhelmed with too much to do, and mailed it in. Mozcon was just another todo. I underachieved.

Let’s talk about the scores…

This is my score from 2011’s Mozcon. At the time, I was generally satisfied with this, but knew it could have been much higher if I had prepared more:

Adam Audette Mozcon 2011 speaker score

This is my score from 2013’s Mozcon:

Adam Audette's Mozcon '13 speaker score

For reference, here was the scale in speaker comparisons:

Mozcon '13 speaker scale

I was below the median rating! And barely above average. Comments from the audience included,

“I deeply esteem Adam and I know him personally, but – maybe because of that – I was waiting for something more from his speech, which IMHO ended up quite basic, as if it was targeting the less educated part of the MozCon audience.”

Truth hurts. And this one,

“Some presentations where quite basic (i.e.: the Audette preso, which I hoped was going to dig more into the technical details)…”

Again, ouch.

Now, some of you will say, “c’mon Adam it’s Mozcon! that show is all hype, it’s more about hero worship and rock stars than quality.” To which I say, phooey. All conferences are generally the same, in terms of the audience expectations from the speaker. The best speakers with the best content (it has to be both) consistently make audiences happy. I want to make audiences happy. Phooey to the Moz hating.

I had underwhelmed myself. I wasn’t surprised it scored low. I knew it could have been so much better.

I was too busy to deliver a great presentation to the crowd. I was too busy to benefit from speaking at Mozcon. I was too busy to participate in the Whiteboard Friday invitation, in the Webinar invitation, in the Moz blog invitation. I was too busy to do my best work and those opportunities fell by the wayside. (Obviously not forever, but that’s not the point.)

See all those too busy opportunities lost?

Being too busy is a shortcoming, not an excuse. It means: I can’t prioritize. I can’t handle having a lot of responsibility. I’m going to slide along and let the easy current float me through, instead of paddling out to the rapids and tackling a bigger challenge. Larger challenges carry rewards that can’t be found in the ripples at the water’s edge.

Don’t be afraid to try your hardest. Don’t be spoiled by easy kills. Go out and kill the biggest game you can find. Make your mark. Try so hard you might fail, try so hard you might feel vulnerable.

What I’m Doing Differently

This experience has made me take a fresh look at my preparation. Here are some of the changes I’ve made. These have already helped improve the quality of my talks. The best part: they can be carried into other aspects of my professional and personal life and help there, too.

  1. I don’t wait until the last minute to build my deck. Sounds simple, but starting well in advance of my deadline has changed everything.
  2. I build an outline of my talk before even starting. By doing this, it forces me to get deep into flow and the content of my talk, right away. No winging it.
  3. I work on the design and ascetic of my slides. No more bulleted lists (at least not as many bulleted lists, I still use them). More visuals.
  4. I rehearse. Doing this has been the most helpful change of all. It’s really helpful for flow, keeping me on time, and also surfaces new ideas and weak spots (especially when rehearsing in front of someone else).

These are a few things that have helped me. I’d love to hear more ideas.

Mt. Bachelor at dusk (image Craig Zagurski)

Mt. Bachelor at dusk (image Craig Zagurski)


I’ve included links to both Mozcon decks in the footnotes below [5], [6]. Ironically, my deck from the 2013 show was recently featured on Slideshare’s home page. Maybe I’m too hard on myself.

My feedback wasn’t that bad. My score was above the average (barely). Moz told me, “there’s only a 1.34 point difference between top and lowest-rated speakers.” Well, that’s comforting. But I bet that 1.34 point difference between the top and bottom of the stack rank is what separates the cherised from the ridiculed. It’s logarithmic. It’s huge.

Both of my Mozcon talks did resonate with people. They landed me business.

But that’s not enough.

For me speaking and writing is a means to an end: get out there and better the industry. Spread good ideas to help cover the rubbish that’s strewn so prevalently from industry hacks. Build business. Those are good reasons, but my ultimate raison d’être is for the respect of my industry friends and colleagues. It’s like a kind of self-inflicted peer pressure to not suck in the eyes of my colleagues. In this profession all we have to trade on is our smarts.

So I’m gonna work on sucking less the next time I’m on stage.

[1] Here’s the Mozcon ’11 announcement:


[2] Adam Sherk has a great breakdown of Mozcon ’13 presentations in his usual inimitable style:


[3] This is a really helpful presentation by Ian Lurie on how to create compelling presentations:


[4] The Busy Trap, a great piece on the fallacy of ‘being too busy':


[5] My Mozcon ’11 deck, How To Rank Product Pages For SEO:


[6] My Mozcon ’13 deck, The State Of Ecommerce SEO:
  • Scott Clark at 7:04 pm

    Excellent post, and clearly heartfelt. I think many of us can sympathize with you Adam. Sometimes you cannot catch every ball thrown at you. We’re human. I’ll still be at the next preso you give where I’m in attendance. I know it’ll be great and I’ll leave smarter.

  • Adam Audette at 7:22 pm

    Thanks, Scott. Great insight, you’re totally right. Speaking for me is mostly about the mutual peer respect at this point. Hearing from you on this topic is what it’s all about. Thanks again.

  • Zeph Snapp at 7:38 pm

    I can relate completely. My first presentation I watched other speakers and felt completely underprepared (though the feedback was generally good). The next time I started way ahead of time and my confidence was 3x higher.
    Good luck, looking forward to seeing what you have for us this year!

  • Kevin Chow at 7:41 pm

    I once did the same, but it is true, respect your friends and industry, I like how you put that. I still respect you very highly Adam. Take a half day and hit up Tetherow.

  • @EndGameSEO at 7:42 pm

    “The past has been there all along, reminding us: This time–maybe, hopefully, against all odds, we will get it right.”

  • Adam Audette at 7:46 pm

    Right on, Zeph. I think a common habit is to be hyper critical on ourselves. Sometimes I’ll give a presentation and get much better input than I expected. Probably a good survival mechanism.

    Preparing in advance has been HUGE for me, too. Seems so stupid that I haven’t been doing this forever. I’d be much further ahead in my skills if so. But, never too late to start.

  • Adam Audette at 7:50 pm

    Kevin, great to see you here! Yes, that’s a good idea. A little fresh air and the links golf at Tetherow is always a good call.

    Really appreciate your taking the time to comment, man.

  • Jonathon Colman at 7:51 pm

    Just FYI: a score of 4.0 at Mozcon is actually really, really, REALLY good. At other conferences, it’d be a knockout. But like you say, Mozcon is different.

    Just to build on your transparency: my 2012 session on Agile Marketing earned a… (wait for it)… 3.5. It was below both the median and the average for the year, so I’m pretty sure that I tanked the overall show quality and reception.

    That said, your points about vulnerability, openness, and changing your process are really well-taken and thought out. I also took my low MozCon score as a way to reboot my story-telling process and I’m telling better stories as a result of it.

    So don’t get discouraged. I want to see more stories from you. And so do your other peers. And the community and entire industry, too.

    You can do it!

  • Bryson Meunier at 8:19 pm

    Adam, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you speak a couple of times and I’m glad you’re still optimizing the process. Definitely an inspiring message for those of us who speak regularly to continue to up our game.

  • Adam Audette at 8:36 pm

    @Jonathan – love your transparency. But I simply cannot believe you’ve ever scored that low. I’d put you in the top 1% of presenters in the game. So it’s especially useful to hear your experiences.

    Mozcon is tough for sure. I’ll keep trying harder to up my game. Someday when I get the opportunity again I hope to be ready.

  • Adam Audette at 8:38 pm

    @Bryson, thanks . Have always been a fan of your stuff, too. Looking forward to your mobile session at SMX Advanced (tell me you’re planning one!)

  • Glenn Walker at 9:35 pm

    Adam, I have seen you speak several times and honestly I wouldn’t know you were under-prepared. Reading your article made me think about some broader issues of time and energy. First of all, take it easy on yourself :), self-flagellation is the toughest punishment.

    One thing I do find is the latest trend of saying we are too busy being a failure to delegate or an internal failing a troubling sentiment. Yes, in some scenarios it’s a problem of personal management but in other scenarios we just reach capacity. It’s not wrong to say you are too busy and we all have only so much to give. It’s against conventional wisdom but personally I feel it’s alright to give a little less of yourself especially when many people are vying to take a piece of your time and energy. I wonder what other people feel about that statement….

    Honestly, this post hits home, client work, business operations, family…. It’s hard to keep all the balls up in the air.

  • Adam Audette at 10:06 pm

    @Glenn, very thoughtful points and causing me to reflect a bit.

    Self-flagellation – I have a propensity for it. The good side is it pushes me to work harder, the bad side is it pushes me off the cliff. :)

    Totally get your point on being busy. And it’s true. Sometimes you need to push back and give less. My experience at Mozcon taught me there are consequences when I do this. But with some reflecting on your ideas, makes me think it’s not necessarily bad to give less of yourself, the key is to know WHEN and WHERE to do it. If you have a good opportunity, grab it and give all you can. And when you just need some time to yourself and with your family, grab that without regrets.

    Thanks for the awesome comments.

  • Ross Hudgens at 5:00 am

    Hey Adam, my suggestion would be to focus on 2-3 presentations per year (if you’re doing a ton of conferences), and make those really good, and then just reuse them. Very rarely will anyone have seen your content before, especially if you don’t post the deck immediately – it might hurt a little inside but really, nobody notices. And everyone will appreciate the live version of the deck even if they’ve already seen the digital version. Rand specifically has taken on this strategy and it seems to be doing quite well for him.

  • Adam Audette at 1:57 pm

    @Ross – great to see you here. That’s good advice. Always creating new decks definitely is not sustainable and way too time consuming. Agreed most folks won’t notice the re-purposed content.

    This is a great idea when doing lots of shows and something I’m going to start doing.

  • AJ Kohn at 5:17 pm

    It’s refreshing to hear the unvarnished truth about what it’s like. I try to convey that as well and I commend you for putting this out there. We all need to hear it I think.

    I can identify with a lot of it – that tug of priorities that puts you into a ‘I have so much to do I just won’t do anything’ zone.

    Decks … well I’m obsessive about them and it caused some client work to be delayed. #notgood

    So I chose not to do as much presenting. But I’ve got the itch again after being at SMX West (going so far as to write the outline to my next deck while there) so I’ll be trying to strike that balance once again.

    Funnily, I got a 4.02 for my 2012 MozCon presentation with a median of 3.81 and average of 3.79. I was satisfied but, like you, thought I could do better.

    I already do all the things you’re going to do and don’t have any great advice. For me, I try to convert anxiousness into excitement, to inform AND entertain and to remember that creation and performance is a rare and difficult thing. So cut yourself some slack.

  • Adam Audette at 6:03 pm

    @AJ – cool to hear your thoughts on this. I will definitely cut myself some slack. This has been really interesting. All of us seem to battle with the same (or similar) demons when it comes to speaking, priorities, and self-flagellation. It’s a human condition, I guess.

    Aleyda had an idea I’m going to try – to focus just on 3 or 4 things, not dozens, and take it slow. To simplify. Something I’m going to try next time.

    I’m glad you’re getting the itch to speak again and I look forward to catching you the next time. You’ve always got new ideas to share.

    Thanks man.

  • Gyi Tsakalakis at 8:46 pm

    This might be something of an echo. Mozcon is exceptional. It’s one of only 2 conferences that get default annual budget from me.

    Like others, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the transparency here.

    Having attended 2 Mozcons, as well as, having watched (and watched again) the recordings, IMHO yours was not below median.

    But it also wasn’t epic (which seems to me to be one of the major thrusts of your post). And which is greatly appreciated by someone who pays money to watch the best in the industry.

    I also really appreciate the thoughts and transparency from other speakers on this thread.

    Hearing the sentiments and seeing scores from some of the other speakers, gives me pause.

    I don’t recall the specifics of the speaker review process, but some of the results here strike me as odd.

    Again, just my opinion and this is obviously largely a subjective analysis.

    I’d be curious to hear more specific speaker feedback (especially the negative).

    My hunch is that there’s some fandom at play here.

    Just a hunch.

    For what it’s worth, I’m headed back this summer and purchased tickets shortly after returning home from last year’s show.

  • Adam Audette at 3:19 pm

    @Gyi, very interesting comments. And I appreciate your candidness. Certainly fandom could play a part, and no doubt does at all shows. Maybe it’s more pronounced at Mozcon? Or maybe it’s just that people are expecting to be blown away there, and they don’t go into other shows with the same expectation.

    The thing about fandom is that it’s usually earned. Speakers who are celebrities (like Avinash) have rabid fans because they’ve consistently delivered the goods for so long, so consistently.