I booked my ticket for the European Conference in Lyon less than a month before the event and I’m not sure what I was expecting. I know that I didn’t expect to join the debating team and learn that particular new skill, nor was I expecting to be handed a microphone to pitch my team’s idea at the ‘hack for global goals’ event in front of a lecture theater full of people and I didn’t realise I’d get to play a part in throwing an Irish themed party on the Friday night.
Honestly, I think that I expected a much more passive experience. I think I expected to take notes at training sessions and workshops all day before mingling and networking over wine in the evenings and turning in at a sensible hour each night. At least, I'm glad to say, I was right about the wine and meeting new people. Everything else though was a little different and a lot more interesting. There isn’t anything passive about JCI.
We arrived just on time for the opening ceremony and straight away I was involved instead of just sitting on the sidelines. Opening ceremony is time for all things Paddy Wackery for us in JCI Ireland and for all involved it’s about waving your national flag and making as much noise as possible when your country is mentioned, or in our case when your National president irish dances across the stage, before taking the first of many group photographs. Then it’s into the all important opening party, where there was a lot of wine and people to meet as expected - and a healthy amount of bread and cheese for good measure. I made one of my first new friends of the conference by helping a few Estonians operate the french wine barrels.
The next day, fortified by french coffee and pastries, we were in early and ready to experience everything else that the conference had to offer.
There were training sessions and workshops, on Effective Communication and Women in Leadership for me, but these were highly interactive events with passionate discussion, where everyone got involved and everyone was an immediate friend, light years away from the quiet classroom scenarios I had been expecting. There was also the public speaking competition, where I went to support my lovely boyfriend, Ben Hall, who was competing for Ireland and where all of the competitors were hugely passionate and talented storytellers, adept at inspiring the room.
The energy from these sessions also carried over to the hack for global goals event, where we were allocated teams and asked to develop ideas and plans to address issues that are close to the JCI mission and that can help to deliver on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. I was lucky to be part of an amazing team for this session, who pushed and supported me to pitch our idea in front of a panel of judges and the other judges because they could see it was something that would be really good for me.
For a little background, when you meet me, I appear to be a very outgoing and confident person. Put me in front of a crowd though, when it's just me, and my brain will have a panic attack and send all sorts of wrong signals through my body, it will make me shake when I should stand still and it will make my words run a mile a minute when I should take a breath. In fact, I may forget to breathe altogether.
And to be honest, delivering that pitch was terrifying. But with the team's great ideas and support behind me, I was shocked to find that I actually enjoyed it as well, and the fear subsided slowly over time. I would even get a thrill when the audience responded to something I said.
There's so much to talk about though that I can't dawdle on that feeling for very long, so let's move on to the next amazing/terrifying thing, debating. It was after a very busy night of clearing tables, serving drinks and manning the cloakroom for the Irish/Estonia party, that it was time for a very strong coffee and the JCI European debating competition.
Before the conference I had never debated in my life, though I've been told by equally honest friends that I'm naturally a relatively critical person. Who knew there was actually a time when that would be a good thing? I agreed to take part fairly late in the day, following team changes beyond control, having initially shied away from the idea of taking part just a few weeks before because I didn't feel as though I could.
When she learned I was doing it, Keira messaged me to thank me and offer some encouragement. In the end I'm delighted that I did, as she said, #acceptthechallenge.
We fit in some practice and upskilling between events and parties, and early on the day of the event and in the end I was so proud of myself and of the whole team's performance! We got to go up against our friends in the UK team and it was far more fun than I ever thought it could be. My body and brain were still fighting the public speaking aspect, but the support in the room and the fact that by then at least half of the audience, the judging panel and the opposition felt like old friends, helped me push that aside and just get on with it.
Finally, that night, it was time to don dancing shoes and enjoy a gala dinner and drinks, which felt like a reward for everyone's achievements during the conference, and which was actually a real chance to celebrate JCI Europe's achievements from the year before, including well deserved recognition for JCI Galway and their award for Best Local Growth & Development Progamme.
Wine, champagne and whiskey flowed, new friendships deepened and the parties kept going late into the evening in Lyon. Reflecting on the conference now, a week later, I'm so happy that my expectations were shattered because it was so much better than I had imagined. It helped me to become more confident, it made me see the world differently and to take a more considered perspective and it gifted me with some amazing people and friendships.
So now…… Who's on for World Congress in Estonia….? And obviously Dublin's spectacular European Conference next year!?
Tara McGinley, JCI Dublin member