Workplace Wisdom

Here Are the 3 Unexpected Things I Learned from Surviving a TEDx Talk

When a dear colleague emailed me last July to ask if I’d consider speaking at TEDxBaylorSchool, I was terrified. Not of speaking, per se, but of the combination of requirements that characterize a TEDx: the big-enough idea; the delivery of a memorized talk while standing inside a red dot; and, maybe the scariest thing of all, the permanent capture on video.

The Gifts of the Struggle

The gist of the story is that I said yes, and I survived the ordeal — and here’s the proof if you’d like to see it: Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It. As I told my colleague, I was extremely grateful to have had the experience; in fact, despite my doubts and worries, and notwithstanding the many things that actually went wrong, I would be happy to do it again.

But I had to work through the equivalent of a rigorous on-the-job training. Here are the most significant takeaways. These three big lessons will help me tremendously if there’s a next time, and I hope they’ll be useful to you, too, whether you find yourself presenting from within TEDx’s red dot or not.

Lesson 1: I had to unlearn my usual habits and routines in order to commit the talk to memory.

Typically, to prepare a talk, I write a bunch of notes about how I want to present the topic. Then I write new notes, followed by even more notes, trying to teach myself everything I might want to say on the subject. The goal is to be able to pull up content that’s fresh and relevant to each audience’s specific needs based on the scaffold of an outline or PowerPoint. Truth is, I’ve always prided myself on never giving the same talk twice.

The last time I had to memorize anything was as a college freshman learning the first 24 lines of the prologue from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. Heaven only knows why that was easier! With this presentation, even though it was my own content, it took a couple of weeks before I began to retain any of what I was supposed to say.

I wrote out the talk one section at a time in longhand, over and over. Two rehearsals in front of small groups of friends showed me just how much of the script I hadn’t learned yet. So I cut everything else I could out of my schedule, stood on our porch day and night, and driven by fear, I said the thing out loud — with expression — a thousand times.

Solid memorization occurred only gradually: first a few sentences, then a couple of paragraphs, then whole sections. Drill, drill, drill. I couldn’t bear to practice at all if I thought anyone could hear me, not even my sympathetic husband or my supportive assistant. I had to be alone with plenty of space.

But that full memorization turned out to be absolutely crucial, particularly when my belief about how the “script” would appear on the “courtesy monitor” turned out to be completely inaccurate, and I had no prompts to rely on at all! If I had not had the entire talk down cold, the whole thing could have been a complete failure.

Lesson 2: I had to be willing to ask for the favor of help — and a remarkable number of friends came through.

As I struggled with the memorization, I knew the stakes were too high to rely only on my own instincts about how the talk was coming across, and this TEDx did not provide a speech coach. I needed feedback to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.

It was dreadfully uncomfortable to ask people to disrupt their busy schedules to come hear something that quite honestly wasn’t very good yet — but I knew it was necessary if I was going to deliver a decent product to an audience that had every right to expect it.

As soon as I reached out, the offers of support were immediate. Two different spaces with AV equipment materialized for the rehearsals, and two dozen people turned out across the two locations. Their feedback was encouraging, incisive, and really helped me clarify and tighten the talk. Four loyal souls actually asked to hear it twice!

My friends’ commitment to my success and true interest in what I had to say helped improve both the content of the talk and my level of confidence.

Lesson 3: Everything that went really wrong happened because I didn’t check.

I was committed to expressing my confidence in the production team, didn’t want to act like an anxious control freak, and was really overly optimistic — in other words, I was naïve. Trust is great, but it’s absolutely crucial to verify with a full tech rehearsal on the actual equipment in the actual premises!

The short version of the slip-ups: The headset mic hurt and pushed my glasses off-kilter; my text didn’t appear on the courtesy monitor as promised; instead of the black screen I wanted for the beginning and end of the talk, my first and last slides come up way too soon and way too late; and someone on the tech team assumed I didn’t have any slides, so I wasn’t given a remote and actually had to ask for it from the stage!

Luckily, we were able to edit out my request for the remote and my wait for it to arrive; you probably won’t even notice the spot in the video where it happened. (Side note: If you like tracking down these kinds of tech errors, watch my talk below and write to me when you find the spots where slides shouldn’t have been but were, and I’ll send you a prize.) Each of these bobbles could have been rectified if I’d been more assertive about making sure that everything was set up to work for me.

The Upshot and the Upside View

I still prefer dialogue and audience participation to the stand-and-deliver model. And I prefer not to memorize — it’s such hard work! — or to ask for favors or special consideration. But, oh, am I ever thrilled to have had the experience, including the significant time I spent outside my comfort zone, and to have delivered on my commitment! And I have immense appreciation for everyone who spurred me on and helped me keep it together.

Bottom line? If all it takes to accomplish something new is being willing to work very hard in a focused and concentrated way, call on trusted colleagues for help, and check everything carefully to make sure it’s good enough, then I feel ready to take on the next challenge. Even if there are more big lessons to learn!

Onward and upward,

LK

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