I think I have the public speaking bug
About a year ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to try giving a TEDx talk. I remembered reading on a blog somewhere that it was a good way to reach new readers, and I was looking for non-social-media ways to build a platform for my climate writing.
My best work happens from behind a screen in complete solitude, so this would be… different. But I really hate social media, so I’d do anything else that had a shot at working.
I started preparing to apply to TEDx events.
Full disclosure: I took a class on how to do it, because I don’t like figuring out logistical matters, and I prefer to pay someone who has. Still, the basics are simple, and if you want to give it a try, it’s very possible on your own. Each TEDx event, by location, has its own website and its own application form (e.g.). They mostly ask variations on similar questions.
If you want to try this, search the internet for TEDx events, study a few of their application forms, and identify the typical questions. Then, refine your talk idea and prepare stock answers to common questions. It helps when you apply to a TON of them.
The class was a shortcut to knowing the steps to take + training on public speaking. My super-short, honest review of it is:
- Pricey, but did what it said it would.
- The sales side of the organization was overzealous and made a bad first impression. The teaching side really knew their stuff.
The big thing I needed to do was simplify, simplify, simplify the idea. Subjects I’ve written entire blog posts or series about could only be referenced in a single line or phrase.
I didn’t love that — I like to build an argument with lots of supporting evidence and rigor, but I was willing to adapt to the much shorter medium. The key here (apparently) is to storytell, appeal to emotion, and entertain first.
So, I made an outline and filled out some 60-odd applications, including short pitches, a bio, video samples, etc.
Then I fizzled out a bit and turned my attention to other projects. I got the occasional acknowledgement or request for additional info from event organizers, but mostly silence.
Early this year, I got a call out of the blue, saying I’d been selected to speak at TEDx San Antonio. I punched the air and whooped when I hung up. I’d pitched my climate talk to a zillion events, and I got picked by the one event that had a climate theme.
I had under two months to prepare. I dusted off my old talk outline. Since writing it, I’d learned a bunch and developed even more ideas about climate and sustainability, and I wanted to include them in my talk. I more or less rewrote it. I did many rounds of brainstorming on paper:
- speaking into a recorder while looking at my outline,
- transcribing and cutting the transcript down into a new outline,
- speaking into a recorder while looking at it, etc.
I did most of the development orally, because, well, it’s a talk, and I wanted it to sound like one. I can get a bit too structured when I’m writing by hand.
The event assigned me a ‘curator’ — basically, a past speaker to guide me through the process. He had lots of great advice and insights on how to develop my script.
I kept having to cut bits and pieces, since I had only 10 minutes to speak. I iterated on those words more than I have on anything.
I also practiced in front of people (just reading aloud, since I hadn’t learned it by heart yet), workshopping it with their feedback.
With each review, I was spending more and more of my precious minutes on the initial rapport-building sections. I started to think of the script like a prose poem or standup routine — entirely different in function than the articles I usually write.
It was uncomfortable, because I’m usually a get-to-the-point-quick person, and I like to build a strong argument. I made peace with it by assuring myself I’d make and release an annotated transcript with all the footnotes and references my heart desired. For the interested listener.
The event organizers had a preparation process with a couple of checkpoints where we speakers sent recordings of our talks for feedback. So I made several versions of those, focusing on the content and the words, and I kept checking with them that I was trending in the right direction. They reassured me that I was.
My script was converging on its final state. It had every point I considered important, and I’d cut everything I could. So, I did a few rounds of rapid memorization, section by section, talking really fast under my breath. I exaggerated the cadence of the words, and tweaked phrases in the script if they came out clunky or messed with my rhythm.
I tried working on the delivery a tiny bit, but I found it hard to do alone in my study. I never knew where to look when I talked.
Once I had it all in my head, I made a final recording for feedback before heading to the airport. It was finally time to go to San Antonio, a day early for a practice run.
In the university building where the event was held, I met the organizers, production team, and other speakers in person.
The production team were really experienced, and it was fascinating to watch them work. There was an improvisational, makeshift quality to the preparations, but they also knew what aspects were important to get right. There were sound checks and lighting checks, and we practiced entering and exiting the stage. Rehearsal was both organized and adaptable.
I was able to do a full run-through of my talk, but I was too distracted by all the instructions to deliver it quite the way I wanted to. Still, being on the stage and knowing what it was like gave me a confidence-boost.
By an amazing near-coincidence, my family were in town and able to attend in-person, so I picked them up after rehearsal.
I went to bed right after dinner, around 9pm. It would be an early start the next day, so I set numerous alarms on all my devices. I woke at 1am with a stiff neck, so I stretched it out, loosened up, and went back to sleep.
Then I woke at 7, nice and fresh. I showered, slung my blazer over my shoulder, and walked down to the university building.
A volunteer directed me to the green room (which I’d been to yesterday but I promptly forgot the directions), where a few of the other speakers were pacing and talking excitedly.
There was a rumored carafe of coffee on its way. I made a beeline for a plate of fruit on the table and went to work on some grapes and strawberries. I’d been craving fruit. I held the strawberry carefully over a cup at my chin. It wouldn’t do to get strawberry juice on my white shirt.
Someone called me to the stage for a final sound check, so I got mic’ed up and did a couple of paragraphs of my talk.
My fellow speakers had been very kind and complimentary about my talk the day before. So I didn’t need to worry about ‘making the talk good’ anymore, since at least some people thought it already was.
Though that added pressure too — what if I flubbed it at the last moment? What if this was one of those stories of “Oh that talk was actually good till the final delivery, can you believe it?”
The possibility just crossed my mind, but I wasn’t too worried about it. I was actually feeling pretty good. Most of my stress had been about the preparation process, like I’d forget or bungle some vital step. But I’d succeeded at preparing and I hadn’t overslept. I didn’t need to worry about that any more, just what was in front of me. I quickly visualized walking out and starting to speak, so I wouldn’t hesitate.
The last of the other speakers filed in, and a volunteer with the much-awaited coffee arrived. I carefully poured myself one-third of a cup, black. Moderation.
The first speaker went out. I was second.
Someone got me an index card, and I started to make a super-backup extreme-emergency flashcard with the start of every paragraph of my talk. Just to have in my pocket if I completely lost my place. I didn’t think I would — it was more of a safety blanket. I made about two-thirds of it when it was my cue. I scrunched the card into my pocket and followed the volunteer in the red T-shirt to the wings.
The previous speaker was finishing up. She sounded great, and that was encouraging. I bounced a bit on my heels, shook out my wrists. I stared up at the rope system that controlled the curtains, and various other objects. Fidgeted, breathed deep, felt the excitement.
So then I went out, looked around. Spotted my parents and sister in the middle row. I wouldn’t look at them again till the end, since I was afraid of being distracted.
I started speaking, nice and slow, so I’d have leeway to recall the next line if I needed it.
I had wondered what I’d do with my hands and observed the other speakers. I usually splay my fingers when I talk, but my middle and ring finger kept trembling. It was distracting because I didn’t want anyone to notice. So I pressed my fingers together into a karate-chop hand.
My voice sounded alright in my ears. I deviated very slightly from my script and recovered. A couple of people in the audience nodded along and smiled, and I felt reassured.
I got to the end and finally looked back at my folks with a big smile. I stuck around for the applause, for a long moment. I’d been advised to stay on stage till it felt awkward, so I did. I finally turned on my heel and marched off.
In the wings, a couple of volunteers and speakers thumped my back. Big grins. I pulled out my phone to a few nice messages from my sister and my friends who’d been watching the livestream remotely.
This was fun, and I wanted to do it again! I had it all memorized. I could go right back out and do it a couple more times — get it even more perfect. Getting applause is nice, isn’t it? Doesn’t happen often in my day-to-day life of writing alone.
I bounced back to the green room, refilled my coffee cup from before all the way to the top, and started filling my face with strawberries. I could get as caffeinated and spill as much strawberry juice on myself as I wanted now.
The rest of the day, I wandered around the building, relaxed and in a celebratory mood, watching and cheering the other speakers, chatting with attendees, and generally being aimless.
It was a blast, and I think I have the public speaking bug. Who’d have thought?