Speaking on that red TED circle had been a dream for several years.
I didn’t realise, when I accepted the invitation to speak at TEDxOneonta, what a huge journey of personal growth I was embarking upon.
It taught me so much about myself as a person and as a speaker. Today I am sharing the behind the scenes story and the eight key lessons I took away. I hope they help you make one of your dreams come true, perhaps to speak on that red circle yourself one day!
1 – Start with the End in Mind
From the beginning I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to share and the effect I wanted it to have on each person watching the talk – to inspire them with a deep desire to create positive change in their own life and collectively to help create a healthier happier world. Specifically to shift paradigms around exercise and change social norms, making it normal to snack on exercise throughout the day – in workplaces, in schools, in communities so that everyone can reap all of the life-giving benefits of movement.
It was a lofty goal and having received the invitation while on holiday overseas, I returned to Canada just six and a half weeks out from T-Day (TEDx day.) I suddenly felt like I was on railway track, rushing at ever-increasing speeds towards this date with no way to turn back or slow down.
My emotions were a roller coaster throughout the preparation, from “I’ve got this” and “it’s going to be awesome” to “this is terrifying” “I can’t possibly fit it all in” back to “that’s a brilliant idea” “this is really going to work” to “who am I to do this anyway.” Amy Cuddy‘s words on imposter syndrome were a welcome balm to my worried mind.
A couple of weeks in after sharing with a friend that I was feeling incredibly nervous and overwhelmed, it struck me that I wasn’t taking my own advice. I reminded myself that “we get more of what we focus on” and decided to switch those thoughts to – “wow this is such an exciting opportunity” and to vividly picturing me saying those two words – “Thank You” standing on that red circle under the lights and seeing the entire crowd erupt into huge applause and a standing ovation. I pictured myself walking off and knowing that I had given it my best, and then chatting with excited audience members who had been touched and moved by my message.
That was my new focus, and the more I pictured it, the more possible it became.
2 – Preparation Pays Off
I am a planner. Always have been and I guess I always will. When the TEDx curator, also my speaking coach, Lisa Samols asked if I could send her an outline within a week, I let her know I actually already had it typed up ready to go, so was able to flesh it out to a full script within a couple of days.
I aimed to stay a little ahead of the game throughout. I also decided to invest in hiring an extra speaking coach Teri Kingston who lived locally, so that I could work with her in person and craft the delivery as well as the content. It was a fantastic investment especially as Teri agreed to travel down with me for the event itself so I had that extra moral support for the full two days away, which was invaluable.
When I wrote my first script, (which I was fairly happy with) little did I know that it would go through 17 iterations with all the re-writes and changes. Both Lisa and Teri were fantastic at giving feedback and spotting things I hadn’t considered. At first I did audio recordings, reading from the script word for word to check the timing. Then moved on to video recordings, with no notes to see what actually came out in the moment. By watching them back I could see the parts that could be changed or trimmed. I kept recording, reviewing, and receiving feedback in a continuous cycle with the goal of confirming the content at least two weeks out so that I could just work on delivery in the final weeks.
Teri talked about being “A B C ready”, as in knowing the flow of your message as well as you know the A B C song. During the second to last week I delivered the talk at four different toastmasters clubs, to experience sharing it with a live audience, clicking through the slides, seeing how the interaction went. The feedback I got was useful and encouraging. One young student in particular approached me and said that at first he thought he was going to be “Just a body for me to practise on” but that as I got going, my words really inspired him and he was going to start snacking on exercise for sure. I videoed each delivery and watched it back, once with the sound and once on mute so that I could focus on my body language.
In the final day, I practiced my talk to myself anywhere, at anytime; while driving, cooking dinner, waiting for my manicure to dry, at the hairdresser (the final two, both also part of the preparation). Virtually any point when I had 15 minutes spare I would do a run through, until it became as familiar as A B C.
I mapped out where I wanted to stand to deliver each part, which helped enormously with remembering the flow. If you know that you’re going to walk to stage left to share this story then come back to the centre to make this point then move to the rear for the next example it’s much harder to have a mind blank. It’s as if your body remembers where to go and which words should flow next.
What was interesting, was that when I tried to make two very minor wording changes within the last week, that they didn’t come out quite as I planned on the day. In the heat of the moment our primal brain takes over and simply goes with what is the most familiar. As logical as I knew this was, it wasn’t until that moment when I reverted to the previous versions of those phrases that it really hit home why it is vital not to make changes in the final days (tempting as it can be!)
3 – Let Go Of What You Love
Most speakers will agree that the biggest challenge of the TED format is knowing what to keep in and what to leave out because of the strict time constraints. My first draft was over 18 minutes of content (when my limit was 15). And even then I had several more stories I would have liked to include and hundreds of potential facts that could have been used. So it was a gruelling process of trimming and refining. It can be heart-breaking, researching stats, crafting whole sections, and developing stories, only to scrap them altogether later on. Teri called this process “killing my darlings”.
10 days from T-day, when I had almost finalised the message I was fairly happy with the content, but felt it lacked a real hook in the opening to connect with the audience. I didn’t want to just start with a story all about me, I wanted to engage the audience and invoke their curiosity first. I came up with the idea to begin with a question, inviting everyone to think about how they felt in their body at that moment, which I could link back to later on after getting them up and moving.
This worked really well, but added 30 seconds at the beginning, so I had to let go of something else. I ended up cutting out a whole section about the word integral. I had a definition slide with the synonyms – “1 essential, necessary 2 inherent, innate” and had wanted to explain that the goal with snacking on exercise was to make it both a vital part of your day and also a natural part of your daily routine. In the end I cut this out, because as much as I loved it (being a wordy person) it wasn’t essential.
It’s not about me as a speaker and what I want to say, it’s about the audience as listeners and what will benefit them the most. The audience is always the most important thing in any presentation.
4 – Stories Are The Star
The human brain loves stories. They are what capture our attention, keep us engaged and help us remember information long, long after it is shared. This is why Jesus taught in parables, why Martin Luther King connected through stories in his I have a dream speech and why so many great TED talks open with a story.
Again, while I thought I knew this, it still took some time to get what Teri meant when she said “don’t tell them, show them.” I felt stuck trying to figure out how to “not tell”, when talking, but finally it came to me.
Rather than simply explain the many benefits of exercise, I swapped out several statements for short anecdotes. These 15 second mini-stories showed real life examples of organisations that had tried out the theory and seen results and it meant that I didn’t have to ‘tell’ anything, it was already evident from the story.
After my opening activity I shared about being the workaholic gym manager with no-time to exercise and how my own paradigm was shifted. I told the story of a client who overcame her excuses and my own examples of feeling uncomfortable wanting to move. I shared about how we ran the first 7-day challenge and my story of being diagnosed with gestational diabetes and why this message is so important to me. Essentially my whole talk was a series of stories linked with some transitions, questions and interaction.
Without stories we are left with facts, figures and statements. It’s the stories that captivate attention, that allow us to draw striking analogies and connect on an emotional level that will stick with people long after the talk itself.
5 – Feedback Fosters Growth
As a member of Toastmasters, an international organisation that helps develop leaders and communicators, I was used to giving and receiving feedback with a view to improving each time I delivered a talk. Three weeks from T-day I attended the International Toastmasters Convention in Chicago and while I was there presented version 13 of my talk to two groups of toastmaster members. At the time I had been fairly happy with it, but when I look back now I realise it was a very sub-par version.
As well as giving me suggestions on tweaks and changes with the content. The best thing they did was to make me aware of two bad habits which I was oblivious of – leaning forward and speaking with a breathy voice (something I did a lot) and at times clenching my jaw as if in a frown after making points.
As one of this year’s World Champion finalists, Kenny Ray Morgan said, “Bad habits are like quicksand, easy to get into, much more difficult to get out of.” Once I paid attention to what I was doing, I realised how the rounded forward shoulder posture – which I had been using to lean towards the audience in an attempt to connect – actually constrained the way I spoke, preventing me from projecting my voice properly. A friend lent me a fantastic book called Voice Power by Joan Kenley and I used her breathing exercises to help me project properly, using her ‘body-speak’ technique. Likewise I worked on relaxing my jaw. It was only through watching recordings and with much practise that I managed to improve on these things.
It really hit home that so often, we “don’t know, what we don’t know”. Often only an external source, like a skillful coach or mentor can help us to first see and then shift those bad habits. What I learnt will help me throughout the rest of my speaking career and it’s all thanks to those toastmaster friends for having the courage and honesty to give me that tough feedback. I’m grateful they did.
6 – Routines Rule
The day before T-day I met all the other amazing speakers at our tech rehearsal, on-site. We were all excited and expectant for the big night. It was an amazing feeling standing in the centre of the red dot, looking past the bright lights, out into a huge dark auditorium. I was third up and enjoyed testing out the crowd interaction, even just with the dozen people scattered around the room. We visited the backstage areas, the green room spaces, make up room and changing facilities.
On T-day after a morning practise session, going over my opening and closing with my coach, I went for a walk in the woods (got somewhat lost in fact, which was rather stressful, but managed to find my way back out after some extra twists and turns!) We had lunch and then set my alarm so I could have a 45 minute lie down. This was a great way to re-charge and get centred. I then brewed up some throat rescue herbal tea, which is not only delicious but also great for the vocal chords.
I arrived over three hours before start time, suit bag in hand, tea in a thermal mug ready to get changed on-site. This allowed plenty of time to settle in, check my slides were updated (as the colours had changed when putting them onto the new computer making the text virtually disappear.) This is not uncommon, so it was great to have the extra time to check them start to finish one final time.
I drank some tea and put on an essential oil called serenity. I also practised walking out onto the red dot in my dress shoes and saying my opening few words, and agreed with the other speaker using slides that we both preferred my own clicker, (that we’d used in the rehearsal), which was smaller and easier to press. So we swapped that in before the show started. Little things like that, can just make you feel a fraction more comfortable.
One hour out from the start I did my make-up with my favourite Ed Sheeran songs playing, which reminded me of being home with my family and made me feel more relaxed. I kept reminding myself that my stomach was doing flips because I was excited and that I felt amazing. Part of my brain believed this.
Just before I went on stage I planned to do a vocal warm up routine, arm stretches, to hold Amy Cuddy‘s power pose and just focus on being present. Although not everything went quite as expected, having these routines in mind in advance helped me stay focused rather than getting too caught up in everyone’s nervous energy (my own was enough to deal with!)
7 – Expect The Unexpected
As much as you can plan and prepare, it’s good to remember that no plan ever goes exactly to the letter and to be able to roll with whatever happens. Once the first speaker started I headed into an empty green room to run through my talk one final time, reasoning that I had about 30 minutes, but less than 10 minutes later, someone came in to get me saying that I was going to be on in a few minutes. This gave me a shot of adrenaline as I still wanted to go to the bathroom and do my final routine before getting on stage. So I raced downstairs grabbed my things, then headed back up and only at this point discovered that the first speaker had unfortunately skipped forward and missed a whole section of her talk. I was really disappointed for her, but was quickly taken through to the back stage area.
At this point I realised I actually still had eight minutes before I went on, so I had some of my warm tea, found a space on my own to try to relax and breathe diaphragmatically and go over my first line. I reminded myself to speak slowly and clearly (to give the international audience a chance to adapt to my New Zealand accent.) Most of all, I focused on being real, being me and just being present in the moment.
The audience burst into applause for the previous speaker Debi and I went forward and gave her a high five as she came out. I took one sip of water as Lisa went on stage to introduce me and stepped through the curtains into the wings, just out of sight. A moment later, Lisa’s intro was done and she was calling my name. Again a brief moment of panic as I realised I needed to turn the clicker on and click forward to my first blank screen.
I walked on and delivered my first line – exactly as I had practised not to.
I laughed internally at the irony, knowing my coach was in the audience and that when I said “To begin, can I invite you to think about how you feel, right now, in your body.” That she would have been the only one to know that the word “can” shouldn’t have been there. It’s much more compelling to simply say “I invite…” but these are the things that happen in the moment, when you’re under pressure.
Once I got underway and got everyone involved in a quick poll, I discovered the audience were fantastic, easily engaged, happy to get up and move, and quick to laugh. I felt more comfortable as I continued, but at three different points the thought popped into my mind – my husband and kids are watching this right now – eeeeeek!
I’d also become quite hot back stage in the last minute race up and down stairs prior to coming onstage. I got increasingly hotter with the adrenaline coursing and moving around under the lights, until I was sweating profusely. All I wanted to do was to dab at my face, but I resisted as much as possible and just had to keep going. Part of my brain told me to wait till I clicked a slide on so that hopefully they could cut to that image in the final edit and wouldn’t see me. These thoughts went through my head all while still talking! It’s hard to comprehend how one’s brain can be in so many places at once.
When I shared the story of my gestational diabetes diagnosis, it hit me again how devastated I had been at the time and I was quite overcome with the emotion of the moment, much more so than in any of the practises. I paused and managed to continue through it, and then before I knew it, I was at the end saying those two words, “Thank you” and looking out into that crowd with nothing more to say, listening to their applause. Magic.
I walked off the stage with jelly legs and fell into an embrace with Lisa with tears springing up. So much relief that it was done! So many years of dreaming about sharing this message in an impactful way, months preparing for the talk and now it was over.
I had done it! All without fainting, going blank or falling off the stage. I was on an absolute high.
I got straight out of my heels, phoned my husband for a brief chat, then it was the intermission, so I headed out to mingle with the audience members and to give Teri a huge hug.
The rest of the evening was wonderful watching the other speakers shine, having photos together with them and the organising team, chatting with and fare-welling more audience members, then sharing food and debriefing with the other speakers – all now equally relieved that it was over!
8 – Love Covers All
Maya Angelou said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. I don’t know exactly how each person felt during and after my talk, but the only thing I could do was to be me, to be authentic, vulnerable and real and to share my message with all the passion, love and skill that I could. To relax as much as possible. To enjoy the moment and remember to smile. To connect eye to eye with people and to hope that in their mind they could picture their world being a better place by adopting the ideas I was sharing.
Not everyone will have enjoyed my talk, there is no way to please every single person. But at the end of the day, I did all that I could at the time, with the resources that I had. In those final minutes before going on stage when I just focused on being me and being in the moment and connecting with my fellow human beings who I love and care about. That was the only way to do it.
People have asked if I’m pleased with how my talk went. I have to say that overall it’s a yes.
It wasn’t perfect (whatever that is anyhow) but to quote Anita Fain Taylor, 3rd place in this year’s World Championship of Public Speaking, “it is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t”.
It was a phenomenal experience start to finish. I highly recommend it! If you love a good challenge, you’re prepared to work hard and you have an idea worth spreading you can absolutely make that dream come true, in your own life. Once you’ve got your idea, all you need is a great team of people around you, a ton of determination and the passion to keep pursuing the best talk you can possibly give.
To quote Dr Seuss “Oh the places you’ll go!”
If my talk has impacted you in some way I’d love to hear from you!
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