Behind the Scenes of my TEDx Talk

posted on: November 3, 2015

This is my personal experience of giving a TEDx Talk, with all the behind-the-scenes stuff no one really talks about preparing for...

About 10 days before the date of the talk, I had a moment of panic brought on by an excruciating tooth pain and feared it might mean a need for oral surgery or something worse.  A visit to the dentist became 90 minutes of examination, 3 x-rays, several vitality tests, and multiple dentists tapping on my teeth with metal things only to end in an unsolved mystery about what was causing so much pain.  I got through the days that followed up to the talk with a LOT of ibuprofen.  My biggest concern no longer had anything to do with the execution of the talk, but that my jaw might swell up or that my symptoms would get worse and make it difficult to speak at all.

Just in case something went wrong, I decided to make a recording that could be played in the event I couldn't speak.  It was probably the best version of the talk I ever gave, and I felt comfortable knowing that if those were the words that came out of my mouth, I'd be happy.  Thankfully the symptoms didn't elevate beyond the pain itself and the ibuprofen carried me through that week of work before traveling for the talk.  I decided that regardless of the physical pain I was experiencing, as long as things didn't get worse, I'd still show up and give the talk.  By all other measures, I felt fully prepared and ready.

There are always challenges that come up on the path to doing something bigger than we've done before, but it's how we handle them to continue moving forward that really matters.  I could have had a lot of moments of vanity prevent me from sharing my story.  Feeling like I should lose more weight before being videoed or getting on stage, versus accepting and honoring where I am right now and letting that be enough.  I could have felt like my teeth weren't white enough or straight enough for a close up camera shot.  I could have obsessed about not having an outfit that was flattering enough, or shoes that weren't nice enough.  I could have been distraught that I couldn't get an appointment to get my hair cut, colored, or done before the event- but those were all just vain wants that were about my ego and not about the actual story.  Too often we let these moments of vanity get in the way of showing up for big opportunities, but if we can accept that the opportunity came at THIS time with regard to who we are RIGHT now, than we can hopefully accept that who and where we are right now is actually part of the timing that makes the opportunity possible.

I also could have stood in my own way by feeling my talk wasn't good enough.  Of all the rehearsal talks I'd done in my living room or bedroom during the month before the talk, about half of them made me want to start over or change something, 40% were satisfactory enough to make it all the way through without stopping or getting completely off track, and 10% were rehearsals I actually thought were decent.  My hopes were that what would happen on stage would fall at the better end of that spectrum.

The day before the talk, I arrived in Michigan early for the TEDx walk-through.  We didn't practice our talks on stage, but we did practice getting on and off the stage, trying on the microphones, making sure our slides worked, getting to know the monitors, remotes, and stage cues, and getting acquainted with the size of the space as well as the layout of the audience.  We learned that the event had sold out and that total attendance might be around 1,000 people, which was double the initial numbers shared.  I tried not to get too worked up or excited about any of it.  Even though my talk was a personal story of my journey, at the end of the day it really wasn't about me at all.  I was just a messenger sharing a set of ideas and experiences I'd had in the hope that it might help someone else.

That evening, my voice started to get raspy and my throat was feeling swollen.  I hadn't even used my voice much, so I wasn't sure why it was feeling strained.  I didn't feel overly stressed or nervous and I didn't have a fever, so I figured my Michigan hay fever allergies may have been kicking in.  I had some echinacea tea and an antihistamine before bed in the hopes that it would help for the next day.

I woke up very early the morning of the talk, 4:44 am.  I've come to think of repeating numbers as a good luck sign, so at least the day was off to a good start.  While it was tempting to go back to sleep at that hour, I knew I wouldn't really sleep, so I moved forward with plenty of time to drive without traffic, and have some coffee and breakfast time before everything started.  My voice was still scratchy, but working, and surprisingly the tooth pain was now gone- so at least that was one less thing to deal with.  Even though my talk wasn't until the afternoon, I wanted to see everyone else's talks as well.  Aside from the inspiring or informative nature of the talks, I also wanted to observe things like how the cameras were capturing the speakers and how the lighting was falling on speakers as they moved around stage.  Note to self: don't step off the front edge of the red carpet.

Lunch was graciously provided to all attendees by Oakland University so we didn't have to leave the location.  Various TED videos were shown on screens during lunch, which had been selected by the event staff.  I knew that lunch was going to affect how I felt before my afternoon talk, and could have some adverse affects as well, so I went with an all veggie sandwich, a ton of water, skipped the chips that would make my face even more oily than it naturally is, and skipped the chocolate chip cookie that might give me red patches on my skin (because I sometimes have a mild reaction to chocolate.)  I'd indulge later that night instead.  I decided to take a long walk outside for some fresh air and to get some extra head space away from the crowd of people to clear my mind, practice a little, and enjoy the sunshine after being inside all morning.  I definitely felt more refreshed than if I'd stayed inside all day.

Everyone gave great talks, and I was cheering them on from the sidelines, and sharing how touching their stories were when they finished.  My favorite talks were the ones that had some personal or surprising elements to them.  Personal stories hit home a little harder and felt more approachable than purely research focused ones.  I noticed that the attendance in the room went in waves and while the seats never felt too packed or crowded, there was definitely a core group of people who stayed for the entire day.  I noticed a few of my former professors in the audience, one was also a speaker, and I mentioned how awkward it was to be giving a talk at my alma mater about how I basically did something completely different than what I went to school for.  It was also very freeing to know that they were still excited about what I'd done.

There were a few minor tech issues during a few of the talks, and I hope that the audio and video engineers will be able to edit through any of those issues for the people speakers who experienced them so that they can have a clean video edit.  A few times the wireless microphones acted up in different ways and one speaker had to stop in the middle of their talk to switch out a battery pack, but she was gracious about continuing after it happened.  While none of us hope any of that happens to us, we all have to roll with it, and everyone on stage and in the tech team handled it all very quickly and easily.  Some speakers ran a little longer than they'd planned, got a few warning signs that they were running over, but fortunately no one was removed from the stage- which we were told is a very real possibility due to the strict time limits to keep everyone on schedule.

I was getting a microphone put on backstage while the speaker before me was giving his talk.  I got a few hugs of support from friends and took a lot of deep breaths while waiting for the announcer to say my name and introduce me.  I actually had no idea what version of my bio he would be using to announce me, I'd written three different bios of different lengths and for different purposes, so I was surprised to see what version he used when I heard my introduction.  As I walked up to the stage very carefully not to trip, I pretty much asked God/Universe/Spirit to take over for me when I got on stage so that whatever message needed to be heard would be what came out of my mouth.

The first thing that was different than I thought it would be, was that my first slide was supposed to be my name rather than my first question.  However, because they used a different slide for my first name, when I pressed the remote to get to what I thought would be my name again, it was actually a slide I wasn't planning to show until after my introduction.  Whoops.  Not a big deal, I'll just roll with it and act like it was supposed to be that way.

The introduction that I'd practiced a ridiculous number of times somehow flew out the window when I was on stage and that was the first moment that I became an observer of myself while I was speaking.  This is a dangerous move- to observe and critique yourself WHILE you're speaking.  My first set of thoughts were, [Where did THAT come from?  I never practiced that!]  The audience was in front of me, and I was responding to the actual people who I knew were in the room, not just the empty living room and bedroom I'd practiced in.  Then I observed myself being the observer, realized how dangerous it would be to keep doing that, and made an effort to get back to ground zero and just focus on the moment and important points at hand.

Then I noticed the second biggest difference between practicing at home and giving the talk on stage aside from the audience- hearing myself in the speakers on a very slight delay after the actual words came out of my mouth.  I'd given plenty of talks with microphones and speakers before, but because this was taking place in a large arena, the echo of my own voice coming back at me a fraction of a second later sometimes threw me off.  Of course, very few people would be able to recognize that this was slightly throwing me off, because it was all happening in my head and my brain was constantly trying to course correct and stay on the path despite having an experience of essentially feeling like I was talking over myself.

I felt like my pacing was good.  I got a little off-track about something in the middle, but recovered quickly, and when I looked at the clock about how much time I had left, I fell right in the middle of all my practice times- and that alone was something I could be proud of as a result of all my practicing, despite anything else that was different.  When I walked off stage, my friends and family who were there congratulated me, said it sounded great and that I gave a great talk.  Even if those were only words of support, they really helped me just relax afterward and not get caught up in all the mind distractions I'd had on stage.  After the event ended, another speaker and I would both confess to each other that we felt like our talks weren't the best versions we'd ever given, but were somewhere in the top 70-80%, which was OK.  We also acknowledged that we are our own biggest critics and that we can always find something to improve upon.

Later, we found out that the videos are released on TED's timing schedule, so we won't know when they'll be available publicly.  My husband and I discussed possibly periscoping during the talks, but in the end, decided it would be better to wait for the professionally produced version rather than whatever the audio results might be in the arena.  There's also a chance that the videos WON'T be uploaded as well, because it's completely up to the curatorial staff at TED.

If you asked me whether or not you should do a TED event, I'd say yes, absolutely.  However, don't do it for fame or recognition.  Do it for the ideas or experiences that you'd like to share.  Don't do it to promote yourself.  Do it to inspire others to try something new, to look at the world in new ways, or to think differently about their own experiences.  As speakers and staff celebrated together after the event, we thought about how fascinating and inspiring everyone's story could be if they had the courage to share it with others.

Update: View my TEDx Talk: "What Would You Attempt If You Knew You Could Not Fail"

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