The gift of a TED Talk

The moment you’re contacted to give a TEDxTalk you just believe that there has been a mistake. And then no, they’re really asking you — you. The moment you realize that this is real, you get excited, because, yeah, it’s so cool. The moment you start thinking about what you want to talk about, you enter the banality fair. “I’m gonna talk about happiness.” Happiness? What is happiness? So, finally, you get to the moment when you start being questioning. About yourself, about the world. What should I talk about? The journey starts.

You have seen dozens of TED talks, you know exactly where your journey is going to end. You’ll be on a stage, wearing a very cool mic, holding a clicker while your hands sweat, you’ll maybe start crying or maybe not, you’ll be applauded or maybe not, and then it will be over. What you can’t imagine is how your journey is going to look like. Because, unless you already did it, you never had the chance before to pick a topic, a story, whatever topic or story, that from now on will be just yours. I don’t know how your journey is going to look like, but I can tell you about mine.

I was asked in July to give a talk at TEDxBologna at the end of October. “Sure, it should be fine, I’ve plenty of time to get ready.” My talk is next Saturday, October 24, and trust me, the words “time” and “plenty” should never be paired up. Especially if you decide to change your entire talk exactly eight days before the event. But “it should be fine” is probably right. Why? Because this is what I always do. At the end of the high school I had to prepare a multi-subject mini-thesis and for eight months I’ve had in mind to use the “Infinite” as its file rouge. And then, three weeks before the deadline, I started from scratch using four Stanley Kubrick’s movies as common thread among different topics. My Business Master’s thesis? Governance in public companies, which turned into 180 pages on the Luxury Goods Industry. My Art History Master’s thesis? René Magritte who eventually became Michelangelo Pistoletto. So yes, I’m obviously kind of freaking out in this moment, given the fact that my new draft is still lacking a conclusion, but I know I’ll be fine. Actually, I would have been surprised if this last minute radical change didn’t happen.

The journey is about yourself. Do you already know what and how you would talk about if you had to give a TED talk? Congrats, I’m impressed! And yet, also in this case, do you think that your journey would be over? Not at all. You should look for a similar, decisive behavior in your life. Did you get married young? Is your job exactly the one you’ve always wanted? Do you always know what to order at the restaurant? Question yourself. I did question myself: why do I always create a quasi-perfect output and then I change it? It’s because I’m insecure. And overachiever. But as a matter of fact, all these final outputs have always been much better than the original ones. Why? Because they were ultimately real, because the only way I can believe in myself and be credible in front of an audience is doing, saying something that is meaningful for me, that comes from my guts more than from my brain.

In one week I will be talking in front of 500 people. 490 strangers and some of the most important people in my life: my parents and some of my closest friends. I would have never thought of doing anything similar in my life: talking in front of 500 people from a stage. I’m 160 cm tall (5.2 for my American friends) and I’ve been told for my entire life to stand straight with my back — I still don’t, simply people gave up trying to do something to correct my posture.

When I was told this 500 back in July I felt that this would have been the biggest challenge for me. Hell no, I was wrong, that was just the top of the iceberg-challenge. Nonetheless, I found myself trying to find a way to face this challenge. I enrolled in an acting course and, trust me, that was the scariest thing that I’ve done in my recent life [apart from a couple of crush-generated other stuff. But that’s another story]. I will just tell you that for my first acting class I had to prepare a monologue and I had the great idea of picking Nicole Kidman’s in Eyes Wide Shut -yes, Kubrick, obviously, and yes, the one when she tells Tom Cruise that she fantasized about another man, and no, I did not get naked-. Easy right? If you think that that was hard, I just tell you that the next exercise was improvising 8–10 different scenes every 20–30 seconds in a continuous flow. Believe me, you can prepare the first 2–3 in your mind, but when you’re at the fifth-sixth you have absolutely no idea of what you’re doing. But you keep on going, you keep on doing because that’s what really matters, liberating your instinct.

I started drafting my piece, which was meant to be about networking. Then I found myself embedding any possible comment I received. Including “why don’t you make a reference to animals in your talk? I don’t know, like dogs?” — Seriously? Have you ever taken a walk with a dog? Maybe because I’ve three, but I can tell you that they’re not exactly professional networkers, not even rudimentary networkers especially when they get kind of terrified and start barking obsessively to anything unfamiliar that they encounter — unless it’s eatable of course. So no. No dogs.

Finally, I thought I was ready, about two weeks before D-Day. I convened all my friends for my rehearsal. A couple of important tips. If you ever happen to do anything similar, please don’t forget to buy enough drinkable nectar and sweets for the wonderful, amazing humans who will show up for you and spend not just ten minutes listening to you, but three hours giving you feedbacks. And if you really care about them, also tell them in advance that you’re sorry for all the stress you’ll be able to convey. And if you’re dating somebody -even just kind of- make sure you’ll stay away from your phone as much as possible — I clearly wish someone told me this stuff before.

Rehearsing is good, particularly in front of people who you know and who would give you an honest feedback. Rehearsing in front of friends is mandatory because that’s the moment when you realize that who will really scare you on your D-Day will not be the 490 strangers in front of you, but your mother, your father, and soul friends. That was the moment I realized I had to reshape my message completely, because I’ll be talking in front of people who know the story and I owe them truth. I might lie to myself, I might create a nice and insightful presentation for a bunch of people who I’ve never seen. But I certainly owe truth to the people I love. And it’s anyway a due act of respect to anyone who is willing to spend their time and/or money to listen to me. Truth will be. Even if it hurts.

The journey has been and is still about myself, but also about the people around me. The protagonists of the stories I’ll tell, the unmissable listeners, the cheerleaders who are here supporting me. This journey has made me flying across an ocean from NYC where I live to Italy where I was born and where I’ll give the talk. I have seven days left and the journey is still long. There will be a road trip to my parents’ place to look for my childhood’s photographs. Then a time travel to make among the hand-written memories of my grandfather. I have an emotional journey I’ve been taking and I will continue to go through that I don’t know where will take me. But I’m not afraid, on the contrary, I can’t wait to take it. No matters what I’ll ultimately discover. No matters if I’ll forget my words on the stage, if people will “boo” me or not get a single word. Being there, on that stage, will already be a success.

I wish to all of you the gift of a TED talk. And even if you think it will never come, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have the chance to think about what you would talk about. You might discover things about yourself that you would have never found out otherwise. You might as well be surprised of how many people would actually care about what you would have to say. I am one of those, even if I’ve never met you. But give me truth.