Fighting with my X: The Struggle with TEDTalks

A few years ago, I gave a TEDTalk at the TED X Conference at the University of Michigan. My topic was the Power of Storytelling.

It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

To really understand the horrors of giving a TEDTalk, you must first understand a little bit about me.

As an author and writer, public speaking is NOT my first passion. Oh, I have no problem speaking one-on-one with people or lecturing to small groups. But to be set up on a stage and coached into becoming some sort of high-energy motivation speaker was sheer terror. In my mind, it was my prose, poetry and stories that should speak for me. If they were any good, people would get the message and connect with me through my stories.

I didn’t want my TEDTalk to be about me, I wanted it to be about storytelling. And there was the rub… How do you separate the story from the person who is supposed to tell it?

Suddenly, I felt like Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, hoping the audience wouldn’t kill the messenger.

For those of you that have never had the TEDTalk prep experience, consider yourself lucky. The expectations are high and the TED brand is strong, so you are really on the hook to present a compelling, engaging talk. Did I say “Talk?” Well, it’s actually more of a performance. The expectation is the you’re going to give the crowd a killer show in the 8–15 minutes of fame that you have.

Preparation for your TEDTalk begins more than six months in advance of your performance. You are assigned a coach and mentor who help you prepare your talk, as well as observe and critique your multiple rehearsal sessions. It would have been much easier to only have had a week to prepare. The long, arduous prep time only served to prolong the agony of such a high-profile public appearance.

On top of that, my coach and I never saw eye-to-eye on the approach for my talk. As a storyteller, my concept was to come out and read a story to the audience, enhanced by the visual cues on the screen behind me. My goal was to disappear to the audience and have the story take center stage.

This approach was counter-intuitive to the entire TEDTalk format, where the speaker is the focal point of the presentation. They wanted high energy, movement and audience engagement.

I just wanted to get through it and go home with embarrassing myself.

So, the day of the presentation finally came. I think I was the 3rd speaker on the program. When my time finally came, I was filled with fear, anxiety and trepidation; my flight-or-fight response in full bloom.

I stepped out onto the stage and stuck to my guns, telling the audience a story about the Power of Storytelling, while sitting in a small red, folding chair that I had brought out on stage with me. It was all a blur and I don’t remember much of what I said, how it sounded or what the audience reaction was.

Ultimately, I made good on my commitment to deliver my talk in the way that I wanted to — as a writer instead of a performance artist. It was a harrowing experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat. I’m glad I did it, but boy oh boy, was I glad when it was over.

TEDx and I had a few good moments to be sure, but in the end, we just had to go our separate ways.

One Last Note:

The final video was a little disappointing too, because my visual presentation was synced up with the story I told. Unfortunately, you can’t see the two together from the angle in which the video was shot.

You can judge my talk for yourself here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52MZgQjkhv4