Failing Forward – what I learned from bombing my first TEDx talk…..
It was a random fall day when I received a FB message from someone I had met at a networking event. I don’t remember exactly what it said, except that it was connecting me to a super cool guy who was launching a local TEDx event the following spring. After several back and forths, we finally connected for coffee.
My life at the time was an exercise in organized chaos. As a single mom of 3 kids from 4-19, running my own small biz, with a penchant for travel and a constant yearning to add depth to my life and stir my soul – I had my hands full.
The day of our meeting I arrived 10 minutes tardy, as it was standard operating procedure at that point to run chronically late. We ordered, sat down, I flipped my phone over then took my notebook out and as I sipped my chai I felt my energy shift to become present in the moment. He began sharing his vision, I was all in. This is what I love, an exchange of ideas encouraging people to look at something from a different angle and suddenly see something completely different. We brainstormed about the event and I shared the names of several amazing people I knew who I thought would be perfect for the forum. When we were wrapping up our meeting, I was excited. The opportunity before me was epic and I was eager to be a part of it.
I went home on cloud 9. I was scared and it was a good fear – the kind you have when you are about to embark on something new with almost limitless possibilities. I considered speaking the ultimate responsibility and was determined to make it beyond amazing. I began watching other TED talks and dissecting them – everything from topic to tonality. There were so many ideas I had in my head to choose from, I wanted to make certain I picked the very best one. I began then to roll them around in my head, unsure of which one to pour my passion in to.
Like most things in life, the days were long yet the months flew by. Thanksgiving then Christmas and before I knew it, it was 2015. With the talk coming up in March, I knew I needed to get cracking on zeroing in on a topic and begin writing it.
I sat with pen and paper multiple times, I recorded hours of video of myself talking and Googled everything that I even considered speaking about. I also felt the weight of the impending date intensify with each attempt. I was frozen.
Completely out of sync, the universe responded in kind. Six weeks before the big day my best friend and business partner was in a car wreck. Next an associate resigned from the business. Down two critical people in the office I began to interview while carrying the workload, visiting my bestie and maintaining the level of quality we were committed to. Preparing for the talk was the furthest from my mind.
Next thing I knew it was 6 days until the big day. Six freaking days. Panic was just under the surface, threatening my every move. I began to force myself to write, with my only comfort knowing that it would all thankfully be over in 6 days.
I had good creating moments and bad creating moments yet managed to formulate a basic idea 4 days prior to X day. Three days before was the first time I read it out loud to someone else. Two days prior I had it on about 65 index cards and it finally began to flow. By refining it each time I read it, I was beginning to think it might actually be good. Imagine that?
With the talk in full swing, I began to consider the performance. Having never participated in any type of public speaking since high school, I was relying heavily on my ability to work a room. I theorized that because I could connect with people one on one, I would simply adjust my speech based on audience reaction. This made total sense to me, as I had the ability to switch gears on the fly quite well in work, naturally this would be the same. Whew, another piece complete.
The day before, I went to the venue and saw the big red dot. OMG it’s real (my heart is racing now even as I type this). I stood in front of the giant wooden TEDx sign and read from my index cards to the few people in the room. My voice was solid, cadence good, I made eye contact and felt like just maybe this experience wouldn’t kill me. It was during that practice when I realized I was the only one clutching a deck of index cards. Curious, others shared that they had recorded their voice and were listening to themselves on repeat, for weeks. They knew their talk inside and out. OK, I thought, I have 18 hours, let’s do this. I recorded myself on my phone as soon as I got in the car and my voice instantly became the only thing on my playlist.
I was still refining my talk, began creating slides and further developing my take away when I called it a day. It was late at night when I told myself editing was complete. It was what it was and it was time to simply own it.
I went to sleep.
I woke up a few hours later, at 4am, and began repeating it, over and over AND over again, so much so that my 4 year old was saying it with me.
The sitter arrived at 9 and I headed to the venue. Doors opened at noon and talks began at 1….that gave me a few hours to pace the back halls while repeatedly reciting the words in a hushed voice.
My palms were sweaty, my heart racing, I briefly considered taking up drinking or simply walking out. I wanted to throw up.
My slot was dead center, number 8 out of 15. I watched as the first few speakers began and soon realized they had notes on their screen? Having never made a deck before I had no clue this was even possible, simple brilliance. I went in the hall and practiced breathing, as it seemed I forgot how. I paced, stretched, did yoga moves, posed like a super hero and practiced getting in state. My nerves were in overdrive. When the speaker before me walked on stage, I stepped up to get my mic on. As I was snaking the cord through my clothes from the microphone to the battery pack, I did the unthinkable – I dropped my cards. I watched them, all crescent shaped and sweat stained from my death grip, tumble to the ground. Trying to pick them up was difficult as they were no longer paper, but had a distinct concave shape to them and weren’t willing to be easily stacked. Yes, I thought, they were numbered! However through constant editing those numbers were frequently duplicated or missing and weren’t to be trusted. I looked at the stage, I had maybe another minute or so before I was introduced. I fumbled, focused and managed to get them back in order. In the distance I heard my name being announced…..I walk on stage with my heart pounding and my sunglasses on.
I see my title slide on the screen in black and white and head for the now familiar big red dot. I push my glasses back like a headband and look up to connect with the audience to center myself. Instead, I am blinded. All I can see are bright lights, no faces – friend or foe – are in my vision. This is showtime.
I inhale deeply as I begin my speech, still desperate for a connection with the audience and soon realize it’s not going to happen. I go on autopilot as I recite the words I had been saying all morning. Then my mind blanks. I pause, apologize, look down at the cards and read. This cycle of apologizing and reading occurs several times over the next 8 longest minutes of my life. Finally, it’s over. I rush off stage. I know I didn’t do well. I’m filled with shame for wasting the opportunity, frustration because I know what I’m capable of, and I want desperately to go home and hide.
Eventually the last speaker finishes and I get to leave. At home I’m sad, angry and remorseful. I go straight to bed and I just don’t want to talk about it. My phone is filled with texts and messages from friends wanting to hear how it went. I tell them, they don’t believe me. I spend the next 18 hours tearful and depressed, the stress of the last few months have bubbled over and I feel as if I don’t have any life left in me. Eventually, I come around.
I replay the events in my head and look for the lessons to be learned. I see many opportunities for growth and note what I am going to do differently the next time I encounter something similar. I begin referring to it as my “first TEDx talk”, knowing that one day there will be another.
Today the first videos began rolling out and my fight or flight went into overdrive. I have yet to watch a recording of my public speaking debut. I don’t really talk about it and have even thought to myself that I should go back to my maiden name so no one accidently stumbles across it when they are searching for my son’s (which is phenomenal BTW).
The best thing I can think of now is to own it. To share the behind the scenes and my lessons learned so maybe others can benefit from my mistakes or relate to the intensity of the experience and know they are not alone. So without further backstory, here are the top 8 things I learned by bombing my first TEDx talk:
1 – narrow down your topic and idea as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Seriously, this isn’t a “til death do us part” thing, it’s a target to shoot for. The speech will naturally morph over time and only become better with each change. This can’t happen if you don’t start.
2 – learn how to use PowerPoint, and not 24 hours before the event. This doesn’t really need any more explanation, does it?
3 – practice with blinding white lights in your eyes. Not even really kidding here, this threw me for such a loop, I’d totally shine a flashlight in my face for hours if I thought it would help.
4 – record your speech and listen to it. When I realized all the cool kids were doing this I smacked my forehead like the old “I coulda had a V8” commercials.
5 – don’t bring index cards. See PowerPoint concept above for more info.
6 – practice in front of people, a lot, everywhere you go. Now this one I did do, and it helped immensely. My biggest issue here was that I only had a day or two to do this and one trip to Starbucks coupled with a quickie in the office didn’t really cut it – see #1 to make this more effective.
7 – don’t take yourself too seriously. Sometimes I spout off my credentials to someone and end with “and my mom likes me” because it just seems ridiculous. That’s because it is. Relax, no one cares as much as you do….except maybe your mom.
8 – do it. As much as I didn’t rock this like I wanted to, I’m super glad I did it. Yes, even as I cringe knowing it’s headed for YouTube in a matter of days, I’m OK with it. I may have given a less than stellar TEDx talk, yet that means I gave a TEDx talk and that is freaking amazing.
The last line of my talk is “What if fear wasn’t the boss of you?”, the irony of which is not lost on me. I know the answer to that question, at least for the moment….if fear wasn’t the boss of me I’d watch my talk, share this story and smile as I continue on my journey of growth and discovery.
xo – g
Thank you to Posh 7 for publishing this article!