“I am the most unlikely looking rapper you may have ever seen. There probably aren’t that many nerdy white kids from Hickory, NC, who did a PhD on hip-hop or deliver hip-hop motivational assemblies to students.”
These were the hard-won opening lines I delivered for my talk at TEDx Hickory yesterday. While the anxiety and terror of the experience are still fresh, I’d love to share some advice that I wish I had found on the internet during the TEDx writing process. If you want to jump straight to the advice, click here. If you’re up for a narrative of the experience, read on.
Less than two months ago, I received confirmation that I had been invited to speak at TEDx Hickory, my hometown in North Carolina. This was amazing news and a rare event because:
(1) I live in California now and TEDx often prefers people who are local
(2) I’m a motivational speaker (in addition to being a social entrepreneur, etc.) and TED is increasingly disinclined to feature motivational speakers, although my topic wasn’t excessively “motivational” in nature
One of the keys for a successful TEDx application is to make your speech relevant to the topic of the event. You can’t just add the topic word to the title of your speech and not make the case for why it’s relevant.
In this case, the topic was (Un)Common. So the core questions of my talk were: What differentiates UnCommon Millennials who break the “Millennial” stereotype, and how do we make these UnCommon Millennials more common? The TEDx organizers said the relevance and timeliness of this idea is what was compelling and convinced them to not automatically disqualify me for being a motivational speaker.
So I thought 7 weeks will be plenty of time to research, write, and memorize the TEDx talk. I spent several weeks doing additional research on Millennials in the workplace, generational attitudes, etc.
Then with 4 weeks to go I was already freaking out because every time I thought about doing the talk, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the core ideas. I would literally stare at my computer screen for hours. I thought, “I’m such a fraud. I’m supposed to give an exceptional talk, and I have this incredible opportunity. But every time I try to outline it, I freeze up.”
I thank every higher power in existence for my business partner Ivy’s intervention. We talked and brainstormed numerous potential outlines. We didn’t want the talk to focus on me, so we thought about which of our extraordinary Motivational Millennial Podcast interviewees we should feature. And then we put together a first draft that was heavily researched and on-topic.
When I filmed a demo of the first draft talk, most people I showed it to (including the TEDx organizers) hated it. They said it had no clear thesis; it was defensive; it didn’t feature my story enough; it had too many other stories; it felt like an academic essay, etc.
So with 3 weeks to go, Ivy and I buckled down and started writing a completely different talk. This one had a singular focus, only featured my stories, and was significantly shorter.
Everyone hated this draft too. One TEDx organizer actually said that my new opening almost put her to sleep. Other people who reviewed it said that it was simplistic and lacked substance.
So with 2 weeks to go until I had to deliver a TEDx talk on stage, we were back to the drawing board. And I was terrified. Every article I was reading online said that at this point, you should be delivering your TEDx talk to small groups of people just to be sure that you had it memorized perfectly. And I didn’t even have anything to begin memorizing.
Ivy and I spent the next week furiously reworking the former drafts into a tight and coherent whole (we dubbed each iteration of the talks “TEDx Talk,” “TEDx Reboot,” and “TEDx Resurrection”). We decided that with only 10 days before I had to give the talk, we weren’t soliciting any more feedback. We were just subsisting on takeout Indian food and rewriting until our brains melted.
With 4 days until the TEDx dress rehearsal and 6 days until the actual talk, we declared a final draft. There were still some “written”-sounding sentences in the talk, but we were out of time. I was going to be on-stage in 96 hours presenting to the TEDx organizers from memory. Panic mode struck.
I frantically began to memorize my talk. And about once every hour, I felt like I should just email the TEDx organizers and tell them that I was going to pull out. I wouldn’t be prepared. I was going to let down my TEDx mentor who vouched for me. I couldn’t focus on memorizing because I was so anxious about blowing this amazing opportunity.
I started diving into avoidant behaviors like refreshing Facebook every 2 seconds (pro tip: even if you have a lot of Facebook friends, you won’t find new posts every 2 seconds). I watched several TEDx videos on my topic and started comparing myself (unfavorably) to these great speakers. And naturally, I scoured the internet to see what you should do if you mess up during a TEDx talk (it turns out there’s not a lot of advice on that).
But with 24 hours until the dress rehearsal, I started to be able to deliver the talk from memory. I continuously listened to a recording of me delivering the talk with the script. I practiced in front my mom and grandmother (they were very forgiving when I just danced around for 30 seconds mid-talk after completely losing my place). And with grim determination, I went to the dress rehearsal.
Shockingly, the dress rehearsal went really well. I only totally froze once, and even though I felt like I was stumbling through my talk, when I reviewed the video I saw that I actually seemed very natural. I guess the tiny pauses were more pronounced in my head. So I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to practicing.
The day before the TEDx, I was a nervous wreck all over again. During the dress rehearsal, I noticed how distracting it was with people in the audience, so I decided to pull up a looping video of a “public speaking audience simulation” and rehearse with that in front of me. Which, it turns out, is a great way to psych yourself out and feel like you’re totally going to bomb. I couldn’t get through the speech without messing up lines or losing my place. But I just kept practicing because I decided it would be very poor form to give up on a talk about not giving up.
The big morning arrived. TEDx Hickory. I rehearsed a couple of times in my head upon waking up and once more while driving to the venue. Once the event started, I could only sit through the first couple of talks before I needed to leave to start rehearsing again, but it was oddly comforting. The first talk was extremely dramatic and theatrical, and the second talk was a standard powerpoint presentation. So I thought, “Cool, it seems like just being yourself on stage is the way to go.”
Backstage before I went on, I ran the talk again in my head. And my blood ran cold. I totally blanked my transition from my introduction to my first key point. I took a deep breath and ran it back until I remembered the line. I needed more practice, but I was out of time.
The host read my introduction, and then I was on-stage. And it was like I was flying. I was in the zone. I was conscious of the words I was saying, and I was also having meta-thoughts like, “This is going really well!” I then had meta-meta thoughts like, “Oh no, I hope me thinking it’s going well isn’t going to mess me up!” But I was unshakeable. It seemed like those emergency 5 days of rehearsing non-stop had etched the talk into my brain like a steel blueprint. I was even delivering lines from the script that I hadn’t said accurately in days.
And the audience loved it. They were laughing at the jokes. They were cheering at the beatboxing and stories. They were engaged and providing great energy throughout the talk. And they gave an enthusiastic round of applause when I finally said “thank you.”
And then, my talk was done… until the TEDx host came out and challenged me to freestyle rap. Since that’s kind of my thing, I was down to rock. I took topics from the audience, and dropped one of the better freestyles I’ve delivered in public. I received a standing ovation from half of the audience, which I thought was better than being booed by two-thirds of the audience.
Afterwards, I was shaking with adrenaline. In fact, I woke up at 5:30am the next day to write this blog post because I was still amped. The TEDx speaker committee said that it typically takes a couple of months before they post the video, but as soon as they do, I’ll upload it here.
Finally, before we get to the specific advice, I want to give a huge thanks to my friends, family, and colleagues who have been so supportive throughout this process, and major props to Ivy for the countless hours and dedication in co-creating this talk. A big thanks also to my TEDx Hickory mentor Ralph Griffith who supported me throughout the process.
Now, let’s get to some advice on how to prepare for a TEDx Talk!
1. Get feedback early. I couldn’t have finished a first draft any earlier because of sheer terror, but ideally speaking, it would have been good to have the TEDx speaker committee shoot down the first draft a couple weeks earlier than they did.
2. Film yourself. Once you have your first draft, film yourself reading the script. How does it sound to you? To your friends? Is it boring? Is it crazy? It hurts to watch yourself, but it’s the best way to improve your talk.
3. Talk it out with someone. I really can’t emphasize enough how helpful brainstorming with Ivy was in the early stages. She helped bring clarity to the talk and the topic that I literally couldn’t have done by myself. Don’t feel like you have to do this alone.
4. (Re)write it how you TALK. My biggest regret as soon as I started memorizing is that we hadn’t taken an extra day to rewrite some of my “essay-style” sentences into more conversational structures. They sounded fine when I delivered them, but they were a nightmare to memorize. You tend to write with more internal dependent clauses than you would normally use when you talk, and that makes for convoluted sentences that are hard to memorize.
5. Lock in your stories. You can memorize your TEDx talk in a week if you get your stories solid in your mind. They’re YOUR stories. They happened to you. Choose the key elements from your stories, rehearse them, and then focus on the harder parts of your talk (like all of the conceptual / transitional elements).
6. Memorize one page at a time. Don’t feel like you have to have your whole talk memorized in the first hour. Just lock in one page at a time. But DO memorize it if at all possible. I saw some talks that weren’t (very well) memorized, and you can really tell the difference.
7. Trust the process. Record yourself reading a perfect take of your script with good energy. Listen to that recording any time you can. Rehearse with the script, then rehearse without the script. Neuroplasticity is real. Your brain will rewire for you if you just keep practicing with focus and intentionality.
8. Have self-compassion. I hadn’t been this hard on myself in a long time. I was constantly beating myself up about not having prepared far enough in advance, for getting distracted by social media, etc. That’s why I wanted to write this blog post. It will be okay, and you’ll do great.
9. Read Tim Urban’s hilarious post about giving a TED talk. This saved my sanity, and I hope it will help you too: http://waitbutwhy.com/2016/03/doing-a-ted-talk-the-full-story.html
If you’re giving a TEDx or thinking about giving one, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I believe in you, and I want the world to hear your story!
Good luck and peace,
P.S. I’ll post the video of my talk when the TEDx committee makes it available!