Behind The Curtain – TEDx

Stranger: Have you heard of TED talks?

Me: Yes, I’ve done one (Smug face)

Stranger: What! Really, what about?

Me: (Smugger face), Yes really, it was about…..

This is the scenario that’s played out in my mind countless times over the years. It’s a whimsical thought that I’m sure has been shared by many of you at some point or another, usually after watching a TED talk most likely.

The thing is, that scenario represents the pinnacle of friendly smugness, an elevation to an intellectual platform shared by a global clique of elite thought leaders… and it’s wrong!

I’m jumping ahead of myself here, what I’m going to try and do is to share my journey (in an unbiased, rose-tinted glasses removed, no sugar coating at all, kinda way). From how the opportunity presented itself to me, what I’ve learned along that journey and hopefully you’ll be able to take a morsel of value for yourself. After all like the strapline of TED itself, this blog should be an idea worth sharing.

THE JOURNEY

I was born in 1981… wait, perhaps not that early. I’ve been inspired by TED talks for years, and I make no distinction between TED or TEDx (ill expand on that in a bit). In fact, some of my favourite talks are ones that I watch over and over again and are several years old.

 At the end of April 2021, unknown to me but TEDx Wolverhampton announced that speaker applications to this year’s event would be open on Saturday 1 May, and speaker applications would be opening soon. Oblivious to this I was eyeball deep in developing an ecosystem of self-help and motivation starting with the ongoing marketing for my recently published book, Decision Point.

The thing about marketing, and I’m going to make a sweeping statement here, is that it’s not a natural sport for a creative person. By definition, creatives want to create whether that’s music, art, writing, or acting, the marketing and sales are a bit is an uncomfortable but necessary part of that process. This is an aside but I’m not going to sugarcoat anything here.

So back to it. 

Out of the blue, I received a message from my sister saying that TEDx Wolverhampton will be open for speaker applications a week later and that I should apply.  Playing to my vanity, but also knowing that I happen to be a TED fan, she always knew what my answer would be, as do you. 

Some immediate and preparatory research on the TEDx Wolverhampton Instagram page (@tedxwolverhampton) told me that applications would be open on Saturday 1 May, accompanied by this enticing pitch:

We are beyond excited to tell you that our speaker applications will be open next Saturday. If you have an amazing idea or buzzing story to share then we want to hear from you!”

Well in my mind, this was a direct request to me personally!  I’d been working for months on my material for both Decision Point and my follow-up book, Hack: Yourself. I knew that I could summarize my personal development and goal-setting hack (7W framework) into a great TED talk, so without any further delay, I applied.

TED VS TEDX, WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

I didn’t really know a great deal about TED beyond watching the videos on YouTube and the TED website, so going through this process to hopefully become a part of the TED universe prompted me to research a bit deeper. 

Every year there’s a single annual TED conference in Vancouver, it lasts a week, and some of the world’s most influential people, captains of industry, and thought leaders share their ideas to a global audience. There’s a whole backstory to what TED is, it’s’ older than you think so if you have time check it out.  

Vancouver is a behemoth of an event, and the reason for daydreaming about giving a TED talk, and for the audience to applaud your amazing insights. TEDx follows the exact same guiding principles as the main conference, but these TEDx events are independently organised. Curators have to apply for a licence from TED itself and even if the event is granted a licenCe, the individual speakers must follow a set of guidelines that have to be adhered to otherwise your talk simply won’t be uploaded to the TED or TEDx social media platforms… oh and you don’t get a copy of any of the media until it’s approved. 

THE APPLICATION VIDEO

 The application process was pretty simple and straightforward, I had to fill out the usual details, and explain how my talk would relate to the event theme ‘C’trl, A’lt, Del’, this also represented my first challenge. As a natural introvert, performing in front of a camera is particularly cringe-worthy, but cringe-worthy or not it’s something that had to be overcome to be shortlisted for the talk.

So I had 2 minutes to explain who I was, what my talk would be about and how it related to the event’s theme. The easy bit was writing a short script covering what I wanted to say. What I hadn’t banked on was how difficult recording this without any errors was going to be. I’ve honestly lost count of the number of takes it took for me to get over the ultimate cringe of watching myself on video and to produce something as error-free as I’d want the talk to be, but if I had to put a number on it, I’d say…. 200 attempts… only kidding, probably 20, but that’s still a lot.

WHAT’S YOUR’S SUBJECT MATTER?

I’m pretty passionate about empowering others, so thinking about my subject wasn’t something that I had any issues with.  When you’re giving a TED talk, the idea that you’re sharing should be something that you’re passionate about, and that can hopefully prompt further discussion or if it’s really good, help change somebody’s life. Having written a book in the self-help and motivation genre, the subject was easy. 

SUBMITTING THE APPLICATION  

Waiting for feedback on my application was like counting the days until Christmas but not knowing if it was going to happen! I wanted this sooo badly so you can imagine my disappointment when the deadline for feedback on whether you’d been selected, came and went and I hadn’t received an email. The Friday shortlist day came and went, so I was set up for a downbeat weekend.

Then on Monday 24 May, I received an email from the Curator at TEDx Wolverhampton (Clare Roberts-Molloy), congratulating me on a successful application. My emotions were a total rollercoaster, elation, happiness, nervousness and fear! But overall very very happy. Happy because I’d been given the chance for my voice to be heard on the most credible speaker platform in the world.

THE SCRIPT

When I’ve watched speakers on TED, the way they deliver their talks looks effortless. It wouldn’t have come as a surprise to me to hear that the talks were scripted, but we were talking word for word perfect here!  This immediately became and would continue to be (right up until the night before) my biggest issue.

I don’t have a problem with public speaking. I’ve given talks hundreds of times to audiences of various sizes, but those talks have had room to ad-lib and are really unrestricted. For a TED talk, that talk has to be approved because your talk is wrapped inside the TED brand so has to adhere to their criteria. As Clare was the curator and licence holder for the Wolverhampton event she was the ultimate authority on every talks qualification for the event.

I wrote my first draft (6 pages of text) and started to rehearse while it was still pending approval. We all had to move quickly because from the announcement of speakers to the event itself was only 8 weeks, there really wasn’t a moment to waste.

REHEARSE, REHEARSE, REHEARSE….

I don’t learn that well from just reading something. I allude to this in Decision Point when I write about the VARK learning styles. So almost immediately, I recorded myself reading the full script. This meant that while I could rehearse in the traditional sense (read, repeat, read, repeat), I could listen to the recording in the car on my commute to work as well!  

There’s method in the madness, like I said, I know my most effective learning style so a multi-sensory approach to rehearsal was my tactic for memorising the talk. I listened while on my way to work, I listened in the gym, I listened while I walked the dog… it was a relentless assault on my senses.

We had a few speaker video calls with the curator and I had a few revisions to make to my script, but ultimately the clock was ticking and the curator had made it clear, we would not be allowed to take notes on stage, this had to be fully committed to memory. Talk about a hard taskmaster, but to be honest and with the crystal clear 20/20 hindsight I have, I’m grateful, so thanks, Clare.

WHAT DO I WEAR?

So this was another oversight of mine (Are you seeing a theme…) What do you wear when you’re giving a TED talk? What would you wear?

I started by watching some of my favourite talks, which was a good start. However, the problem with this was the outfits ranged from formal jacket and tie, to open shirts and jeans to casual t-shirts. We had some advice from the curator on one of our speaker meetings, that was to remember that once your talk is uploaded to the internet, it’s there forever. Food for thought.

I decided to pass this problem on to Mrs. Davis, and she said “just be yourself”. So with that, off we went on an expensive weekend shopping trip where I got my speakers outfit (thanks to The Kooples), and for some reason, Mrs. Davis got a new outfit, shoes, and handbag for sitting in the audience! 

T – DAY = TALK DAY   

5:30 – The ear-piercing alarm shocks me from a restless night’s sleep, way too excited to sleep because of the day’s events and also because Mrs. Davis is stomping around the bedroom throwing make-up all over the place and making every effort to be my secondary unsnoozable alarm. 

6:00 – Jump in the car and head South to Wolverhampton, stopping periodically on our 2 hour journey to fuel up on coffee and Danish pastries (guilt free, today I’m allowed).

8:30 – Arrive at the University of Wolverhampton, the venue for TEDx today. A quick tour of the venue, included a look in the dressing room where I’d be changing into my ‘show’ gear. The green room where I’d find a limitless supply of coffee and sweet treats (heaven) and the waiting area, where we could watch all of the other talks as we waited for our time to shine.

It was a slickly run event, with the talks being broken down into 3 periods, with intervals of poetry and dance acts, and hosted by 2 amazing presenters, actress, Tonia Daley-Campbell and University lecturer Dr. Martin Khechara. I was the second speaker in the second period, but that didn’t mean I could relax… I was rehearsing right up until I was getting mic’d up! Check out my Instagram feed to see those live emotions on ‘Reels’.

10:45 – That long journey to the backstage, getting mic’d and having that final mental run-through of the opening lines of the talk.  My fear at this moment was ‘stage-fright, fluffing that opening line (as I had done in some rehearsals).  

Doing the talk was a lot like learning a song, once you’ve learned the rhythm of the talk the lyrics just fell into place. I placed a lot of emphasis on breathing and having deliberate pauses at the right moments.  This meant that the talk wouldn’t run away with itself, I’d be able to slow everything down and perhaps might be able to enjoy it… I did!  The rehearsed talk varied in time from 13 minutes up to 16 minutes, in honesty I don’t know how long it lasted, I guess I’ll find out if and when TED approve the talk and upload it to their website. Coming off stage, the Production Director just said 1 word – “Flawless”.

AFTER A TED TALK…

First and foremost, that smug face can now be a reality… yes, I’ve become that guy. But seriously, it’s been amazing. There’s a certain level of confidence about you when you’ve spoken on the red dot stage. Then there’s the speaker community you become part of, new friends, and new opportunities.  It was as a result of speaking at TEDx Wolverhampton that I have been lucky enough to have been asked to be an Ambassador at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, following an excellent conversation with TEDx host Tonia. Thanks for the opportunity Tonia!

I’ve continued to write as I had always been doing, but with an added sense of self-belief. The TEDx talk has been one of the first times I’ve been outside of my comfort zone since leaving the military and has given me a demonstrable platform to show the ‘Relentless Persistence’ philosophy at work.

I hope that both the talk itself (when it’s published) and this review inspires somebody else’s own journey to start their own journey to a personal goal, and remember whatever you do, just pursue it with Relentless Persistence.

Nathan x

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