This past weekend, I was the final speaker at TEDx Salem (you can see the talk here). It was about my recent book. It was a hell of an experience: part exhilaration, part terror. I’d like to think that I nailed the talk; the feedback from the attendees (friends and strangers alike) seemed to mirror that notion. I was humbled by the whole thing.
I journaled a lot in the days before and after the event to bottle the raw emotions and share those learnings with you before the good bits dissolve into the “I can’t just put it into words” ether.
But before I get into it, a note.
There are a bunch of books and a zillion posts online about how to build a TED talk. I will not be talking about any of that. What worked for me, might not work for you.
Furthermore, there are a bunch of great public speaking tips online, (I particularly like these from my good friend and speaking extraordinaire, Antonio Neves), but my post will focus more on the specific TED experience.
I hope this helps anyone stepping out into the void of discomfort and opportunity that is a TED talk, or inspiring you to apply to a local TEDx event to share your genius on stage.
BEFORE THE DAY OF
1. It’s a long process.
At all times, remember: you chose this.
June 6, 2019 - Applied
July 4, 2019 - Found out I was selected
Sept 7, 2019 - First Rehearsal in front of TEDx speaking coaches
Oct 12, 2019 - Second Rehearsal in front of TEDx speaking coaches
Dec 7, 2019 - Third Rehearsal in front of TEDx speaking coaches
Dec 18, 2019 - Found out I was going last to close the show
Jan 3, 2019 - Full Dress Rehearsal at venue
Jan 4, 2019 - TEDx
2. Over prepare.
And I mean over prepare. Your job is to make a memorized, methodical, meticulous talk feel like a free flowing expression of you. Practice while distracted. You never know what will throw you off during your talk. I practiced my talk while exercising, while driving, while on the bus, with my dog walking around my legs, etc.
I tracked the amount of times I practiced the final, fully memorized talk (without looking at notes) and it was: 78. That doesn’t count the days I put in building the talk or working up the memory of the entire talk. So it’s probably somewhere in the realm of 150 times.
The final talk was 2,396 words. (I had cut 4,864 words to get to that final version.)
3. Batch your talk.
No matter how much you’ve memorized, you're not a robot, leave room to “get out” of pickles by batching your talk in your mind. Mine had:
I knew what my batches were and if I messed myself up in a section I could get my way out (yes, this is foreshadowing).
THE DAY OF
4. Leave me alone.
As a speaker at TED, the experience of your day is directly related to what time you speak. Frankly, until you've given your talk, you're not a speaker, you're just a face in a pamphlet.After a talk a speaker turns into a "spoker." (I made that word up). They get to relax, they get to be lauded.
I spoke last. 19th out of 19. This was incredibly hard. I got to the venue at 9AM and I didn’t go on until close to 5PM. I didn't really interact with the other speakers other than the one who went right before me. Shortly before her talk, we acknowledged to each other how difficult it had been to wait all day.
I’ve also heard people say that you should connect with the audience before your talk. I don’t believe that. I think you should do whatever you need to do to give the best talk you can possibly give. Whatever that means.
If you need to drag a hyperbaric chamber into the green room and sit in it for the entire day, do it. We were lucky to have a dedicated masseuse in the speaker green room. I got two shoulder massages in the hours leading up to my talk.
I didn’t do much interacting with the audience and I only watched four other talks. I took lots of walks and for the most part, stayed out of everyone's way.
5. You are just a cog in a chain of a long variety show.
During the final group of talks (of which I was last), the convention center staff packed things up in the lobby and breakout rooms, since after the talks were done, it was over for them.
There I was, by myself in a long, empty hallway watching people tear things down, roll dollies past me, and talk about how happy they were that their day was done. I still had to stay focused. It’s another great episode in the one billionth season of life’s favorite show: No one cares about you.
Everyone had a job to do that day. I just hadn't done mine yet.
RIGHT BEFORE THE TALK
6. Take it in.
After my makeup was done (Yes, guys. Get the makeup touch up. You won't look like a corpse on camera.) and I was all mic’d up, I walked out into the back corner of the convention center to see the previous speaker doing her thing. I looked around the room, noticing all the lights, the five cameras, the audience and...smiled.
The actual talk was the cherry on top to the work I had already put in. I had to make sure to enjoy this moment.
7. You belong here.
Before going on stage I closed my eyes and repeated this mantra: “I belong here.” If you don’t, you will feel like the upcoming talk is an execution instead of an exaltation.
Your brain will reinforce whatever belief it thinks you want. Before going on stage for a talk, you can have two equally possible thoughts going through your head:
A. I am going to bomb
B. I am going to soar
Like the world of quantum computing and the directional spin of an electron, both can be true at the same time. So which one ends up happening? Bomb or soar? I don’t know, but what I do know is that you’re more likely to bomb if you think you’re going to bomb and you’re more likely to soar if you think you will soar.
It's called visualization. Picture your success.
You might be thinking, “What about having low expectations and being surprised at the result? You know, the whole ‘under promise, over deliver’ thing.”
Having low expectations is not the same thing as thinking you’ll bomb.
Have low expectations of how it will be received, not of your performance.
Have high expectations of yourself, not the outcome.
There is a difference.
WALKING UP TO THE RED CIRCLE
I vividly remember saying, "You're just telling a story to your friends." That helped calm the nerves.
We were instructed to walk to the red circle and pause a few seconds before starting. This pause helps with the editing process.
For me, the thing I kept overthinking was the first consonant. Typically, hard consonants cause me grief (but it can be any consonant at the beginning, really). Want to watch me squirm, have me sit in a circle where everyone goes around the room introducing themselves. I can’t purely say my first name. I have to say, “Hi, I’m Bassam,” or some other intro to “hide the B” as my friend put it.
My talk would start on the word “Day” or “Baku” (It didn’t matter which, because I would say, “Baku, Azerbaijan - Day 13” or “Day 13 - Baku, Azerbaijan”) but they were still hard consonants, (genius, Bassam) so I added a third possibility in my mind: “It was Day 13…” When I was standing on that red circle during those forever seconds before starting, the slot machine of “It - Day - Baku” was spinning in my head.
Which one would my first word land on?
The good news is, I don’t remember. I got one of those words past the guard in the back of my throat and I was rolling. If you’ve never struggled with a stutter/stammer, this might sound crazy to you (“Just say what you want to say!”) but it’s a real impediment.
The other tip I have for people with big nerves, is start a talk or a new idea on an exhale, words are easier to get out on the exhale.
8. You have to start strong.
As my friend Antonio advised me, “Amateurs start their talks with, 'Let’s give another round of applause for that previous speaker!” or 'Let’s hear it for the host!, or anything other than their talk. Pros just get right into it confidently."
Do whatever voice exercises, push ups or hype moves you need to do off-stage so that you are ready at moment: go, onstage.
9. Take. Your. Time.
You want to get your talk done but the audience needs to digest stuff. Pause for twice as long you think is comfortable. Silence is your greatest ally, if you can control it on your terms.
10. Never ever look at the time on stage.
TED's big thing is that the talks can't go beyond 18 minutes. The whole timing of the day is very important. I know the TED coordinators need you to hit your mark, but not at the expense of you freaking out at the ticking bomb at your feet. That is a recipe for disaster. So just don't look at it.
You should have rehearsed so much that you know exactly how long your talk takes. There should be no surprises. If you end up being a minute off from what you thought, that’s a problem with your preparation. You want to be within 15 seconds of your rehearsed time +/-.
11. Know that if you mess up, they can fix it in post production.
Unless you are at a one-camera TEDx event in a basement, there will be multiple cameras on you. If you fumble, just take a breath and start the sentence over. It might look weird in person, but online, there will be no blunder.
12. Scripted or ad-libbed, but not in between.
Speaking of blunders, you won’t see it on the edited online version when it comes out, but there was a part of the talk where I forgot my next line. It’s because I tried to add a laugh into the talk the day before.
My brain had to work hard to remember it. I did, but the energy it took made me forget my next line. I giggled internally, took a breath and positioned myself back in my talk, repeating the previous sentence in my mind until I remembered what the next line was. And because of the previous tip, no one online will know.
The advice is, either stick to your script or completely ad lib something because you feel it in the moment, but do not try to add a half-scripted ad lib.
13. Giving the talk will feel almost like an outer body experience.
I remember being on stage. I remember talking. I remember moving my eyes around the room, but at no point was I actually engaging with the audience. I only made it seem like I was. The last thing you want to do during recitation is to see a familiar face and have that face enter your stream of thought. A TED talk is a controlled regurgitation that has to look like you’re shooting the shit.
There is an art to it.
I felt like Will Ferrell in Old School during the debate.
All of a sudden I said, "Thank You" and the crowd gave me a standing ovation.
And in that moment my TED talk was past tense. I was a spoker.