Preparing for your TED talk

Before you think “I’m not giving a TED talk,” you should know that there are 47 TEDx events happening today alone, and over 50,000 talks to date.

You should also know that the same lessons for creating a good TED talk can help you prepare for a wide range of big moments in your life.

Here are five things I learned from my TEDx experience that might help you.

"Working Out Loud: The making of a movement"

Learn the basics.

Public speaking is a skill like any other, meaning that you can readily get better at it. You can get better much more quickly by understanding what others have learned before you.

The book Resonate will help you craft a more engaging story that’s more likely to, well, resonate with your audience. Presentation Zen will make your slides better than 99% of most presentations. Talk Like TED will summarize the lessons of what makes for a good talk and provide and analyze excellent examples.

Then read what speakers write about their experiences, and watch as much as you can to refine your own taste of what you like and don’t like.

Doing this research helped me. Next time, I’ll do even more.

Make the audience the hero.

The initial drafts of my talk were too much about me and my own story. While some of that is necessary for context, the key is focusing on how you can help the audience. Though my talk was about “Working Out Loud: The making of a movement,” it would be more engaging and useful if it helped the audience with their own movements.

As Nancy Duarte says in Resonate, be more like Yoda than Luke Skywalker. Enable heroes instead of trying to be one.

Get live feedback earlier.

I waited too long to practice in front of a live audience. Although I solicited feedback on the script two months before the talk and went through many iterations, I waited until just 36 hours before the event to rehearse in front of friends. Not good.

I fell into a trap of thinking I had to memorize it first. But by then, I had become too attached to the material and had little time left for major changes. That made everything more stressful than it needed to be.

Keep working on it till it’s authentic.

I’ve always confused spontaneity with authenticity, figuring that practice would somehow make my talk feel artificial, literally “scripted.” Now it’s clear that was just an excuse to avoid work I found uncomfortable.

The truth is that it’s hard to be yourself when you’re struggling to recall what to say, particularly on camera. There is no substitute for putting in the time to memorize your material – to know it so well that it’s a part of you and you can offer it naturally.

Make it fun.

Perhaps this seems obvious. After all, it would be hard for the audience to enjoy my talk if I seem anxious and miserable on stage.

Yet, I almost failed on this point entirely. In my rehearsal just before the event, I was practically somber. I was so focused on not losing my place that I lost myself. My small audience had to tell me to “Put more of you into the talk.”

I tried making the talk a bit lighter, and even got a laugh on my second slide, but I have a long way to go before I can relate to this kind of audience like I relate to people in my other talks and in my every day.

Your second TED talk

Yes, the process was uncomfortable (and worse) at times, but going through it unlocked learning and possibilities, including the chance that I’ll be better next time – and less anxious.

Whether you’re about to deliver a TED talk or make a video or give a performance in your own living room, treating it as a learning experience is liberating. It might even be fun.

At approximately 4:03pm on Saturday, April 9th

I’m asking for a rather strange favor. My friend and coach, Eve, would call my request a bit “woo-woo.” That’s our way to describe mystical things we can’t explain but we think just might work.

Mystical - and maybe it works

This Saturday afternoon, I’ll be on stage at a TEDx event in New Jersey, delivering the most important presentation of my life.

I’ve been increasingly anxious about it for months. Though I’ve given many talks, this one is more like an 8-minute movie than a regular presentation. I’m acutely aware that every mistake I make will be amplified on video.

So here’s my woo-woo request. If you’re reading this before 4 o’clock this Saturday, would you think a positive thought for me? Perhaps send me a mental message encouraging me to act like myself instead of The Presenter. Or wish that the audience receives my talk as a gift and not an imposition. That instead of being nervous and tense, I project humility, openness, and happiness.

I’ll be sure to provide a detailed update next week. In the meantime, please #BringTheWoo.

Thank you!

Freedom’s just another word for …

How would you finish that sentence? Perhaps, like the late Janis Joplin, you’d say it’s “just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Or if you were me, about a year ago, you’d quote Nina Simone and say freedom is “No fear!”

But now I think freedom is something else entirely.

© Robert Gober

Prison Window – © Robert Gober

What freedom isn’t

The source of much of my personal development lately is Pema Chödrön. This time, it’s from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.

“The cause of our suffering is…our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom.”

In short, freedom isn’t denying that we have fears and desires and hopes. That would be denying our very humanity. Freedom is allowing yourself to feel all those things and then let them go.

The only way out is through

I spent a long time trying to shut out fear or distracting myself from it. After 51 years of that not working, I’m ready for a new strategy.

Pema Chödrön provides one. She cites the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor when she says that the emotion itself isn’t the problem. It’s our reaction to it; the story line in our heads.

“An emotion like anger [or fear] that’s an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.”

Instead of fighting it, work with it. “The only way out is through,” she said, and she suggests this simple exercise:

“Acknowledge the feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience  of it, free of interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether it’s good or bad. Just be present with the situation. Where is it located in your body? Does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change?”

By the time you’ve worked with the emotion in this way, the ninety seconds have passed and you feel and think differently. No drama or rekindling. You acknowledge what is and move on. No big deal.

A personal example

She advises starting with something not too terrifying, so I started with an email.

I’ve been working on something important to me and was waiting on feedback. When I woke up, I was already anticipating a message related to the project and could feel a low-level anxiety. When I saw the email, I quickly scanned it, fixated on some less-than-glowing comments, and experienced a mild panic.

Instead of denial or distraction – telling myself  “it doesn’t matter” or distracting myself with another task – I remembered the exercise.

I acknowledged the fear I was feeling. I noticed my heart pounding and the knot in my stomach. I let myself feel it without thinking. I took a few deep, slow breaths. After a minute or two, I calmed down, reread the note, and got to work.

No big deal.

What’s on the other side

That may seem like a trivial example, but I found it striking that my body and brain couldn’t tell the difference between an email and being attacked by a bear. The  immediate reaction is the same heart-pounding desire to flee.

In the book, she quotes a poem that describes what you’ll discover when you can stop struggling against uncertainty.

This world – absolutely pure.

As is. Behind the fear,

Vulnerability. Behind that,

Sadness, then compassion

And behind that the vast sky.

What does freedom mean to you? If you don’t feel free already, try the 90-second exercise. Freedom might be closer than you think.

The pause button that could save your life

For most of my life, I wasn’t aware I even had one of these buttons. Then I read about it and tried it, but it didn’t seem to work.

Now, after a few years of practice, it works sometimes. It’s given me a glimpse into a calmer, happier life, and I want more.

The Pause Button That Could Save Your Life

When I knew I needed it

It’s over 10 years ago. I’m driving my young son to an appointment. I’m late. I don’t want to go, but we have to go. It’s expensive and we’ve already paid. I’m upset.

I double-park and lead him toward the door. “I’ll be right there!” I need to park the car. There’s traffic – and no place to park. I look at the clock. I’m angry. I see a space but someone else takes it. I can feel myself starting to boil inside. I make a wrong turn.

I punch the steering wheel in frustration. The horn blows. It keeps blowing, loudly. I frantically try to pull on it to make it stop. I’m driving around the upper east side of Manhattan with a blaring horn, furious, frustrated, and ashamed all at the same time.

Something had to change.

The pause button

What happened wasn’t new, and such outbursts weren’t limited to driving. It was a pattern. Something would trigger an emotional response, followed by negative thoughts that would feed the response and make it stronger, quickly spiraling out of control.

The pause button allows you to catch yourself right after that initial response.

“If we catch it when it first arises, when it’s just a tightening, a slight pulling back, a feeling of beginning to get hot under the collar, it’s very workable.”

That’s a quote from Pema Chödrön’s excellent book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. She describes what to do in three seemingly simple steps.

  1. Acknowledge that you’re hooked.
  2. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and examine what you’re feeling.
  3. Relax and move on.

When we’re hooked (Pema uses the Tibetan word shenpa), the older parts of our brain unleash a series of primitive biochemical reactions. The pause helps us engage our more recently evolved pre-frontal cortex so we interrupt that chain of reactions, so we slow down enough to think and plan.

“When we pause and breathe…, we can foresee quite clearly where biting the hook will lead.”

Eleven years later

I’m driving with my daughter. It’s snowing heavily and we’re in the middle of a five-hour drive. Though we’re using a navigation system, we miss a turn. I figure we’ll just take the next exit and make a U-turn, but Google Maps tells us the next exit is 28 miles away. It must be a mistake.

I’m tired, and irritated that I missed the exit. Surely there’s one coming up sooner, but it becomes clear that’s not the case. I can’t believe I’ve just made an error that will cost us an additional hour in this terrible weather! I want to speed up and make up for lost time. I consider making an illegal turn on the highway. I grip the wheel as tightly as I can, feeling anger and frustration welling up. I’m hooked.

And I pause.

It’s difficult to interrupt my roiling emotions, but I take a few deep, conscious breaths. I try to think. Is it really that bad? Will being angry at the distances between exits make it better? It’s difficult driving and your daughter’s in the car. Better to be careful and not make it worse.

Very slowly, I start to calm down. I stop berating myself and just focus on driving. Once we find the exit and are headed in the right direction, my daughter and I make a game of it, counting down the minutes. She resumes playing deejay and picks some music for us. We even laugh at our mistake.

The practice

In the decade since that first car story, I’ve read dozens of books about the pause button, and they all same pretty much the same thing.

I quote Pema Chödrön’s book in particular because she relates her own embarrassing stories and offers gentle encouragement. Her writing made me understand that the pause button isn’t a button as much as a practice. It takes effort over time. You make gradual progress and experience setbacks. You keep working at it.

Missing parking spaces and exits are trivial examples, I know. But for me, the progress I made in dealing with them gives me confidence I can do more.

“By ‘putting up with little cares,’ with minor annoyances, when the shenpa is lightweight, ‘we train ourselves to work with great adversity.’”

You don’t have to wait till you’re hooked. You can practice hitting the pause button throughout the day – walking to work, washing the dishes, eating. I’ve come to think of it as a way to train myself.

“Punctuate your life with these moments,” Pema writes. “If we keep a sense of humor and stay with it for the long haul, the ability to be present just naturally evolves. Gradually, we lose our appetite for biting the hook.”

Who’s in your kitchen cabinet?

Candor and Caring: The  Golden Girls' Kitchen Cabinet

Who do you rely on to tell you the truth? Perhaps you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before – or doing something you shouldn’t be doing.

Who would give you honest feedback that’s truly meant to help you?

Candor and Caring: The Golden Girls' Kitchen Cabinet

Candor and Caring: The Golden Girls’ Kitchen Cabinet

Honesty or encouragement?

This week, I was struggling with something I’m trying to do, uncertain whether I’m going in the right direction or if I should even be going at all.

Although I get a lot of feedback from people that’s useful and encouraging, some feedback is particularly difficult to give. This week I needed brutal honesty more than encouragement, and that can jeopardize many relationships.

I thought about it and made appointments with two people.

My kitchen cabinet

These calls were about more than constructive feedback on an idea. They were also about what’s good for me as a person. If what I was trying to do wasn’t right (for me or for other people), I needed someone who had the courage to tell me that. Sorry, John, you’ve got it wrong this time.

My friend referred to these kinds of people as your “kitchen cabinet,” a phrase I hadn’t come across in a long time. She heard it in an interview between Brené Brown and Oprah Winfrey. At 6m:18s in this video, Brené asked Oprah how she stays open to feedback:

Oprah: “I’ve had a kitchen cabinet since the beginning of my career. Different people have been in that kitchen cabinet over the years…a few people who I know are going to tell me the truth, even the hard truths.”

Brené: “I’ve got a cabinet for sure. They will tell me what I don’t want to hear but need to hear. And will love me through it.”

That combination is key: candor and caring.

It can feel awful to hear that my idea won’t work or isn’t well thought-out, or have someone point out I’m doing things that are inconsistent or inauthentic. It can feel like an an attack on my capability and on me as a person.

But I need to hear it, and there are five or six people in my kitchen cabinet who I rely on for different topics in my life. When I know they have my interests in mind, then I stop defending myself, I listen, and I have a chance to grow.

Who – and what – are in your cabinet?

Keith Ferrazzi wrote about these relationships in Who’s Got Your Back? The Secret to Finding the 3 People Who Will Change Your Life:

“So whether you’re running a country, a business, or a household, you can’t know everything you need to know to be successful – no one can. We need the advice and feedback of people we trust..It’s the reason presidents create ‘kitchen cabinets’.”

The people in your cabinet are often different from those you consider friends. While some might know you and your family intimately, others may have a particular expertise that’s relevant to your goals. Some may be especially wise and compassionate because of their own life experiences. They’re the kinds of people that, though you may not speak often, when you do it’s about important topics that require hard truths.

Look for those people and nurture your relationships with them. Offer them your vulnerability, and the candor and caring you receive can change your career and life.