Unless a bear is chasing me, I don’t run. On the forms at the doctor asking, “Are you allergic to anything?” I write, “Running.” Yet I’ve just finished a task someone recently compared to running a marathon. Having described my TEDx Talk experience midway through the process, a colleague said, “It sounds like training for a marathon. At some point, you just want to get it over with, get your 26.2 sticker, and say you did it.” Perfect. (Admittedly, I once Googled “26.2” because I thought it was a bible verse I couldn’t recall; and then I understood out why I’d never seen a 3.16 sticker.) While there are no TED Talk stickers to put on my vehicle, I’ve got pics to prove I did it. But it was nothing like what I expected.
Late one Thursday afternoon, a colleague stopped by my office and asked, “Have you ever thought of doing a TED Talk?”
“Of course,” I replied. “It’s a dream.” Often, I listen to TED Talks on the way to and from work when taking a break from sports talk radio. The talks are just short enough to get me from the parking lot to the driveway.
“Lewisville is hosting a TEDx Talk in May, and the application due date is tomorrow,” she shared.
The application required a standard bio in addition to a title and a video of the talk. Being the day prior, I completed the app and submitted a link to a keynote I’d delivered three years prior that had been recorded from an iPad and posted to my YouTube channel. With little time to prep, I thought it my best option thinking the video submission was to demo the presenter’s style.
Weeks later, I learned I was selected as one of the nine presenters to talk on the theme of “disruptive innovation,” a term coined by Clayton Christensen, Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors. Think of the PC, the internet, smart phones, and iTunes, all game changers. PCs and the internet changed access to knowledge; smart phones radically changed the way we communicate; and iTunes completely changed the music industry. My submission tied the concept to education.
About a month prior to the talk, speakers attended a meeting to get the scoop. We were told to submit a written draft of our speech. After the meeting, I shared with our organizer, “I’ve spoken for over ten years, and I’ve not ever written out what I’m saying. I write and outline and (using one of Robert Marzano’s nine, high-yield instructional strategies) I find an image (a “nonlinguistic representation” of the big idea I’m talking about).” Granted, our organizer was in a hurry to shuffle us out to go pitch the program to a local city government, but she replied, “Maybe we can transcribe your talk.” Knowing the TED site inside and out, I thought of the official website. Each speaker has his video posted with a verbatim script of the talk underneath, thus I assumed this to be what she was seeking.
Days later, an email reminder was sent out to all marking the deadline for rough draft submissions. Casually, I replied reminding her of our discussion explaining,
“I’ve been presenting for a little over 10 years in a variety of venues, and I’ve not ever written a speech as such (I promise I’m not trying to be difficult…the last thing I want to be…it just feels restricting; and so much of what I do is based on the vibe and feel of the “optimal experience” when I’m locked into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “flow,” so I’m wondering if I can present to you next week to get a feel for what I’ve got and what needs to be whittled and recorded. As I shared the other day, I don’t think it’s even possible to stay on script even if I wrote it down. Advice? Help? Guidance?”
“I don’t expect you to read a script, never deviating from specific sentences that were written in that script. That being said, neither am I willing to let you get up on the TEDxMarcusHighSchool stage and go on and on for 18 minutes about what I thought was the idea you presented in your video but turned out to be something very different because the ‘flow’ led you there. I want you to write a draft. I’ll need your commitment to stick to that draft. I understand that it might not be your preferred way of presenting, but it is necessary in order to be a presenter at TEDxMarcusHighSchool.”
Thus began a series of exchanges centered on her attempts to put me in a box and my defiance to acknowledge the box exists.
The colleague who shared the marathon analogy sent me a Stuff You Should Know podcast he’d recently heard about TED Talks. Listening to
the podcast gave me new insight; and perhaps what I was being asked to do was in fact the “TED way.” The podcasters talk of the brand consciousness of TED; and I get it, it’s just not what I expected from TED. The point that grabbed me in the episode was the fact that TED speakers are often scientists or mathematicians who are not gifted orators; and their work is polished to fit the TED mold. By far, my favorite takeaway was the reference to the blog written by TED talker Tim Urban. His humorous experience mirrors mine (i.e. memorized scripts and the harshness of the critique beforehand).
I [somewhat] obliged. Opting to craft my script in an outline with verbiage for each of my slides, I spent 12+ hours crafting a script over the weekend. Granted, the first six were spent mostly chasing rabbits. Narrowing such huge concept under the mandatory 18 minutes or less is a formidable task. And while 18 minutes is not long in real time, transcribing the message verbatim, word by word, is laborious and the script lengthy. Sunday evening, I submitted it telling my wife, “I feel really good about the final draft.”
Monday morning, I awoke to the following reply.
“Hey there! I can tell you’ve been working hard on this. I’m so glad you’re willing to embrace the TEDx expectation of a script. While I know this is stretching you, I also trust that it’s growing you which is worth more than anything, in my opinion! You told me from the get-go that trimming your talk to 18 minutes is going to be the hard part for you. From the length of your draft, I would agree with you. I don’t think you’ll be able to give this talk in 18 minutes, as is, without sounding like the voice actor in the 1980 Micro-Machine commercials, and even if you were able to get it all in, I think our audience would be glassy-eyed from the amount of information given in such a short amount of time.
Think about this: the first time I ever tried sushi, my brother, who LOVES sushi, took me to an authentic sushi restaurant. No California rolls for us! He ordered his favorite kind that involved the word ‘eel’. When our order came, I followed my brother’s lead and placed the entire piece of sushi in my mouth. He happily chewed, swallowed quickly, and moved on to his next piece. I, however, was overwhelmed with all the unique tastes and immediately regretted putting the whole piece in my mouth. I’ll spare you the gory details of what happened next, but understand that I’ve NEVER had sushi, again, and it is, now, my brother’s favorite story to rehash at family holidays. I’m afraid that this in depth, detail-rich, poignant-saturated talk with wordy, lengthy slides would be the equivalent of a whole piece of eel sushi in the mouth of a novice.”
My initial reaction, “Did she just say my audience is going to puke upon hearing my talk?” Reread. “Yes, yes, she did.”
Honestly, I was crushed. Immediately, I was sent back in time to high school and coaches yelling how pathetic I was in what I suppose was to motivate me. Frankly, I’m tenderhearted by nature; and it didn’t motivate me. The harsh, expletive laden words and tone cut to the core of my being. I wanted to cry. Only, there’s no crying in football (except for Brian’s Song). I swallowed the words and prayed for the day to end. Some 30 years later, I wanted the same, only it was six in the morning. My wife encouraged me, but I doubted I could stand in front of an audience and deliver my message. Monday morning was spent reeling in my woundedness. By afternoon, having read the email multiple times to friends and colleagues who’d seen my work firsthand, my confidence was revived; and I resorted to my go-to, self-defense mechanism, humor. Replying to her email, I closed with a smart ass response. “I’ve yet to have anyone hurl at a presentation of mine; so you’re help in keeping my talk puke-proof helps. Otherwise, I’ll have to go to DFW and grab some airline bags for a prop.” (We were told all props had to be approved prior to use.) Her reply indicated, “Point made.” I had every intent to take a sushi tray to my first rehearsal, but it was derailed by an extraordinarily busy day at the office.
Our first one-on-one was to do a run through of the script while being timed. Using my script, I read as if I were delivering the talk inclusive of dramatic pauses. 13 minutes. And I didn’t speed read like Micro Machines/FedEx man as she’d insinuated. I popped a wry smile at her surprise; and I left having been told, “The goal is for you to start memorizing.” And we’re back. Back to memorizing the script that set off the aforementioned chain of events.
Tim Urban describes the expectation as “Happy Birthday level memorized” in the blog I mentioned before, “Doing a TED Talk: The Full Story.”
“If you’re in a restaurant and your table starts singing Happy Birthday to someone you’re with, you can join in with them even if you’re simultaneously taking a picture of the birthday girl, moving some stuff out of the way so the waiter has a place on the table to put the cake, observing the other people in the restaurant looking over and wishing this wasn’t happening, and four other things. It’s no problem—you can still sing the lyrics. You can do that because the lyrics to Happy Birthday aren’t coming out of your conscious mind—they’re coming out of your subconscious. They’re coming out automatically, and your conscious mind can focus entirely on other things while you’re singing.
The people at TED refer to two tests you need to pass to qualify as Happy-Birthday-level memorized:
If you record yourself saying the talk and play it back at 2x speed, can you say it out loud while it’s playing and stay ahead of the recording?
Can you recite the talk with no problem while simultaneously doing an unrelated task that requires attention, like following a recipe and measuring out the ingredients into a bowl?
You wouldn’t have thought that of TED, huh? I didn’t nor has anyone I’ve told this story. Intending to do my best memorization, something happened. In the school business, we call it, “May.” Ask any educator, “Which month is most difficult, May or August?” The question is always met with a lengthy pause; and the answer is usually reflective of the time of year asked.
Before I left my initial reading, I was reminded to submit my set of slides for approval the next day. Knowing these were due, I asked of the time. “Midnight,” was the reply. We chatted a bit about the restrictions TED imposes; and they are imposing. Having looked up hosting a TEDx event a few years ago, I knew some of their specifications. From the mandatory use of coloring such as the “TED red (Pantone 485)” to the typeface and kerning of the fonts, etc.; TED is quite the precisionist. (I used the thesaurus to find a more gentle word than “anal retentive.”) What I didn’t know, “Which rules were TED’s and which rules were our organizer’s?” In this case I asked, “Are timelines and deadlines determined by TED?” Unequivocally, she responded, “By me.” I rarely find a rule that isn’t subject to scrutiny or question. Partially, I want to understand and not blindly accept. Secondly, I have an innate tendency to test the boundary or “poke the box” as Seth Godin describes in his book of the same phrase. (And mom thought all those teenage years were annoying. Just this weekend, when she came to hear my talk, she talked of my boundary violations explaining to my wife that if given a midnight curfew, I’d sit in the drive until 12:01 AM just to prove a point. “Look at me now, mom!”) I don’t know about other educators, but Friday night for a teacher equates to falling asleep during the 7 o’clock movie. Doing the very best I could do within the window of time I had to work, I submitted mine on time. After I awoke on Saturday, I recorded an audio version of the presentation (adding back some of the content I’d previously been encouraged to cut for the sake of time). I’d planned to listen to the audio recording in the truck on the way to and from work, etc. But something was off. After pondering what, I decided the slides needed reordering. So, I went to the Google Drive (where I’d submitted my slides), pulled them off, deleted them, and replaced them in the new order (in addition to adding a few new ones). I emailed the organizer of my changes explaining I knew them to be “14 hours past the deadline” but wanting them to be “epic” as she often described the event to be. And I waited a bit sheepishly. Both Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning passed without a response; and I began to worry if she was waiting to hear back from TED if she could cut a speaker. After lunch, I finally received a reply to “go ahead and change them;” and “I’m assuming you already did.” (I did.) “Consider it done and in concrete. No more changes.” (Yet, I did, again.)
Not knowing what to expect after my boundary-busting, the first run-through went well. I delivered a soliloquy on stage for the custodial staff over the sounds of buffing and waxing machines. Our organizer sat behind me as I talked; and I was encouraged by her words afterwards. We chatted a bit, talked of family, school, and TED. We were having a breakthrough. Connecting. She shared that she was slotting me last as the “headliner,” the most coveted spot. I’d come a long way from inducing food poisoning.
Each of us received an email warning of the “hook.”
I [want] to draw your attention to the “hook,” as they call it in TEDx-land…the verbiage that will be said should any of your talks go over the allotted 18 minutes. This is why I’ve been so adamant that we be as sure as possible that you NOT go over. Not only is it embarrassing (for you and for us), but it also negates the idea that your talk will get uploaded for submission to TEDx’s YouTube channel. Most of you have nothing to worry about. Those of you who are cutting it close, please make sure you are practicing and memorizing to optimize your time to avoid the “hook”.
Being last, I felt the weight of negating the talks prior to mine. No pressure.
As luck would have it, months ago, I was asked to give a keynote at a technology conference in Houston; and my topic was an hour-long version of my TEDx Talk. Frankly, I enjoyed it more than the TEDx Talk. Whaaat? When left to my own devices, I use music, video, humor, story, etc. Not only do I have an hour in which to ebb and flow, I have more freedom from the restrictions of Creative Commons. But it was a long day in a long week. Sunday, I drove to Austin to attend an innovation summit. Tuesday, I drove home. Wednesday, I delivered my second and final dress rehearsal before driving to Houston to keynote on Thursday. After wrapping up about 10 AM, I drove to Waco, picked up my mom, and headed back just in the nick of time for the Thursday night dress rehearsal scheduled from 6 – 10 PM. Not wanting to oversleep my keynote, I awoke at 3 AM, 3:30 AM, 4 AM, and finally got out of bed at 4:30 AM (to rearrange slides for the keynote). By 4:30 PM, I was exhausted. I’d purchased a few bottles of 5-Hour Energy, and I sipped one thinking, “4:30 + 5 = 9:30 PM.” By the time I got to Marcus High School, the host site, I was wired. Sleep didn’t come until 2 AM of the day of the talks. In between the sip and the sleep, I finally got to be a part of what the others were talking about.
For as much as I anticipated the talk itself, I looked forward to the dress rehearsal. Because we would be sequestered Friday during the event, this was our chance to hear our peer’s talks. Topics were as diverse as the audience.
First, Aamir talked about working with students of poverty and teaching them the unlimited things they could learn using STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). After talking with him at our opening meeting, I was excited to see the 50-MPH, battery-operated bicycle he built, rode to school on, and burned his house down with; and he didn’t disappoint. Mikel talked of the façade of social media and the front people put up using it. Having battled her weight, she talked of how she uses it for accountability by posting reality. When she finished and sat beside me in tears, I told her Brené Brown would love her talk, and I was sending it to her when posted. Brad brought out a homemade “sock grabber” he’d made as a child and talked of exploding personal operating systems. As a police detective and pastor, he talked of being in both worlds. Then, Nimisha, a ninth grader at Marcus HS, blew us away. Thus far, everyone struggled to recall parts of speech, stopped, regained composure, and continued. When she arrived for the evening, we chatted. Asking her if she had a favorite TED talker, she offered up Sarah Kay. I’d seen her talk, and I understood why. Kay, a spoken word poet, is breathtaking, and like Nimisha, a young person. When she finished her perfect rendition of flourishing between her worlds of being an Indian girl in American culture, I told her, “Sarah Kay would be proud.” While I enjoyed all talks, and it is difficult to pick one from such a diverse set, if pressed, I would say her talk was my favorite. From her voice inflections to her spot-on gestures to her use of story to capture the pride, fear, and humor of being a teen, she was extraordinary. Melanie, a librarian, caught out attention early. Her cart full of books and gadgets spilled to the floor wheeling it up to the stage (hence why we were dress rehearsing). She recovered her things and herself and delivered a talk on the transition from a traditional, “shushing” librarian to one fully embracing collaborative learning adorned with Maker Spaces. During each transition point, she removed a piece of traditional librarian garb (i.e. wide rim glasses, hair pins, school sweater, etc.). Intermission gave us time to talk and get to know one another a bit; and I enjoyed chatting with my new found friends. I collected money for a thank you gift for our host and the thankless, behind the scenes work she was doing so we could have our 15 18 minutes of fame. Dominic followed our intermission and brought an entire drum line. Tracy, whom I got to know best since we sat by one another, talked of her misery and emptiness with Wall Street to forming her own LLC helping others rediscover self, transform life, and find success naturally by doing what they do best by sharing individual gifts and talents with the world. Her message spoke to me. I’m a millennial trapped in a Gen X body. Next, Reagan, another high school student got up to speak right before me. Having heard him share his topic, “Innovations of Invisible Injuries,” at our initial gathering, I wanted to know his story. From the few seconds he spoke, I knew he would be addressing concussions; and I was right. Just eight months ago, he sustained what his doctors called “the worst concussion we’ve seen in our office” playing football. His talk centered on the difficulty he had with not only the symptoms, but the side effects of its impact on his relationships with his family and peers. Using a doctor’s lab coat as a prop, he would put it on when speaking as a doctor giving him medical advice and take it off when he spoke as himself. It was both clever and effective. More poignant, however, was his use of note cards (normally disallowed from a TED Talk, but was after our organizer explained his condition as a part of his talk). All of us rooted for Reagan. He struggled to get through dress rehearsal; and my heart hurt for him. I’ve not met a more mannered kid than him. He’s just the kind of kid you root for as an educator. Finally, I took the stage and delivered my impassioned plea and call to action to transform the educational system as we know it. Rehearsal came to a close; and we all left anxious for the next few hours to pass.
After only a few hours of sleep, I awoke thinking of the big day. At work, I passed time mindlessly from one task to the next until I’d done enough to call it a day. I tried resting to no avail before it was time to suit up. So I reached for another 5-Hour Energy shot before leaving at 4:30 PM. How late I stayed awake was of no matter to me. All of us arrived at Marcus High School prior to 5 PM; and we found the “green room,” the place we were to be sequestered for the evening until time to be mic’d up. The room was stone-cold silent with speakers studying notes. A few minutes to six, Aamir was whisked away. The room sat stoic until he returned 18 minutes later to a round of applause. “How’d it go?” we asked. “It was awesome!” Aamir replied apologizing for his excitement. Everyone refused his apology; and we waited until Mikel returned to the cheers of all of us. By the time Brad finished, the atmosphere flipped. Sighs of relief opened dialogue. I figured if I didn’t know my talk by this time… I joined into the discussions about family, faith, and food, etc. Honestly, getting to know one another was the best part of the night. One by one, the talkers spoke of how they’d done and how grateful they were to be done. Regan and I were to be the last two. He and I got to chat quite a bit. What a remarkable kid! Having been a mentor for the past few years, I wished I could do the same with him. After his struggles the previous night, I mic’d up early; and I got to hear his whole talk. He nailed it!
I’d been forewarned the high school student who mic’d us up asked the same of everyone. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” And each time he’d answer his own question, “You’ll get on stage, forget what you were going to say, freeze, and recover in a few seconds.” Having been tipped off, when he asked, “Can I give you some advice?” Playing along, I said, “Of course.” On cue, he asked, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? You’ll get on stage, forget what you were going to say, freeze, and recover in a few seconds.” Unrestrained, I said, “Oh, I thought the worst thing that could happen would be to shart on stage.” Dumbfounded, he said, “You got me there. That would be worse.”
And it was off to the stage. The wireless remote felt awkward and unfamiliar in my hand, but nothing was as intimidating as the countdown clock. Knowing if it hit 0:00, I’d be yanked off stage, shamed, and humiliated with the following,
“Unfortunately, our speaker has gone over his allotted 18 minutes, which is a TEDx mandate, and must end their talk immediately. I’m going to ask them to step off the stage at this time.”
My talk ended with under a minute to go. Though I’d forgotten a few key references and quotes I wanted to include, the audience was none the wiser. I walked off to applause; and I was met by an ear to ear grin from our event organizer. “You nailed it!”
Once the ceremony concluded, the speakers mingled with the audience. A number stood to talk with me. From former and current teachers to parents and audience members, we dialogued with each other on the points of the talk that resonated. With the crowd dissipating, I went to have my picture taken with Nimisha. “This girl is going places,” I told her parents. “You all should be very proud.”
As the cast left and crew wrapped up, I went to our organizer who was talking with a colleague. I interrupted, hugged her, and handed her our card and gift. “You jerk!” she blurted. “You did not have to do that.” Explaining I knew how much thankless work she’d done behind the scenes, I offered it was just a little something to recognize her explaining, “None of us would have been able to share our stories during the talk and of being part of TED without her. Deflecting, she said, “You all made it happen. You rocked it tonight.” I thanked her and shared, “This is my passion. This is what I want to do.” As I walked up to her, I’d overheard her say she wanted to go work for TED, so clearly commingling our two comments, she quipped, “Work for TED? You? You are so not TED material.” Giggling, I said, “You are so right.” It’s funny, for an entity known for its [red] circle, TED puts its talkers in a box.
All in all, it was a successful evening of talks, but more than the speeches, the friends I made with my fellow presenters brought me the most joy. We’re already talking of doing a podcast together. I’ve connected with our two high schoolers on Twitter. Both were incredible speakers and even more remarkable people. I will follow their journey. And after all our vexing and pushing one another’s buttons, I count our organizer as my friend; and we continue our banter to and fro via email. By far, my favorite photo is of she and I just prior to the show.
While I didn’t get an oval sticker marking my accomplishment, I did walk away with a TEDx t-shirt and the ability to say, “I gave a TED Talk,” my 26.2.