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Don’t you love the way our subconscious minds like to present every possible potential problem to us, like some kind of overprotective nanny whose motto is “forewarned is forearmed”?
Over the last few weeks, as the date of my TED talk inched closer, my mind has been serving up disaster scenarios to me on pretty much a daily basis, sometimes while I slept, sometimes when I allowed my mind to wonder off into a daydream. These scenarios included: “What happens if I forget my talk?” “What happens if I trip as I walk onto the stage?” “What happens if no one laughs at the bits that are supposed to be funny?” And “What happens if someone I don’t like turns up and sits in the front row glaring at me?”
Years ago I trained as a clinical hypnotherapist so I am no stranger to the concept of mentally rehearsing. I know that repeatedly rehearsing a disaster scenarios is a sure fire way of inviting that unwanted thing to show up, so whenever I caught myself doing this I made a determined effort to stop and replace the thoughts with something more positive. Easier to do when you are awake than when you are asleep, of course!!
The day before TEDx Totnes (11 May) was one of those soaking wet May days when it seems like the rain will never stop. I was on first and I arrived at the venue – The Barn Cinema in Dartington – with a strange ringing in my ears, a feeling of breathlessness and a huge knot in my stomach. Luckily, only one other speaker had arrived so I walked onto the stage to a more or less empty auditorium, except for the organising team and the tech guys who were setting up the lighting and sound.
I started shakily and within a few minutes, I completely blanked. I stopped and someone prompted me. I took a deep breath and started again. Once again, I forgot my speech and stopped. This happened three times. I had thought I might get hot under the lights but, actually, I began to feel cold. Really freezing cold. By the end of my talk, I was so cold I was almost shivering. I was filled with horror at the thought that, in spite of all my practising, I was still not word perfect and that the following day I would be doing the talk to an auditorium full of people who had paid a not inconsiderable sum of money for the privilege of being there. My eyes filled with tears as I listened to the feedback from Danielle, the speaker coach, and Gillian, the organiser. They were reassuring and encouraging but I felt I had let them down and let myself down. It was lousy.
For the rest of the day, I couldn’t concentrate or focus. I thought about doing some work but I couldn’t. I watched a few of the other speakers’ talks. They all seemed very accomplished. No one else completely blanked as I had done. No one else looked as nervous as I felt. I felt pretty low. I went home to walk the dog and practice the talk on my walk as I had done more than 100 times before. My anxiety levels went through the roof as I found that I couldn’t even remember the bits that I’d always remembered easily. I knew I was panicking and I didn’t know how to stop it.
That evening was the speakers’ dinner, an opportunity to connect with the other speakers and to get to know one another a bit. I wasn’t sure I would be able to eat anything and I didn’t feel particularly sociable after my less than successful day to be honest but I went along and, to my surprise, I really enjoyed myself. We occupied a long table at the wonderful Riverford Field Kitchen and, although I wasn’t able to speak to every one of the speakers, I did manage to talk to a few of them and the conversations we had were inspiring and encouraging. I chose not to speak at length about my disappointing rehearsal, not wanting to replay it or reinforce it in my mind, but we spoke about our various journeys to become a TED speaker, all of them challenging and some of them poignant and painful.
As the day of TEDx dawned (12 May) I found, to my surprise, that I was less nervous than I had been on rehearsal day. Danielle had told me this was likely to be the case and, to be honest, I hadn’t believed her. But, she was right. Having come this far, there was a certain sense of inevitability about the day ahead and the same sort of feeling that you get on the day of a big exam when you know that there is no further preparation that you can do. Getting to know the speakers a little the night before had created a bond of camaraderie between us that was also helpful and supportive. I could see that even the experienced, accomplished speakers were looking slightly green around the gills as we waited for the day to begin and that made me feel encouraged that I was not alone with my nerves.
Unlike on rehearsal day, I was not one of the first speakers to present. In fact, my talk was not until 2.25pm, at the end of the penultimate session. This meant that I could sit and listen to the other speakers throughout the morning. The day began with a rousing session of drumming by Jake Cole, who was someone I knew even before TEDx. He spoke about his teenage journey through anger and depression to a place of greater contentment and peace at the grand old age of 25. It was quite extraordinary to hear one so young speaking with such wisdom and grace. There were other inspiring talks too, including a group of young people from Sands School in Ashburton who spoke with passion about the need to allow teenagers to take risks. As a bit of a risk taker myself, this one spoke to my heart.
The closer I got to the time of my talk, the harder I found it to concentrate on the words of others, to be honest. By lunchtime, I found myself unable to eat anything except for cake. I knew I should choose something nutritious but it felt like anything that wasn’t sweet and sugary might make me sick. I went for a walk in the beautiful grounds of Dartington Hall with a friend but felt like I was walking around inside a bubble – slightly separate from the rest of the world and unable to connect properly with anyone or anything.
All of the speakers for the third session – there were three of us – were required to be back stage for the duration of the session. I had taken my talk map with me and found myself gazing at it without really seeing it, while half listening to the disembodied voices of the other speakers as drifted through the curtains from the stage.
At Danielle’s suggestion, I had watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about body language a few days before and so I consciously held myself in a Wonder Woman pose as I looked at my talk map, or stood with my arms raised above my head and my eyes closed. No one took any notice. We were all, individually, encased in our own bubbles of gnawing anxiety, matched by determined courage. I listened to the applause die away for the TED video that was shown before my slot. I moved to my position behind the curtains, with Danielle’s hand at my back guiding me gently onto the stage. The point of no return.
Gillian introducing me as someone that would be familiar to anyone who had ever frequented any of Totnes’ cafes, pointing out that I was the one with the latte and the laptop. I walked into the dazzle of the spotlights to applause and laughter and immediately cracked a joke about being not knowing who Gillian was talking about in her introduction.
It is the weirdest feeling standing on the red circular TED carpet. You know that there are a hundred or more faces turned towards you, expectantly waiting you to deliver something interesting, inspiring, thought-provoking, poignant… And yet, you can’t see beyond the first row, except for maybe a few silhouettes right at the back of the room. I found, to my surprise and infinite relief, that the feeling of delivering the talk to a responsive audience allowed me to perform better than I had done at any time up to that point. People actually laughed when I made a joke. I found myself able to laugh too. I felt people take a breath as I changed the pace of the talk. My words caught in my throat as I talked of the teenage girls, Emilie Olsen and Nicola Ann Raphael who had committed suicide as a result of online bullying but I was able to hold it together in spite of my emotion.
It was a classic. I was coming to the end of my talk and I suddenly thought “hey, I didn’t forget this time…” Big mistake. Immediately, it was as though someone had pulled the plug out in my brain. Every thought in there suddenly vanished, to be replaced by a strange sort of blank buzzing. I stood still and took a breath. I had practiced what to do if this happened, on Danielle’s advice. She told me “take a breath, you do know it, don’t panic.” I could feel my heart beating and the tension in the room as everyone realised I had forgotten what to say next. There was no disguising this as a pause, it went on too long. And, despite my ferent hope, the words did not come back to me.
Jo, one of the TEDx volunteers was sitting in the front row. She knew how nervous I was after my struggles during rehearsals and had said to me before I went on that she would have a copy of my talk in front of her and would prompt me if I blanked. I looked at her. She said something to me but I couldn’t hear it. I continued to look at her. She said it again. This time I heard it and it reminded me where I was.
I picked the talk up again. My heart was still thumping so loudly I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d heard it at the back of the auditorium. I stumbled and staggered a little for a couple of sentences but then I took another breath and found my way back on track. I delivered the end of my talk with not with quite the same confidence as the early part of the talk but, nevertheless, without losing my focus entirely. In my mind’s eye, I walked the last few paces on the talk map, visualising the images on the page, until I finally reached the last sentence: “Now, wouldn’t that be a change worth making?” I finished and smiled. For a few seconds there was total silence. “Oh god, they thought it was crap!” my subconscious mind told me.
But then people clapped. And clapped. And clapped some more. I realised I hadn’t practised what to do at this point. I shuffled about feeling slightly awkward and uncomfortable. Should I stay on the stage and smile, or bow or something? Or should I walk off? I didn’t want people to think I’d overstayed my welcome. With a vague and awkward sense of confusion, I think I smiled and shuffled and smiled a bit more. Then I turned and fumbled with the curtains before walking off stage.
Danielle greeted me backstage with a huge beaming smile and her arms held wide. “You did it!” she said. “Yes, but I went wrong,” I replied. “I only heard you pause once but they were really with you, they were laughing along with you, you were great.”
I hugged her and felt myself able to breathe, as though someone had released me from a particularly tight corset. One by one, some of the other speakers appeared back stage and told me I had done a great job. I can’t remember now what any of them said except for one of them saying “I didn’t realise you were so cheeky, it was great.”
And so, after months of doubt, fear, determination, agonising, writing, revising, practising, self-talk (both helpful and unhelpful) and tears, I finally became a TED speaker. What a journey. What a privilege. What an amazing experience.
Thank you to everyone who supported me on this journey and to everyone who believed in me. I don’t know what comes next but I do know one thing. From this moment, I will never be the same again.