Why My TedX Talk Scared Me To Death

Fear is an interesting thing. So much of it is irrational. Fear of the unknown, fear of things that have practically zero possibility of happening, and for some, the fear of the bizarre e.g. Clowns.

But when fear strikes it can paralyze us, make us panic and put us in a position where seemingly easy things become practically impossible.

One of the tops fears for many people, is the fear of public speaker.

This something I never understood. Yes, I get it can feel daunting to get up and speak, especially in front of people you have never met before. But this was something I never really suffered from, and when I was younger I used to perform stand up comedy.

Which let me tell you isn’t easy. Not only is it a form of public speaking but it’s one where you are hoping to make an audience laugh, and them just sitting silently through your performance is not a good things – and yes I have experienced that.

And still, I never understood the fear of speaking that I see in many people that I know, where wild horses couldn’t drag them onto the stage in front of even a small audience let alone a few hundred.

Feeling the real fear of talking for the first time.

Yet all that changed when I decided to do my first TedX Talk, which I decided to make a little more interesting by doing it in French, in front of an audience of 500 French people in France.

Now, this did push me outside my comfort zone, but I thought it would be relatively easy because my partner of the last 18 years in Belgian and we speak French at home on a daily basis. If pushed I would say that I am bi-lingual.

Yet as I started to prepare for the talk, the closer the date got the less confident I started to feel.  

Initially, I wrote my talk in English as it was going to be a new talk, then I was going to translate it into French, once I was happy with it.

As that translation process started, I began to realize that my spoken French was quite lazy,

I was actually making a lot of mistakes. I didn’t pay attention to whether nouns were masculine or feminine, which in French is very important. I also noticed that some of the words I was using were wrong, but my wife never corrected it because she thought it was cute. 

The caused the first fear to came up, which was that I wouldn’t be able to rely on one of my key strengths, as a speaker, which is to speak in a way that everyone can easily understand the message that I was trying to get across.

My solution to this was that I would get my wife to review the French and to make sure it was perfect. That every tense was correct, that the structure was correct, and that I had the right gender for every noun.

This turned out to be a double-edged sword because I now had a talk that was perfect, but it wasn’t the way I spoke French. This meant that I would need to memorize the entire talk in order to be word perfect and understood.

Now while that seems to be a simple solution, that’s not actually how I do my speaking. I tend to speak from the heart, rather than learning the talks by heart. This makes the talks feel more natural and allows me the freedom to make subtle changes depending on how the audience reacts, or if there are some new ideas that I want to insert I can do that.  

At this point, which was actually just three days before I had to give the talk I began to feel like I was completely outside my comfort zone. Not only was I going to be doing a talk in French, but I was going to be doing it on camera in front of 500 people, I was going to have to learn it by heart, and I wouldn’t be able to do any ad-libs because I couldn’t guarantee they would be perfect French and therefore understood.

Each time I went through the lines, I was still making changes. Sometimes to try and clarify the messages, or to make the French easier for me to remember.

When I arrived in Belfort, the day before the event, I was very nervous, more so than any other talk I had ever done in my life.  I was invited to a meeting with the other speakers, which I thought would just be a meet and greet, but that actually turned out to be a mini-rehearsal. Within 20 minutes of arriving, I was called up and asked to do the talk in front of 10 people.

This was the first time anyone other than my wife would hear the talk.

I felt unprepared mentally, this was not what I was expecting, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, which actually caused me to panic.

Shit just got real

It was here that I learned something that I didn’t really appreciate about how the mind works.  When we panic, we do so in our mother tongue.  So as I took to the stage to give the talk, my brain was panicking in English and I was trying to do the talk in French.

The start went fine, but about 3 minutes in I lost my place and my panic level rose to DEFCON 2 (highest level is DEFCON 1 – Nuclear war is imminent).

It was all out panic.

I couldn’t remember the French phrase I needed to say, I knew it in English, but my ability to translate was shut down as now all brain functions were in English-only mode.

I froze like a deer in the headlights. Now I have no idea for how long that freeze lasted but to me it felt like a lifetime before I was able to continue.

When I finished, the organizer, Christian said it was a nice talk, he tried to make me feel more relaxed and confident. But he also mentioned that the talk was a little on the long side at 17 minutes.

I said, “but I thought all TedX talks were a maximum of 18 minutes so at 17 this is within the time limit. He replied simply by saying “that’s is true but we like our speakers to try and keep their talks to 12 minutes, as we find this is a much better length for keeping the audience engaged”.

24 hours before I was due to give the talk, I couldn’t remember it perfectly, I could ad-lib or work my way through it because my brain was in English only mode, and now I had to cut 6 minutes from the talk to meet the deadline.

Now we’re at DEFCON 1. 

Now I understood the fear that others felt when faced with public speaking and it’s not a feeling that is conducive to productivity, creativity or great performance.

To say I didn’t sleep very well that night would be a slight understatement.

The following day I got up at 5am, even though I had been awake since 3. I decided I would work on looking to reduce the speech because no point in learning something I was going to change.

The challenge was my talk was about my little secrets to your big success which are Aim High, Start Small, Celebrate, and Keep Going.

Now I can’t cut any of these because it would completely change the talk and reduce its impact and value. So that meant I have to cut over a minute from each section.

After cutting as much as I could, without reducing the idea, the talk was still about 15 minutes. I took out any long words and replaced them with shorter words if they existed. I am a big believer in the power of 3 so I often use three adjectives or give three small examples and I now had to look to cut these down to one. 

I felt there was nothing more to cut out, and the only thing left for me was to try and speak faster, which didn’t make me that that much better.

Many people think that long speeches are difficult, but it’s the short talks that are actually the toughest because you have to try and get your message across succinctly, clearly and in a way that allows people to fully understand. With longer talks you can add examples to help illustrate your point, or give a case study to enhance their understanding. 

But with the short talks, every word is valuable, and you need to find a way to say a lot in as few words as possible. 

Cutting the talk down to 15 minutes, but without diluting its impact took me several hours to, which wasn’t helped by the fact I had to so it in French.  This only left me with one hour to learn the talk before I had to do the final rehearsal.

I’d love to tell yo that this final rehearsal went well, but that would be a lie. With the panic, the changes – which I hadn’t fully mastered – and trying to do the talk quicker, I very quickly started to stumble, struggle with pronunciation, miss parts and to be honest completely butcher the talk.

After just 5 minutes I was asked to stop and I feared the worst.

But Christian just said “ok, we have enough, the sound is good, let’s move on to the next speaker”.

For a moment I thought he was giving me the hook,. But as he didn’t know the talk, he didn’t know I had missed bits plus he was checking technical issues rather than content. I guess he just assumed that we all knew our talks.

It was now midday. A group lunch had been arranged for all the speakers, and that would be followed by a tour of the local castle.

But given it was only 5 hours until the curtain went up I decided that I couldn’t participate. I needed to seriously work on the talk, but in terms of memorizing it, and also speeding up the delivery.

I felt so far out of my comfort zone, I began to question question whether this was actually a good idea and maybe, pulling out might be the safer option. There were 12 speakers planned so a cut to 11 wouldn’t be that big a loss. I even argued that it might be a good thing as it would allow people to go home a little earlier.

As I sat there thinking about what to do, it dawned on me that the theme of the TedX was Turning the Impossible to Possible. And that even in my own talk I mentioned the fears that we need to overcome to achieve our big goals, and that the power of power of persistence is a talent multiplier, and that repetition can help us improve our performance and results.

Yet here I was thinking about quitting, when my talk was all about the opposite.

Fortunately, I was speaker number 11 out of the 12, which meant that I didn’t just have 4-5 hours to rehearse but that I could also skip out on the talks of the others – something I was loathed to do – which would give me at least another 2 hours to practice and embed the talk.

The best I could do for my talk was to get it to 14 minutes. I decided that was close enough, it was well under the 18 minutes, and now it was time to just memorize, memorize, memorize.

I was in my hotel room and I just kept going through the talk over and ove, first reading the notes, then  having them available but trying to do it from memory and then without.

After 3-4 hour of solid repetition, I had the talk down pat, it was a bit flat. I was just regurgitating it for now. Committing it to memory. My first concern was to be able to deliver it. Working on the delivery itself felt like a luxury I wasn’t going to have today.

I got dressed and went over to the event with my wife. I felt calm, but on meeting the other speakers, especially the first speaker who had been excellent in rehearsal and seeing his nerves, just knocked me back a bit,

I sat through his talk, which after a nervous start he delivered very well, and I went outside, I decided that I couldn’t waste any available moment of practice.

Now that I was able to go through it faultlessly, remembering each and every part without skipping anything or getting stuck I started to think about how I would deliver it, put some feeling and emotion into it to start to bring the talk to life.

At the interval my wife came to look for me. I was outside, pacing up and down going over the talk. speaking it out loud, adding gestures to emphasize this point or that point.

When I saw her I started the talk from the beginning, I wanted her to see the whole thing how I’d improved and get her feedback.  

As she listened, she smiled, and nodded as i made the key points, and at the end she gave me a round of applause. I’m not sure whether or not the performance deserved it, but it was just what I needed.

She gave me a kiss and asked me to go through one more time, and not to change anything.

This helped my confidence, but I still needed to do it in front of a live audience of French people, and that thought had my knees knocking loud enough to hear.

As the speaker before me took to the stage I was called up to get ready, have the microphone attached and go through some final pointers.

I told them my talk would be 14 minutes and not 12, and they were ok with that so that was one less thing to worry about.

As I waited I could feel the fear again starting to rise. I knew it was irrational as I had really learned the talk and knew it back to front inside out and now it was just going to be my fear, and that alone that would impact,

It was then when I remember what my brother Phil had told me when I did my first ever professional talk. He made me pinch my thumb and for finger, he said this would help anchor the feeling, and he wanted me to remember the best game of rugby I had ever played, and image in a big hit, and how that made me feel. He asked me to really remember every detail about how I felt.

I told him I felt invincible. 

As I waited for Christian to call me I pinched again my thumb and forefinger and that feeling of invincibility came flooding back just as I entered the stage.

That feeling, coupled with the knowledge that I knew the talk got me through the first couple of minutes after which I was able to relax and give the talk comfortably.

I got great feedback, and a great second round of applause when Christian informed the audience it was my first talk in French.

Now that the talk is over I want to thank all those that helped me Christian Arbez who organized the event, gave me the opportunity and was a calming influence throughout, to Phil who’s tip on how to feel invincible helped me take the stage with confidence and also to Carine who helped me craft the talk, who helped me learn the talk and encouraged me front start to finish.

Finally I wanted to share three things that I learned from this experience

  • First, I learned about the fear that some people have around public speaking and how debilitating it can be and that will help me empathize with them so much better
  • Second Repetition, Repetition and Repetition are three tools that can help you overcome nerves and give you more confidence in your ability and help perfect your talk
  • And lastly, if I had learned number 2 earlier then so many of my talks in English could have been even better.