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Monday, 11 March 2013

Speaking at TEDxCheltenham



tedxchelt
Photo Credit: Spencer McPherson and Phil Stevens at All In The Image

I've been a fan of TED talks for years. So when I heard about the TEDxCheltenham event, happening only a few miles away from where I live, I obviously put my name on the waiting list for tickets. A little while later, I heard they were looking for someone to blog the event - I put myself forwards for this and somehow, in conversation with the organiser, I ended up being invited to speak about my PhD work instead.

I said I'd think about it.

So I thought. I paced up and down, wondering what narrative I could possibly weave, on the subject of research that isn't even completed yet. I thought more, paced more, went over every possible reason to say no: My experiments aren't finished yet. I get nervous around public speaking. No-one would care about my work. I'm simply not good enough.

But ultimately, saying no to an opportunity like this just isn't in my make-up. I just don't say no to exciting and cool and mind-blowing experiences, even when they're terrifying.

I said yes.

That wasn't the end of the pacing, of course, and the panic only increased. What on earth had I done? Why was I putting myself through this crazy process? But as well as pacing and panicking, I planned. On buses and trains, on post-its and the backs of envelopes (but mostly on my phone), I made notes and sketched outlines and drew links between ideas.

By the time the day came around, I had a structure and a story. I was assigned to the slot just before lunch, shared with a genuine local celebrity in the form of chef Rob Rees. Several friends were in the audience, and others I knew were watching the live webcast from home.

My previous public speaking experience has come in two forms: scientific talks at technical conferences, and travel narratives for social clubs. TEDx is a somewhat different venue.

I was prepared for some of the differences, not least that I'd be presenting a technical topic to a general (and potentially worldwide) audience. What I didn't predict was the blindingly bright lights, which made it impossible to see the audience I was addressing, and left me feeling like a rabbit quite literally caught in the headlights. And the heat output was amazing - a couple of the other speakers had been visibly dripping, and if I avoided the same fate, it was only by giving a slightly shorter talk.

This isn't the story of one of those videos that goes instantly viral, with it's universal message and slick presentation: I wasn't perfect. I wasn't even the best I could be. The nerves I thought I'd dismissed came back full force as I stepped onto the stage and started to address the invisible, silent crowd (well, they were silent until I made them laugh - that at least was feedback). I started to speak, I hesitated, I lost my place and skipped a (probably crucial) part of the context as I struggled to rediscover the thread of my narrative.

But you know what? It wasn't an unmitigated disaster, either. People sought me out afterwards to tell me how my words had affected them, and to feed in their own stories. They wanted to tell me their anecdotes of previously-inexplicable behaviour, which my talk had somehow explained for them. I hadn't performed at my best, but my imperfect speech had still resonated.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, yes! It was a baptism of fire, certainly, but it's important to challenge yourself with the things that scare you. Five or six years ago I wouldn't have been able to get a word out - I wouldn't have dared to accept - and I would have missed a tremendous experience.

I'd also encourage anyone who has chance, to attend one of the many TEDx events around the world. The other talks were entertaining, there was a ton of food to keep us all nourished, and plenty of break-out time for informal conversations with speakers and audience members alike. Plus, the tickets for TEDx events are much more reasonable than the thousands (which most of us will never be able to afford) to attend a full TED conference!

My video is embedded below, if you're interested, or you can find all TEDx talks on their YouTube channel.

TEDxCheltenham Group Photo
Photo Credit: Spencer McPherson and Phil Stevens at All In The Image

TEDxCheltenham

TEDxCheltenham

TEDxCheltenham



14 comments:

Tabor said...

BRAVO! Both for getting invited to speak at such an elite venue and also for being brave enough to jump in with both feet. YOu are lucky, you should be proud, and you have learned so much from this. Now I have to go find you!

Jules said...

Congratulations Rachel! You did a great job. I enjoyed watching, your talk raised a lot of interesting issues.

I smiled when you mentioned Rob, I remember his very early days 'cheffing' at Stroud Farmer's market on a Saturday morning, years ago!

rosaria williams said...

Brava!~ One has to accept challenges. Only then, we grow and can be stronger in the next event. You are a brilliant person, Rachel, and I'm glad you went ahead with the challenge.

Domestic Executive said...

I thought your talk was fascinating - well done for putting yourself out there!

Ginny Marie said...

Well done! I had to laugh at the part about swear words. My husband works at a manufacturing plant, and a few of the guys he works with have to tone it down when they meet me. That means they only say the f-word once or twice! ;)

Rachel said...

Brava, Rachel, I'll come back and watch this when I have time and calm around me!

Bibliomama said...

Good for you! I've gotten much better (which is to say still incredibly bad) at doing things that terrify me, and it is SUCH a rush when you actually do it. I have to come back too - daylight savings time has us all nodding off in the living room tonight and I'm putting my crew to bed early with books.

Mike Harvey said...

Congratulations. The only public speaking I ever did was for my CSE English many years ago. It was meant to be a three minute talk with questions afterwards. I ended up with about a 90 second talk then spent around five minutes answering one question.:( In my defence I must add that the question was slightly outside what I'd talked about. My subject was the history of electronics and the teacher/adjudicator asked a question about future developments.

Your talk took me back to when I worked for the nhs.uk website programme team. We used to organise a conference every year and my then boss gave a talk at the one I went to. He claimed that he was so nervous beforehand that he felt like he was going to throw up. The talk seemed to me to go down OK though.

Rachel said...

Back again, having had the necessary peace and tranquillity..! That was fascinating, Rachel, and it was lovely to be reminded of the fun I had doing textual analysis years ago. Perhaps your analysis goes some way to explaining why some online fora seem so bad-tempered!

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christine said...

that's my girl! it was very interesting. Well done sweetheart, I am, as ever, so proud of you:) xx

Charlotte Klein said...

RACHEL!!! That is AMAZING! So very proud of you. Will watch later when I am home and have sound on my computer but you ROCK! I'm not sure I would have been able to keep the nerves at bay, and I give so many kudos to you for fighting through and getting up there!

Julie Jordan Scott said...

This is so cool! I call you a definite rock star! I would love such an opportunity and wow - you are inspiring me! Ahhh, that feels so good!

I am visiting from the SITSharefest & I am so glad I did!

Denine, from We Know Stuff said...

Rachel, I'm coming to your blog from one of the groups on facebook, and I'm so glad that I did. I cannot believe that you spoke at TEDx - that is just amazing. I loved listening to your presentation - body language speaks louder than any of our words can. I work in the mental health field as a social marketer and we talk about body language all of the time. Again, great job!

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