Nothing’s Wasted

No doubt the majority of my readers are far more familiar with TEDx talks than I am, and have watched many more than I have. They are a notion that has floated past me occasionally. I have been asked to do one a few times, usually by student associations and usually with very little warning.  Hence, although I have explored the format from time to time on YouTube and watched  a few of the much talked-about talks, I have always felt justified in saying ‘no’ to an invitation myself. This despite my frequently-given advice, on this blog and elsewhere, that one should try out new things. Undoubtedly there was a sneaky, lurking fear behind my refusal as well as a perfectly rational thought that, at less than two weeks (which was the length of time I was offered a couple of times) there was no way I could manage to perfect such a talk.  However, when the Royal Society approached me with considerably more warning, asking me to talk at this January’s TEDx Whitehall, I did not have the same justification for turning the offer down and, with considerable trepidation, I agreed.

With a couple of months to go it seemed so easy. The whole of the Christmas vacation to get my head around it and work out what I wanted to say: lots of time (but aren’t we all such wonderful procrastinators!).  I was sent advisory notes: the first sentence is key I was told. I fairly quickly worked out what I wanted that to be, so I felt sure the rest would follow (just like writing a blogpost when it’s the getting started that is hard).  Slowly I made headway with a rough outline and when I got a message indicating that a talk around women in science would probably not be ideal as there were plenty such on the web I felt smug. That wasn’t what I intended to talk about, so all would be well – but I still hadn’t actually written it. Nevertheless by a week before the dry run in early January I had my 15 minutes all laid out, written in big font because my eyesight (particularly in not-so-good-lighting) is not up to 11 or 12 point. And then I realised this was this not a PowerPoint talk – slides of which are always such a useful prompt. Nor was it a talk I could essentially read from my crib-sheet, as I do for after-dinner speeches  (even if I frequently ad lib and deviate from the intended words). On this occasion I was meant to have learned the whole thing like an actor learns their part. It had to be memorised.

Now the sad fact is that I am getting old and my brain plasticity is not what it was. Memory work, at least accurate memory work, seems to be beyond me. I have struggled with my few sentences of Latin in the Senate House when conferring degrees; how was I supposed to memorise 15 minutes’ worth of material? I decided my best tactic would be to remember the flow of paragraphs, with crib-sheet cards of bullet points to hold in my sticky hand in case of mental blanking, and then have an approximate idea of my wording sufficient to get me through. At the dry run I was assured this would be OK. Holding a stack of such cards was approved, to my relief.

There were still another couple of weeks between the dry run and the actual event. Having memorised the intended flow once, I found it astonishing how fast I could forget it again. So, yet more time expended on reminding myself of the points to get across, more time murmuring to myself at my desk, timing the talk and clutching my cards. Then the day dawned. I didn’t even have the advantage of watching everyone else, which meant I couldn’t be reassured that they had nerves, and forgot their words;  nor could I be terrified by how polished the rest of the contributors were. No, I only got to the Royal Society a couple of talks before my own due to the demands of yet another committee meeting all morning in Cambridge.

By this point I had to believe I could do it and I marched up onto the stage confidently enough, with microphone firmly attached. I started talking. I got into my flow. My cards seemed unnecessary (although still firmly clutched). And then there was a commotion from the floor. Someone rushed up onto the platform and told me that the microphone was in fact not working properly at all and please would I put a new one on. And then, I was kindly told, I could start again. That did not seem a good idea; how could I sound interesting when saying the same material a second time to the poor captive audience. So I didn’t.

Now my talk, appropriately enough, was all about learning from experiences. I had called it ‘Nothing’s Wasted’. On the whole this was meant to be a positive talk but I had included a sentence that included ‘sometimes you learn you never want to go near that situation again’; conveniently for me this was just about where I had got to in my presentation. So, once the guy had marched off the platform again I launched precisely into that sentiment. ‘Maybe’, I said, ‘bad experiences will teach you that you never want to do another TEDx talk’. Well, at least that did get me a laugh as I tried to get back on track. And that laugh did help me find my feet. It gave me a chance to regroup and – as is very evident from the recording – from that point on the sound quality on the video is much better with the second microphone.

The series of talks from this day of TEDx Whitehall have now been released and you can find mine here. Watching it now I am interested to see that, although the interruption felt like about five minutes in, I discover I had in fact been talking for a mere two minutes. (The actual interruption has been edited out, though if you look hard you can see the man move up through the audience.) With hindsight I guess I’m glad I did pluck up the courage to do this event. However, I think I may stick to what I said and avoid a similar situation again. I don’t think it is my natural forte. Talking extempore is one thing, I’ve done that often enough, but talking to a script, live but without the script in hand, is a different matter. Other people, younger or just more used to strict memory work can probably do a better job of committing their words to memory. Other people may have fewer of the annoying mannerisms I can now see I possess (watching videos of oneself is always a discouraging affair in my experience).

But, I have said yes to the opportunity. I have learned from my experience and I take away that I haven’t wasted that learning even if the message I take away is ‘don’t do that again!’

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