What not to do when prepping for a TED talk

By October 16, 2018Philosophy, The Commute

I recently gave a TED talk, rating myself 8/10 based mostly on dress sense. Several people remarked on my outfit (perhaps subconsciously given I stood on a red carpet- see pic), asking me how I managed to pull off outdoor pants with a woollen suit jacket. ‘It just comes to me’, I replied, ‘coffee and dress sense is my morning ritual’. ‘More than adventure, living a good life, being good to other humans and eating well, looking good is really my thing’. There was a lot of that; volleying to the crowd with irrelevant stories or blatant lies that didn’t answer their questions. Sandwiches were a highlight.

So, what went right and what went wrong? Actually, not a lot went wrong with the talk itself- technically, socially, culturally or emotionally. It was all very neat. People were interested and I only swore twice. My learning curve was creating the talk, in the form of three underwhelming dry runs. Good TED talks are said to be simple, meaning you know your content upside down and it smacks of meaning. Delivery is 12-18 minutes, preferably 10. The first dry run was 26 minutes. I presented to myself in an empty lecture theatre at work. A humming light annoyed me, and I kept looking at the same few seats in the front rows as if flirting with the same engaging smiles of attractive people. I sucked. Emphasis on simplification was through talking about, and through, what I know best; myself. As a methodology, it’s a rabbit hole. As in, the more you know about an intimately familiar subject, the more you tent to bang on about meaningless detail. I happily assumed after the first run that aspects of Beau were not interesting.  My job, I reminded myself, was to talk about walking 90k to work, and avoid touchy-feely stuff about a bearded man with great dress sense. Elaborate the story, Beau, not yourself. I recognised the err, ditch a few slides, insert a new pic that bridges ideas, and invite in a few colleagues as my test audience. Take two. I talk for 22 minutes, fixing one problem and manifesting others. A few threads of light come through, but all said, it’s still crap.

Catching the train home, I look out the window, which I should do more often, and not work, read, or pretend to do both. Playing with my focus, I switch between and outside and inside view, looking squarely at people opposite me in the window’s reflection- a wonderful tool of the voyeur. I wondered what my fellow commuters would TED about? My colleagues had helped with advice; ‘trust the story Beau’, they had said, ‘tell it as you experienced it’. The trick, I mused, was choosing a particular yellow brick road- of the many, to wander down? Stuck on which story to tell continues to be a fundamental Beauism. In raw form, the narrative is ordinary; an able bodied fit bloke takes a long walk to work. I sex up the story with tales of money, water and shade, but at face value is potentially stale- or just downright self-indulgent. Blisters, thirst, darkening freckles and picking through an assortment of porn, wallets, and ill humanity (asbestos, animal parts and suspiciously lumpy bags that I presumed to be chopped up humans) makes things a little more interesting, but so what? What can my walk tell me, then you, about the human condition? What’s TEDable?

The following day, two hours before the gig, my third dry run is marginally better, fleshing out glimmers from run 2. I talked to Helen’s pot-plants as if I’d just smoked their leaves. They wobbled about in the air created from my arm movements. I talked physically. What I noticed about myself- and this might be my one true talent, is knowing when I’m on- or not. I feel the audience (including pot plants). I’m not sure we all do this, having been to a bunch of tedious talks delivered by engaging people. It seems humans don’t always filter or react to their audience. I get it. It’s hard removing layers to tell the best version of things. Undressing the clothes of your audience in order to find your groove is a myth- it’s you that should be baring all, burning the eyeballs off the front row. Insight is through exposing yourself, metaphorically speaking (although for a more profound impact it’s hard to unsee balls, wang or breasts). Your audience should be subject to the same insight, burnt into their frontal cortex. Concentrate on simple, and multiple, stepping-stone ideas, then forget you gave yourself a plan in the first place. Getting over the distraction of structure (time, the clicker in your hand, people walking past the glass room) is regurgitating meaty bits of internal monologue as if your senses speak for themselves. Step into a conversation with people without the expectation of a verbal response, knowing fully well they’re responding to you in every other way. I suspect we all know this, making the task even harder.

In the end, as I left the stage, I was saved by my impeccable dress sense, having only performed on-point, exposed, about two thirds of the time, which puts me at 6 out of 10 for content. On average this has me at a 7, which is hardly world class, but worthy of my 3 triangles of sandwich. Lastly, hang around, email land can wait. People have their own TEDs to share, and it’s your time to be the audience*.

The Commute (including episode 1: Walk to Work) coming in 2019 to my YouTube channel.

*TEDx, Salon. This is a non-recorded event in a bespoke venue with sandwiches, water, people with eyeballs, and a small red carpet.

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