Life after TEDx: from speaker to curator

We’re thrilled that one of last year’s speakers – Natalie Griffith, CEO of Press Space – joined the speaker curation team for this year’s event. And so we thought we’d ask her a few questions about her ‘journey’, along with her top tips for those following in her footsteps.

Are you a big TED fan? Which are your favourite talks?

Yes – I’ve always loved TED Talks, and recently I’ve got really into the TED Radio Hour podcast too. It’s an hour-long show that’s usually based around a particular theme, and they interview a handful of different speakers who’ve delivered talks on related topics. It’s a great way to come across new speakers or a new TED Talk that you might not otherwise have discovered.

Some of the classic ones are ones that have resonated with me – Ken Robinson talking about education, Jane McGonigal talking about gamifying her life and healing, and Chris Hadfield talking about conquering fear. I also like some of the quirkier ones too – one of my favourites was a random one about flag design!

How did you hear about the first TEDxLeamingtonSpa?

I’d seen some of the initial social media activity but then a friend joined the volunteer team and said that the theme was something he thought I could speak on, so my involvement flowed from there.

Was giving a TED Talk on your bucket list for a long time?

I’d always imagined being a good enough speaker to be able to do something like that but hadn’t really considered it as a serious or realistic proposition. It’s not the kind of thing you expect to pop up in your life!

Did you jump at the chance or did you have to be ‘pushed’?

I was certainly intrigued, but I wasn’t really convinced I’d be able to come up with something good enough or deliver it well enough. I was mulling on a few ideas but not 100% sure if they were worth putting forward; then a background stream of ‘nudging’ from my friend was weighing on my mind. I’d almost talked myself out of it because I was so busy, but then I realised – literally at 6pm on deadline day – that I’d regret it if I didn’t at least give it a go, so I threw something together and it managed to past muster.

How much public speaking had you done previously?

I do quite a lot of public speaking in my job (I own a PR and marketing agency), but even though I’ve gradually secured higher profile speaking slots over the last few years, my talks are very much based on my areas of professional expertise. I found the prospect of having to come up with something more ‘nebulous’, which could impact or move a huge cross-section of people, far more challenging.

Is it something that normally excites or scares you?

It used to petrify me, but the more I do it the easier it gets. That said, I still get nervous when it’s the first time I’ve delivered a new talk, or when there are respected friends or colleagues in the audience. One lesson I’ve learnt (which was definitely hugely reinforced by the TEDx process) is that every talk requires a good amount of preparation and a healthy amount of nerves. The audience deserves that respect if they’ve taken the time to listen to you.

I do get excited by the prospect of speaking, but I also like to challenge myself to talk on different subjects and to different groups of people so that I never take it for granted.

How did you find the application process: harder or easier than you expected?

Really hard! I’m not sure I had many expectations going into it, but the whole 4-5 month process was one of the hardest, most stressful, but ultimately most rewarding things I’ve ever been foolish enough to put myself through! The forced approach of having to hone, script and learn the talk was a level of detail I’ve not previously taken on any talk (at least not to that degree) but the discipline it taught me about preparing for presentations has been totally invaluable.

What did you think of the support given to the speakers?

I think the toughest thing was probably the sense that you were the only person going through it, even though I clearly wasn’t. It’s all too easy to question your own ideas or abilities. Every time I watched another TED Talk for inspiration it just served to depress me! But I eventually learnt to step back from the scarily high standard those talks were setting, and see the structure or the storytelling under each one.

“That’s the main reason I wanted to get involved with the volunteer team this year – to help guide, reassure and mentor the applicants and speakers going through the process.”

Did you attend any other TEDx events in the run up to Leamington’s?

Sadly I’d never made it to an event in person before the Leamington one, but I did attend TEDxBrum earlier this year and found it exhilarating to be in the audience without the pressure of knowing I had to get up on stage on the big red circle at any point!

How difficult did you find it to write, edit and then learn your talk?

I’m used to pulling stories and concise narratives together, because PR and marketing is all about storytelling, but what I found tough was thinning out my ideas into one simple coherent set of messages. Self-editing is always hard but I had to force myself to be quite brutal with what I’d written all the way through the process. Even after the first rehearsal day I was cutting big swathes of it out to make it leaner and more impactful.

As for learning it, that’s what I found the most daunting at first. I usually have a simple Powerpoint structure and a rough set of notes to guide me when I speak, but then I ‘freeform’ it on the day to adapt to the audience in the room and how they’re reacting. That wasn’t an option here.

However, I eventually realised that the learning it part came almost by default because I’d lived and breathed it so much by the time the day came along that it was easier than I’d expected to remember it. Then the anxiety became more about making sure it still sounded natural and not just remembered by rote!

How/where/how much did you practise it?

I tended to practise on my own at home, preferably in an empty house. I know people say you should practise in front of people but I never feel able to do that. After we had to submit a video of us delivering an early draft about halfway through the submission process, I did send that to a handful of trusted friends and experienced speakers and got some really useful feedback.

In the weeks running up to the dress rehearsal (which in our case was three weeks before the big day) I probably rehearsed at home a couple of times each day. I got a friend to video my dress run so that I could watch it back and I was actually pretty pleased with how it came across, so I felt the pressure lift a little. I then didn’t want to ‘over-rehearse’ so I don’t think I touched it for another week or so; then I did perhaps a daily run-through during the last week and several in the last couple of days.

I do remember running it through the night before and it being terrible. I couldn’t remember any of it and it ran way over time. I didn’t get much sleep that night! Then I got up the next morning feeling strangely energised, did one more run-through before breakfast and absolutely nailed it. I was ready!

On the day itself, were you more nervous or excited?

I was actually OK for most of the morning but as the day went on (I wasn’t speaking until about 4pm) I started to get more and more nervous, especially after seeing how brilliantly all the other speakers were doing. I locked myself in one of the dressing rooms backstage for 15 minutes or so before our section of speakers went on, refreshed my make-up, had a small drink, looked briefly at my notes cards. I was really, really nervous by the time I had to get mic’d up, but it was more of a nervous anticipation than a terror by that point.

I knew that I’d class it as a failure if I wasn’t able to do the live talk without notes, but I was still clutching my prompt cards as a bit of a comfort blanket. In the end though, just as the speaker before me was finishing up, I decided to drop them on the ground in the wings and just go for it.

Were you relieved when it was over or did you want to do it all over again?

I was so pleased with how it went on the day. I had a brief Powerpoint glitch but I ignored it, took a breath, fixed it and moved on – so the video editors managed to hide it in the final edit! I felt incredible afterwards, in a way that’s difficult to explain. It sounds very melodramatic, but to get through something of that kind of pressure and expectation, and not just feel like you ‘survived’ but that it actually went well and that people were affected by it – that was pretty special. I had some lovely people come up to me afterwards and share their stories and say nice things about the talk – it was really satisfying.

Would you do another talk on that scale or is it a case of ‘been there, done that… tick it off the list’?

I’d love to. I’m currently in the process of applying to speak at a major international technology and marketing conference in Texas next year. It’s long been on my professional bucket list but without having done TEDx (which also gave me the confidence to speak at a major UK conference this year) I would never have applied. Fingers crossed – watch this space!

What was the reaction from family and friends – both on the day and afterwards when they saw the video?

I wouldn’t let any family come on the day! My friends who came were all really positive though and couldn’t quite believe I’d been brave enough to do it at all! The best thing is that several of them have applied this year and are already through to the next round, so I’m so proud to have provided a little bit of inspiration to them to do something outside their comfort zone.

Family were all really proud and supportive when they watched the video too. One of the best reactions was from my god-daughter, who said to her mum afterwards that she thought it was really inspiring. That really moved me and I genuinely feel that if all I achieved was to inspire an 11-year-old girl shortly before starting high school, then that’s achievement enough for me.

Have you managed to use your experience as a springboard to anything else – either professionally or personally?

It’s definitely boosted my confidence, and people often come up to me at industry events now saying things like “Oh, you’re the one who did a TED Talk aren’t you?!”, which is lovely. It’s certainly opened a few conversations with people that might not have happened otherwise. Mostly though it’s been about how I feel about myself and what I’m capable of, rather than it being a meal-ticket to fame and fortune. But that, in itself, is invaluable.

What made you decide to join the volunteer team this year?

As I mentioned above, I really wanted to be able to encourage and support people who were putting themselves through the process this year. I very nearly dropped out on so many occasions last year, and I’m an experienced speaker, so I wondered how many other people dropped out when they might have kept going if they’d just had a bit of encouragement or a perspective check from someone else.

So it’s definitely a case of putting something back. But it’s also a case of not wanting anyone to miss an opportunity to do something that will have a huge positive impact on them and give them the confidence to do amazing things.

What advice will you give to the speakers based on your experience?

Read (or listen to the audio version like I did) ‘Talk Like TED’ – an invaluable analysis of some of the best and most watched TED Talks of all time. This hugely influenced how I structured my talk and how I worked out the timing, breathing techniques, and overall themes.

Don’t be afraid to cut stuff, even if you’re really proud of how you’ve phrased it or what it sounds like. If it’s not critical to the story you’re trying to tell, then kill it.

Don’t get hung up on how hard it will be to learn it – that will come without you even realising it as you go through the process.

Film yourself practising on your phone, then send it to a few trusted friends or colleagues who you know will give honest feedback. Don’t tell them in advance what you’re trying to achieve or what the talk is about – let them watch it cold and give you their honest opinions.

Think about the ‘staging’ of your talk and what your movement will be during the 18 minutes. This was one of the most useful bits of advice I was given, by an experience TEDx speaker and organiser. She advised me to punctuate key moments in my talk with particular movements or standing positions. Not only does it help you reinforce the structure in your head, it also helps if you get off track or get lost when you’re delivering it – stepping back to a particular physical location or stance will often re-trigger the next bit of the talk in your head. For me, I had three main sections, and the end of each section had a relevant quote from a famous person. I would casually move around the stage a little as I spoke, but I always returned to the centre front of the ‘red spot’ just before each of those quotes, and delivered them standing still and calmly. It felt like a good ‘reset’ at the start of each new section, and it also psychologically felt more like I was quoting someone else rather than sharing my own thoughts, so it worked well on both counts.

Finally, anything else to add?

Don’t ever think you can’t do it. TED has such a crazily daunting reputation, and the bar seems ridiculously high, but out of the 12 speakers at the first TEDxLeamingtonSpa, there was a huge cross-section of experienced speakers and newcomers. Everyone went through the same journey of self-doubt, stress, nerves and ultimately exhilaration. Everyone delivered a fantastic talk; everyone felt incredibly proud and humble afterwards. It’s not about experience or training or ‘who you know’ – it’s simply about having an interesting story to tell. And never underestimate how interesting your story is to someone who’s never heard it before.

“Everyone has an idea worth spreading and you owe it to yourself to try and spread it.”