If my journey had been to a sporting event, concert or even to see a friend, I never would have gone. But this was different. This was my first, and perhaps only, opportunity to give a TEDx Talk and a blizzard wasn’t going to stop me.
Travel time on a nice day from my home to Hartford, Connecticut, is a hair under four hours. While I have made the round trip in one day before, I didn’t want to have to rush to my TEDx Talk the morning it was taking place. What if my car broke down? So a month ago, I booked a room at the Downtown Marriott for the Saturday night before my Sunday talk. I figured my daughter and I would get into town around 4 p.m., have a nice dinner, and be ready for the TEDx Talk the next day. Instead, we got pounding rain up until Lowell, Mass., when we got inland enough that it turned to snow.
The snow pounded and the wind howled for the next few hours, only calming about 15 miles outside of Hartford, where it quickly turned back into rain. I left my house at 10:45 in the morning and pulled into the hotel garage just about 6 p.m. Mentally exhausted from a ride where we saw numerous tractor-trailer trucks off the road, we had room service and called it a night. The Marriott does a good burger.
The Next Morning
I don’t think I’ve been as nervous about something as the TEDx Talk for a long time, and certainly nothing positive like the talk for even longer. I didn’t sleep well for a few days prior, but the scary car ride took so much out of me that I slept like a baby. Hotel sleep is never good, but this sleep was great. Maybe the weather was a blessing.
My 21-year-old daughter who I love very much demanded to go to Target the morning of my talk. She needed makeup and wanted a classy outfit, so I took her to West Hartford, driving past some amazing mansions on the way. As much as I love her very much, I hate shopping with her… and her mother. And my mother. And my late grandmother. I’m going to guess I’ll hate shopping with my granddaughter, too.
She found what she needed and we headed back. She took 90 minutes to get ready, which was fine with me. There were some butterflies, but I felt better than I had in days. Maybe it was the sleep. I think it’s also that once I arrive at the day of a big event, I’m mentally ready.
I took about 8 minutes to get ready, twice as long as usual. And then I made sure that I had one of my props ready.
We pulled into the television studio around 1 p.m. Aside from being on a couple of movie sound stages during a tour of Paramount Studios in Hollywood a couple years back, my daughter had never been in a TV studio. I think the vastness of the space along with people running around, the sets, the lights, etc., was a shock to her senses. It certainly made the whole thing feel real to me seeing those giant iconic TEDx letters in that deep red font near the stage.
I don’t want to ruin the content of the talk for anyone, but there were some blocking issues (this is “theater speak” for how people move around on a stage) I needed to iron-out before we started the rehearsal at 1:30. There was also the matter of familiarizing myself with the “clicker” which would advance the slides in my speech. I didn’t want slides, but every presentation needed three minimum. I don’t make the rules and as I get older and deeper into recovery, I learn to play by them without complaining. Some people had a dozen slides. God bless them. I couldn’t keep track.
Here are a few pictures my daughter took before rehearsals began:
I don’t think the rehearsal started until 2 p.m. There were three sets operating simultaneously. There was the main set that you can see above, a set with a green screen where the two hosts did their intros and witty banter, and another where a co-host reminded viewers of the chatroom that was accessible throughout the show.
The order of speakers was announced and I found I’d go fourth, before the intermission, which made sense because my TEDx Talk, unlike most, would need some clean-up. So, after getting the tiny microphone hooked up to my ear, I watched the first three speeches, which ranged from decent to very good. It felt like people were just getting their sea legs on stage.
I didn’t need sea legs. I was like the Titanic from the moment the stage director cued me to start.
For months, I’ve been rehearsing and tweaking my speech from behind my computer, doing Zoom calls with my coach Ryan a couple times a week since late summer. We got to the point where we had things down, but rehearsing sitting at a computer with nobody in the room is different than a full rehearsal with a small audience, tech crew, and a million new things to think about.
First, there was the timer, counting backward from 15 minutes. I knew my speech was about 15 minutes. In a virtual dress rehearsal two weeks earlier, I went 16 minutes, so I cut one minute out. I knew it would be close. The counter immediately got in my head. A story that I tell at about the three-minute mark that lasts probably two minutes made me nervous it would go too long, so I tried to cut it on the fly. That was my first mistake. Then, when it was time for my first slide, I realized I left the clicker on a table near me. I had to reach for it, which further threw off my timing.
This was also my first time using a cheat sheet on a monitor near me. It only had 10 bullet points, but they didn’t look like the bullet points I had been using. They were on the floor in front of the stage so I really had to look down to see them. That was new. New is not good in these moments. I ended up skipping an entire bullet point.
I got back on track, or so I thought, then I realized I forgot another bullet point. The problem there was that the forgotten bullet point had the second slide. I couldn’t just skip it because my third slide wouldn’t come up when I cued it. In a herky-jerky fashion, I doubled-back and tried to address the bullet point I missed so I could show the second slide. By the time I got to the third slide, with a big reveal, I was so tongue-tied and thrown off I wrapped things up and got off the stage.
“Wow that sucked,” I told my daughter.
“I couldn’t tell,” she said, never having heard the speech before.
Ryan, my coach, came over as I shook my head.
“And that’s why we have rehearsal,” he said.
And the speech came in at 11 minutes 30 seconds.
Between rehearsal and the real show
I was shaken. It was just about the worst run-through I ever had. There were times where I’d practice with Ryan early on and if it wasn’t going well, I’d just kill it mid-speech. That was no longer a luxury I had. A few people told me it went well, but that proved they were worried about their talks. I get it.
Thankfully, the event was catered, but my daughter, who has a very delicate physical ecosystem when it comes to being on schedule to eat and drink, had hers thrown off. I think the excitement of the day contributed to the sandwich she had not sitting well. Shortly before the show started, during the pre-show that brought former TEDx Talk speakers together, she started complaining of a headache and upset stomach.
I felt bad for her, but was also trying to calm myself from the Hindenburg of a rehearsal I had. I brought a Monster drink along because caffeine actually centers me in a lot of situations and let her have some of that, but I could tell she was struggling.
The Big Show
The energy in the room changed as the actual show started. Maybe it was the slick video packages, or the fact that the people who weren’t in full costume during the rehearsal were all decked out. The vibe was that now was the time to put on the damn show, ready or not.
The first three speakers went. They all gave the best versions of their speech I’d heard to that point, which gave me both hope and pressure. By the time the police officer who urged people to calm their tendencies to make snap judgments about others finished, I knew it was time to find out what was inside me.
My opening involves a bunch of props, and I didn’t bungle them this time. I also started with the stupid clicker in my pocket. It had a slight delay, but I think I timed it well. I also noticed a passion in my voice to start the talk that was never there in the past. It didn’t stay throughout out the speech, but I was kind of shocked to hear almost an anger behind my opening words.
Where is she?
My daughter just made it back from the bathroom in time to see my speech, thankfully. She couldn’t maintain the migraine and got sick. Thankfully, she was there when I needed her to be and it gave me a great sense of relief to look over and see her on one side of the room. I asked her to stand there so I could move my head around better. I’m usually good at looking around but with almost no audience and me not wearing my glasses because of glare, I mostly just looked forward, like a deer in headlights, during the rehearsal.
I muffed a few words, but quickly corrected myself and I don’t think anybody but me remembered them a minute later. I did read one slide backward, but my hope is that most people were too busy reading the slide the correct way they didn’t notice my gaffe. And if they did, I don’t think it really harms their experience.
Here are a few screen captures of the show that a friend captured from home:
I felt much better walking off the stage during the real show than I did the rehearsal. From that point forward, I would always be able to say I was a TEDx Talk speaker. I think I’d give myself either a B or a B+. I got several nice texts and emails from friends who watched, which put me at ease. I’m sure with the editing and good sound that it came off better than it did in the studio. Having seen many TV shows made, like Saturday Night Live and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, it’s amazing how much better things look with good sound, lighting and editing. It’s one of the reasons I’d rather watch pro football on TV than be at the game. That, and the parking.
My daughter was feeling really bad so she asked for the keys to go lay in the backseat of the truck. I convinced her to set the GPS for the hotel and just go back and go to bed. Despite never having driven a vehicle that big, she made the right move and took off.
Of the last three speakers following an intermission, one was on tape and one was live from his home, so we only had one more talk to watch at the studio. As far as a TEDx Talk goes, it was amazing and if mine doesn’t go viral, I hope hers does. It was by a really cool African American lady who was raised in a very white environment and didn’t learn what it truly meant to be black, and how many people pushed back against it, until she was out of childhood. It may be the best TEDx Talk I’ve ever heard.
We took many group pictures and selfies, the others had a champagne toast of congratulations and then we quickly dispersed. Ryan, my coach, brought me back to my hotel. I’m really going to miss just hanging out with him on Zoom a couple days a week. If I ever give another talk, I’m enlisting him to help me create that speech, too. It was one of the finest collaborations in my life and he knew how to handle an occasional loose cannon like me. He will be a friend moving forward.
My daughter was in bed when I got upstairs, but she was feeling much better and we talked about the event candidly. I always feel so much better when she’s with me at these kinds of things and I travel better with her than anybody.
The next morning, we packed up and had a nice, sunny ride home that took hours less than getting there. Nonetheless, after the initial high of the day, processing that I had finally delivered a TEDx Talk, I started crashing and it last through the next 24 hours. The anxiety, excitement, nerves, adrenaline, dopamine and caffeine all left my body.
The video will be available in a couple of weeks and I will post it.