Speaking at a TEDx – the learning, wonder and joy!

Helen Woodward at TEDx Australia

A message popped up on LinkedIn from Amir Zeid, Professor of Computer Science at the American University of Kuwait. ‘I’m the curator for a TEDx at the University – would you like to audition?’ I enquired if we had a mutual connection. Amir’s daughter, Janna, had participated in some workshops I’d led in Jordan in last year at the Compassion Summit. Amir was contacting me following her recommendation. We arranged a phone meeting for the audition. Amir requested my draft talk for the curating panel to consider and forwarded the TEDx guidelines.

A few weeks later Amir emailed, ‘Please arrive on 25th April, the conference is on the 27th.’ Soon I was getting messages and contacts from other speakers across the world. I had no idea what to expect. I’d never been to Kuwait, and I’d never had to learn a speech completely to memory. I felt some apprehension, but mostly curiosity, wonder, and a light excitement which was helped by the welcoming words and notes from the Kuwait team and speakers.

The theme for the conference was ‘Voyages.’ I watched as the speakers were announced on Instagram. Jeff Noel from Disney, Melody Mitchel, Commander in the US Air Force, Omar Nour, an Egyptian ultra-triathlete with his own rapidly growing sports brand, Ahmed El-Ghandour, a comedic science show presenter with a following of over 1.5 million for his hilarious shows full of scientific theory.

Wonder and curiosity can serve us well when we’re preparing for the uncertain and unknown. They enable us to ask purposeful questions and lean into possibility. From start to finish the next five weeks were packed full of new experiences and learning. So this is a post about some highlights.

Preparation is everything. EVERYTHING!

However passionate you are about your ‘idea worth spreading’, and however good it is, you get one chance to deliver it within 18 minutes. Just one, and it’s being filmed. Amir remarked, ‘When you talk at a TEDx, you’re talking to the world!’ He’s right. You cannot improvise. You have to properly learn your talk and that takes time, effort and hours of practise. I approached Stewart Knights from Millxnnials Public Speaking to help me prepare. We’d met once at a Bolton School event where he’d presented. Stewart, as expected, was superb. He was all over the detail, committed, well prepared for each session, passionate about good public speaking, and always enthusiastic! He knew and understood presentation components, the learning process, and his consulting skills were impressive. ‘Why have you come to me?’ he asked, ‘I’m only 18.’ I knew exactly why. ‘Because, you’re committed, this really matters to you, you’ll make sure you know what you’re doing, and it will be great for you to say you helped someone prepare for a TEDx!’ Several people have remarked they wouldn’t consider taking advice from someone younger than themselves. Extraordinary. I’ve wondered about what underpins this idea and how it can hinder our individual and collective learning. Not wanting to take advice from someone younger than you is definitely a short-term strategy and not one I’d recommend. When we need help, it’s good to go to whoever has the expertise, the commitment and the humility to collaborate in the learning.

We both put the effort and the hours in. I learned a new skill which I’m thrilled about! Having a plan was great. I knew I would be fully prepared so there was no need for anxiety. I was able to enjoy the people, relationships, experience and culture, whilst being fully present and grounded.

Alan Sieler, in Coaching to the Human Soul, writes about the linguistic structure of emotions, and whether we approach uncertainty from a place of anxiety or curiosity and wonder. The latter opens up so many more possibilities. Alan writes usefully about self-narrative, the structure of emotions and our physiological presence. I recommend his work on Ontological Coaching.

Extend your networks

Melody Mitchell, US Air Force Pilot and Commander remarked to me, ‘Butterflies are fine, just insist they fly in formation!’ Hilarious, I laughed so much. The issue for her was not the existence of the metaphorical butterflies, just the disturbance of the random flying. The new perspective gave me a jolt. I’d never heard anyone say that before. In fact, I’d never chatted with a military pilot before. Suddenly, at rehearsals the world expanded as I chatted with the other speakers: an Egyptian triathlete, the first to enter the Olympics, a computer science student, an adventurer and explorer, a diving officer for the US Military National Cave Rescue, a co-founder of a Palestinian oral history initiative, and a clinical psychologist and author. For most of us, our networks and friends are people like us. We perpetuate this through our work, the conferences we attend, books we read and who we follow on social media. People like us, wrestling with the same issues as if we’re seeking a kind of collective belonging and understanding. I had thought my networks were broad. This experience bought me up sharp. My gaze has shifted, I’m seriously challenged to check in with myself each time I move into a space of closed or exclusive networks. Continuing to extend the breadth of my networks is definitely on my horizon this year.

The impact of Middle Eastern hospitality 

Jeff Noel, now retired from Disney after 30 years in staff development, talked about ‘WOW!’ moments. This was a WOW for me. I was greeted as I stepped from the plane, my visa handed to me by my hosts, all the logistics were covered. I literally had nothing to worry about. My bags were collected and a car to the hotel arranged. My focus could stay on preparing for doing my job. After a long journey this welcome and greeting was deeply appreciated and enabled me to rest. The notes to speakers actually said, ‘arrive 48 hours before so you can rest and be ready for your talk.’ I’ve never seen this advice before. It’s in stark contrast to the usual adulation and subtly heralded adoration given to overwork and exhaustion. My hosts practical demonstration of their appreciation and welcome enabled me to relax. ‘WOW’ takes thought, preparation, attention to detail and empathy. It doesn’t need to be an extra mile. ‘Go the extra inch!’ implored Jeff. It doesn’t need to be high cost, but the value can be infinite.

Make clear requests. People want to help and can help if you’re clear.

Saturday morning at rehearsals I noticed some unwelcome anxiety creeping in. Noise and excitement all around as the set up was in full swing. I find my energy in solitude and quiet. ‘What’s going on with me and what do I need?’ I thought. The essence here is self-compassion. Getting in the right space and state to do a good job was my responsibility and priority. I found a member of the team, ‘I really need some quiet, I’d like to go to my hotel. Can I do my technical rehearsal soon and go for some rest?’ My hosts were gracious, a lovely volunteer called Lina kindly took me back to the hotel. I rested, meditated, had some food. Alan Sieler writes, ‘Show me someone who doesn’t make enough requests and I’ll show you someone who’s suffering.’ Making really clear requests for what we need is completely fine. We show our vulnerability and model self-compassion when we do this. Lina was delighted to have helped. Thank you again Lina!

Music connects us if we’re willing to share

Ahmed El Ghandour, host of the biggest middle east science show El-Da7we7 was playing the piano when I came into the hotel lobby one evening. ‘Do you play?’ he asked. ‘I do,’ I replied. ‘Then join me for a duet, you play the melody!’ I moved to the piano stool next to him and we played a duet known by all children who learn the piano in England. Ahmed offered the piano, and so I shared a song, ‘You bring the sun out’ by Jessy Dixon. A favourite with my son who still asks for it from time to time. Hotel staff stopped to listen, a group of Arabic men paused their conversation, and the Kuwaiti security services personnel listened, a few with their phones out to record. Their appreciation showed in their applause and smiles. Plato said, ‘Music brings soul to the universe and wings to the mind’. Somehow across oceans, language and cultures, sharing our music can be where we meet.

Closing notes.

Wearing your trainers in Kuwait is very acceptable. In Manchester our Mayor has launched #activesoles to get us moving more at work. The Kuwatis are ahead of us. We should catch up!

TEDxs are brilliant events. No politics, no religion, no sales and no causes. Just ideas worth spreading. Such a relief. I’m currently following up how to set up a YouthTEDx. A good step in expanding networks and a brilliant opportunity for young people.

My thanks to Dr Amir Zeid and his team of volunteers, students and staff. We had a brilliant time and ‘if our faith is good, we’ll meet again’. Inshallah.