I got lucky last year. TEDxBoise started up, and–Boise being Boise–I emailed the organizers and in a couple days was in on the ground floor as the official speaker coach.
Naturally I’ve always been a TED fan, but the more closely I worked on the project, the more I appreciated how much my philosophy about speaking meshes with TED’s: it’s about great content shared by actual humans. In other words, you start with someone who has an amazing idea, even though they may not be technically the “best” or “most polished” speaker. And then you help that person be the best version of themselves. So it’s not about perfection, but about authenticity. And damn good ideas.
This made my job (relatively) easy. Not to mention fun. And considering that last year’s speakers only had about six weeks to prepare, they nailed it.
As we count down to TEDxBoise 2016 (April 2!), with FOURTEEN speakers and several performing artists to boot, enjoy some behind-the scenes reflections from last year’s speakers. How did they get ready? What was it like? What did they learn? Get those enquiring minds ready…
FIRST UP: AlejAndro Anastasio
AlejAndro has competed in the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, and travels worldwide as a teacher and motivational teacher. Soon after his TEDxBoise Talk, “Disabled Thinking,” he reflected on how the TED style fits into the other kinds of speaking he does.
Why’d you apply to give a TED Talk?
As a professional speaker, TED is one of the most sought-after platforms. People gravitate towards TED; they love watching it. I think it’s super-cool to do a TED Talk, and everybody talks about wanting to do one. I also believe that I have a very special idea to share. TED’s all about sharing ideas.
So what’s your idea?
The core message is the power of thinking. My title is “Disabled Thinking,” but in essence what I’m talking about is the power of thinking. Since I have what most people call a physical disability, the word “disability” comes up a lot. And over the course of living my life with what people call a disability, I realized that people have disabled thinking.
When I really did research on what a TED Talk is, their main thing is an idea worth spreading. And they were very clear about it: they said, “either you have to come up with a new idea that really no one has come up with, which, you know, is a unique statement unto itself, or you have to have a new angle on an old idea.” I wanted to come at it from a whole different angle here. And even how I structured my speech was much different from typically how I talk.
How do you usually talk?
Well, mostly when I’m delivering speeches, I’ll just come out and talk about my disability, and I don’t necessarily talk about “thinking,” so to speak, or how people think about thinking. In my TED Talk I opened out with a joke, really: “oh, you think you don’t think, but that’s just you thinking, right? How often do we engage in the process of thinking?” And then I referenced Descartes and Max Plank, who’s a theoretical physicist; the basis of his theory is that our conscious mind creates our reality.
I don’t normally come out and structure things that way. I just come out and start talking about the power of thinking, or how I overcame many things through thinking. But never have I formulated it as “I don’t have disabled thinking.” And it’s only been recently that I formulated that thought, so to speak.
What did preparing for your TED Talk really involve?
The preparation really was formulating the idea, disabled thinking, and then, “how am I gonna deliver that?”
There are so many things that go on in terms of how well you write a speech. You know: do you not have any questions that are unanswered? Do you start and end in the same space? Do you answer every question? Do you tie every bow? When people are done do they actually feel like the idea is complete, the idea has been expressed? Everything has to run congruently, to move in a very dot-to-dot format so people don’t have to work hard to listen to you speak. Actually my whole speech is three minutes long, but prepping for it is seven, and leaving it is five.
I started writing my speech probably two months before the TED date. It’s very important that you actually write your speech down. Because a good speech is not written—it’s re-written. It’s the only way you can actually truly edit your speech.
This comes from spending time getting ready to go to the world championships of public speaking, much different than TED–but the essence is the same. You need to know what you’re gonna say. If you don’t write it down there’s almost no way to practice it. In essence, you’re just free-balling every time. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if you freeball and get lost, you can’t get started–it just doesn’t give you as much credence. It doesn’t give you the credit you deserve.
How much time did you spend getting ready?
I probably spent a total–with editing and all–well over a hundred hours. If we’d had more time I probably would have done 20% more practice. I practiced my speech a lot in front of people, in measures. Okay, here’s the beginning … here’s this four minute section.
In general people don’t practice enough. I practiced four to eight times a day—it’s an 18-minute speech—that’s a lot of time. But if I knew what it entailed, I would have started a month earlier.
You’ve done a lot of work with Toastmasters. What has that given you?
The greatest benefit that I get from Toastmasters other than practicing speaking is crafting a speech. Like, how do you write it? where do you put things? how do you break things down? where do things fit? I don’t always write speeches that way, but it’s a great framework. You can never go wrong having that foundation.
And then, if I’m gonna speak to an inner-city youth group or school, I’m not delivering a Toastmasters speech! But the framework is there. I can ad lib off that, I can bring in more slang, I can do all kinds of things. But that framework—that’s what houses your speech. And then you can cater that to anything that you need.
So, Toastmasters versus TED?
One thing I love about the TED platform is that you don’t necessarily have to be a great speaker to deliver a great TED talk. Some of them are not very groomed speakers, but they speak from the heart.
A great thing about preparing to do a TED talk is that I have a lot more open room. The TED Talk has structure, but it has a lot of free form. I can just deliver the talk the way I am.
Competitive speaking is very structured, very refined, and if you don’t have certain elements, you almost can’t win. If you make a mistake, chances are you won’t win. TED—none of that matters. Sometimes in a competition having a good idea or making an impact means nothing.
But as far as preparation goes, I don’t think there’s any difference between a TED Talk and a competition talk. I just practice a lot. It’s all pretty much the same: the craft, the practice, you can’t really avoid that.
You use lots of humor in your speech. What’s that about?
I’m a big advocate of humor and I use it all the time. I think a humorous speech is among the most memorable ones. There’s a rare quality that happens when people laugh. They tie memories to emotions, so if they really laugh at something, that imprint is very powerful.
I would rather you laugh at me –or laugh with me–than just stare at me. When you see I’m okay with my body, not having two hands, when we can laugh together, it just naturally gives you hope. If I tell you all the hard things I went through, so what? It’s just not that inspiring—you’ll just say, “I’m glad you got through it, but I’ve gotta go brush my teeth. I’ve gotta go cry.”
What about the big night?
There was a lot going on. One: it’s TED. Two: it’s live-streamed. Three: it’s recorded. Four: there’s a live audience.
When the time comes around I’m always a little nervous, but I thought it was festive. I showed up, hung out, mingled, then I took off and did my TED talk three times downstairs. Because you can never practice too much.
I misplaced a couple things—they didn’t flow the way I wanted them to. The first thirteen minutes was spot-on, exactly what I wanted, but there were three minutes in there where I lost my place. After about six seconds, which is an incredible amount of time to be silent in front of people, I had to backtrack. And then later, I had some friends there and they were like, “man, that long pause was POWER-ful.” So it worked out.
Overall, I felt really good. I couldn’t be more pleased. But there’s always room for growth.
What’s up next?
I’d like to deliver another TED Talk. I made it clear that you need to transform your thinking, but people don’t really know what that means. So I’d love to deliver another TED talk on the mechanism for making that happen.
See this talk at: AlejAndro Anastasio, “Disabled Thinking”