“Joseph Liu was one of my favourite speakers at TEDx Cardiff. He shared some themes many of us could relate to, and he spoke with emotion and sincerity. Most of all, he was extremely thought provoking, sharing some interesting lessons that made me reevaluate my life.” -TEDx audience member
The first person who ever mentioned TED talks to me was my sister Joan in 2006, when the talks began to be available for free viewing online. The first TED talk I saw online was delivered by Al Gore in 2006 when he talked about Averting the Climate Crisis, which later led to the film An Inconvenient Truth. From that moment on, I always dreamed of giving a TED talk. Being in front of this sort of audience on stage seemed like such a unique opportunity to share a meaningful message with the world, one that could create true impact.
In 2011, I attended my first TEDx conference in Cardiff. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to deliver my own TEDx talk a few years later. Here’s a glimpse into my journey toward giving my first TEDx talk, a journey full of emotion, intensity, and lessons.
How I became a speaker
As a very strong introvert, I’ve often struggled to feel 100% comfortable speaking in front of a large audience, and at the same time, these moments have been the most powerful in my career and life. Public speaking has become a true passion of mine. I know this because, at the end of every single talk, I feel as though I’ve just been in my element, and yet, I always find myself feeling I could have done something better.
TEDx happened as a result of a bit of serendipity. The opportunity for
me to give this talk arose after one of the TEDx Cardiff organisers spotted my talk “The Art of Taking a Career Leap” at the MarketingWeek Live 2013 conference. It struck a chord with her, and last summer, she asked me if I would be interested in pitching an idea for the 2014 TEDx Cardiff conference. I immediately said yes.
Creating my initial pitch
I spent the next few weeks thinking about what idea I wanted to share. I actually struggled with narrowing down to one idea because I had shared much of what was on my mind about career changing in my MarketingWeek talk. One thing made clear to me was that this TEDx talk needed to be distinctively different from my other talks to ensure the content was unique and
exclusive to the TEDx audience. Month after month went by, and I still had not landed on an exact topic. When you are told you get 18 minutes to deliver an “idea worth spreading” to the world, it can be a bit tough to pinpoint exactly what you want that idea to be.
Then, in late 2013, I began to formulate some loose topics around the idea of “career inertia,”—this propensity to maintain the natural trajectory of one’s career, where changing directions takes much more effort than simply maintaining the direction of your career. It’s a concept quite central to my own life and the work I do with clients.
So the original idea I pitched to TEDx was entitled “Breaking Free from Career Inertia” where I would share my own personal story of leaving medical school, the challenges we face when standing on the brink of change, ways to harvest the courage to make a brave career choice, and the payoff from taking this leap. This idea resonated with the organisers, and in late December, I got the green light from TEDx Cardiff to be one of their featured speakers for the 2014 conference.
I started by doing research, not only on other successful TED talks, but also on presentation techniques. If you’re interested in tips to improve your public speaking skills, I’d highly recommend the following:
- Speak like a Pro- 15 lessons learned from watching TED TALKS on LifeHack, which amongst other things, talks about the importance of an unapologetic start.
- 7 Little Tricks To Speak In Public With No Fear reminded me of the importance of speaking to one person at a time, a principle drilled into my head when I worked as a news anchor for Hawaii Public Radio. I see too many talks where the speaker is shouting at the audience. I very much wanted each person in my audience to feel like I was having a 1-on-1 conversation with them, given the personal nature of my topic.
- Amanda Palmer’s TED talk and explanation of how she crafted her TED talk. When I heard Amanda’s talk, which has received over 5 million views, I felt she seamlessly brought seemingly disparate topics together into a focused, compelling talk. In her NPR interview about how she prepared, she said she solicited input on her talk from people she trusted, so I decided to do the same. I eventually solicited feedback from two trusted friends with radically different professional backgrounds to sense check my talk. A quick shout out here to Aaron Harris, my wise friend from Business School, and Khem So, a loyal friend from college who’s known me for nearly 20 years. They both provided me with valuable feedback I integrated into my final talk.
- How to Deliver a TED Talk, by Jeremy Donovan. This book was lent to me by someone I met at a networking event, and reading through helped with structure and content flow.
Developing the full talk
The best way word for me to describe the next phase of developing the actual content of my talk is “agonising.” I use that word not in a negative way, but in a I-really-want-to-get-this-right way. Giving this talk was something I dreamed of doing for many years, and now that the opportunity was upon me, I found it difficult to decide exactly what topic to share, how to share it, how to ensure the content would be compelling and relevant to a listener. It’s funny how a long held wish actually becomes a reality, and suddenly, you’re not quite sure what to do with yourself.
I thought back to a lesson my first writing professor said about “the best writing is rewriting.” So I rewrote a lot. Eventually, I decided to shift from making it a prescriptive talk about what people should do and more of a “here’s what I’ve learned,” talk. I debated a lot about the title, the positioning of the talk, the key takeaways. I posted a few title ideas on Facebook, and a clear winner emerged—“Rewriting the Story of Your Career,” which I later adjusted to be “Reshaping the Story of your Career.” Reshaping felt more forward looking after discussing with another close friend. I also eventually landed on a flow that followed this structure: 1) personal story for background, 2) lessons learned and 3) questions for the audience to consider.
Preparing my delivery
In terms of preparation for the actual delivery, I decided very early on to memorise my whole presentation, following TED Curator Chris Anderson’s advice in “How to Give a Killer Presentation.” This article, by the way, an excellent read before giving any presentation. I suppose there’s always a balance between being well-rehearsed and over-rehearsed, delivering prepared lines and reciting memorised lines. In this particular case, I decided to err on the side of over-rehearsal and memorisation, not something I always did with other corporate presentations I’ve given in the past.
I rehearsed stage movements, hand movements. I decided everything in advance so I wouldn’t have to consider it the day of the event. This included things like making sure I motioned more with my left hand. I did this because motioning to the side with my right hand represented forward motion to me (from left to right), this motion would seem backwards (from right to left), at least to a Western audience. So I remedied this by making a point to put the clicker in my right hand to avoid this natural propensity to gesture with my right hand.
I spent a lot of time scripting my talk out word for word. I also spent a lot of time reciting it every moment I could, mostly when simultaneously doing other things like biking or swimming or on public transit. I figured if I could recite the words while surrounded by distractions, sometimes having to start and stop abruptly, I could also weather sudden surprises while on stage and avoid getting rattled.
I also realised that 18 minutes is less time than you think. I had to chop out lots of content I would have loved to share—additional insights, more detail around the stories. When I read the talk to friends for feedback, I was well under 18 minutes, but for some reason, when I did it from memory in the days leading up to the event, I was over by a couple minutes, so I chopped even more that week of TEDx, forcing me to whittle down to only those points absolutely critical to telling my story.
The big day at TEDx was emotional
When the day finally arrived to give my talk, I was crawling with nerves. I had never been so nervous before giving a talk in my life. On top of that, I’m naturally an introvert, so being on stage isn’t exactly as comfortable for me compared to a 1-on-1 chat in a coffee shop someone. The hours leading up to the event seemed like an eternity. Meeting the speakers that morning was surreal. Preparing for a TEDx talk was a rather solitary journey, both because I don’t personally know a lot of TED speakers, and also because I spent a lot of time looking inward to clarify what message I wanted to share with the world. When I met the other speakers, everything suddenly came to life. And hearing how much time they had also put into preparing their talks and how nervous they were was oddly comforting.
When the audience rolled in that afternoon, and the lights dimmed to the TEDx introduction video, everything became very real. Boy, did my heart start racing. And as I was sitting there quietly, I actually felt quite emotional that this day had finally arrived. As engaging as I’m sure the speakers were who went before me, I didn’t fully register what they were saying because embarrassingly, I was focused on my own talk.
Interestingly enough, as I was listening to the singer/songwriter Kizzy Crawford, who performed right before my talk, a calm came over me. I do believe in the James-Lange theory of emotion, the one that basically says our bodies affect our emotions. Whether I’m coaching someone on how to give a presentation, how to secure that promotion at work, how to land an offer from a job interview, how to make a career change, I always emphasise the importance of acting the part, acting in the way that’s congruent with your desired outcome. So I try to follow that same advice myself. I typically want to feel relaxed, confident, and conversational before a talk. So as my time to take the microphone neared, I tried to sit in a relaxed fashion so I could feel relaxed. I tried to walk confidently so I could feel confident. I tried to converse with as many people as possible so I could feel conversational. The key word here is “tried.” Sometimes, easier said than done.
In the end, all the preparation in the world is never quite like the actual experience of doing something. Things are always a bit different from how you imagine. When I walked onto the stage to give my talk, I was incredibly excited and terrified all at once. As I turned around to face the audience, I felt quite emotional to be standing there and sharing my story with a sea of unfamiliar faces. The slide clicker was a bit finicky, and I couldn’t get my first slide to advance immediately for some reason. But once I did get it going, here’s what I had to say about Reshaping the Story of Your Career . . .
Become a more memorable public speaker
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