The Shame and Mortification of Giving a TEDTalk

The wildly popular TEDTalk symposia have, for better or worse, given public intellectuals, thinkers, and writers a global platform like none they've enjoyed before. But what happens when you're actually invited to give what organizers call "the speech of a lifetime"?

February 8, 2013
||2012 TED Fellow Christine Marie

Some years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon was invited to give a reading at an upstate New York college. When he arrived, he discovered that his host had scarpered off on an alcoholic bender and no one else had a clue why he was there. He had to wander the college halls searching for a poster advertising his event, hoping he’d discover where to go before his audience showed up, his anxiety rising.

At the eleventh hour, Muldoon found the place, where a core group of fans already awaited him. Thank God. As he later wrote in the incomparably funny anthology, Mortification: Writers’ Tales of their Public Shame, “the core audience turned out to be the entire audience.” But he was a professional, an internationally respected writer and thinker. He owed it to them not to storm out. “At about five minutes past seven I got up and launched into my first poem. It was met with smiles and glances. They liked me. They really liked me. The second poem was guaranteed to knock them dead. But just before I’d got to the end, one of my fans put up her hand and asked me how long I expected to be. What? The thing was, these students were involved in a study group and had settled in this empty classroom in the hope of finding a little peace and quiet.”

Ah, the ignominy. Every thinker has experienced these sublime moments of humiliation, which Mortification’s editor, Robin Robertson, attributes to the “inherently ridiculous conjunction of high-mindedness and low income” that dogs the public intellectual. There is the author, I remember, who gamely did a reading in a dimly-lit bar in honour of the one person who had actually shown up, only to realize, at some point, that the loyal attendee was a life-size cardboard cut-out of Willie Nelson. There is Margaret Atwood on tour in the 1970s, discovering that her reading in Calgary was to be held in the bra department of The Bay.

For years, the quandary was how to convince the marketplace that interesting thinkers really were interesting, even if you’d never seen them on TV. What was needed was a platform, plus the sparkle of marketing magic—a sort of American Idol stage where the only thing the Paul Muldoons, and young Margaret Atwoods, and shy scientists and tinkerers of the world had to do was show up. Instead of belting out a version of “I Will Always Love You,” they could talk about aqua-farming, or brain strokes, or micro-finance in Bangladesh. They could be coached; their presentation could be polished. If you marketed the idea that ideas were cool, you’d get an audience.

Enter the TEDTalk, and its slogan: Ideas Worth Spreading. Much has been written about how these carefully packaged talks, curated by Californian entrepreneur Chris Anderson, have become a global phenomenon. But I hadn’t been paying much attention—one way or the other—until I, myself, was asked to give one. Almost immediately, I saw the difference in being associated with a brand.

“You’re giving a TEDTalk?” my niece asked in awe last November, as if I’d just announced that I was dating Johnny Depp. “So?” I countered. “I’ve been talking myself blue in the face for years. What’s the difference?” I’ve always been a comfortable public speaker. I like making people laugh, and going off on unexpected tangents that I pull back around at the last minute. It’s a chance to be playful—with language, with people. But this was apparently bigger. It was what TED organizers call “the chance to give the speech of a lifetime.”

Uh-oh. The more excited friends and colleagues got about my giving a TEDTalk, the more my natural confidence wavered. I got a note from some TED people politely requesting to see my power point materials well in advance, to ensure they were up to snuff. I was told to make a phone appointment with a TED coach. I was asked to be funny, and to try to mention gadgets, as TED audiences tend to like seeing fancy innovations.

Given that my speech was about grief and spirituality, I wasn’t sure where to fit in a pen that can be recycled as a plant, or a smart shirt that senses your temperament. I went onto YouTube and looked at other TEDTalks, and noticed that most speakers made a slight clacking noise as they talked, indicative of an anxious dry mouth.

I began fretting about how to memorize the talk, convinced for the first and only time in my life that I would mount the stage and go blank, staring slack-jawed as a cow. It was an absurd proposition, but the more I considered it, the more nervous I became. I contemplated writing key sentences on my hand, a la Sarah Palin. Or embedding cue cards, somehow, into my power point visuals.

The day of the event, I was hiking in the Arizona desert, breathless from respiratory flu, and a loose-limbed herd of university students came chattering around a seguro cactus. “Hey!” called my hiking companion, who was the gregarious organizer of TEDx Tucson, “what are you guys doing tonight? You should come to TEDx!”

“Wow!” cried one of the girls. “I love TEDTalks!”

He gestured toward me: “She’s giving one.”

“That’s so cool!” said the college kids, but didn’t ask about my topic, which was just as well. I was wheezing.

Shortly before seven, we speakers assembled in an air-conditioned auditorium at the University of Arizona and took our seats as the crowd milled in, preparing to go up one after the other and deliver the speeches of our lifetimes. There was an astronomer, an anesthesiologist, and a man who was doing something innovative with corn. Another fellow had been shot alongside Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and spoke about survivor guilt. Someone else talked about gang violence. No one appeared to have any gadgets, which was problematic, since my opening joke was going to be about not having a gadget.

Ordinarily, I would have adjusted my opening line on the spot, fine-tuning my speech to suit the context and the mood of the audience. But I’d managed to work myself into a state of such high alarm that going off-script was inconceivable. As the penultimate speaker, I had just spent two hours shivering in the air-conditioning and violently suppressing a flu cough. My muscles were so tense, and my mind so jangly that I went on stage with all the presence of an electrocuted cat. This is not the ideal body language for delivering a deadpan joke. About gadgets.

The audience was silent as a crypt. My legs began shaking. I developed a surreal split-consciousness, where I was aware that my mouth was somehow going ahead with the memorized talk, while my brain ran its own commentary: “Holy fucking Christ, I’ve never been so embarrassed, it is actually possible that I’m going to fall over due to the ongoing instability of my legs.” Needless to say, the prospect was distracting. (Later, I would be reminded of an elementary school talent show we went to, when one of my daughter’s six-year-old classmates performed a bit of ballet, peed her pants, and then cried out in wonder, “Oh my God! I can’t believe I’m peeing my pants on stage!”)

Somehow, through years of experience I suppose, I pulled myself out of nosedive about three figurative inches above the ground and recovered my equilibrium. The next joke I made had the audience laughing, and by the end I’d spread my idea sufficiently that people came up to me afterward to ask questions. The astronomer even shook my hand. People are generous. They are also, on the whole, inattentive. If you make them laugh, even once, or give them a sentence or two that strikes them as interesting, that will tend to be what they come away with.

One cringingly hopes.