I am writing this on my way to TED 2015 in Vancouver. I often find it difficult to work on planes, and so I usually sleep— but sleep has proven impossible on this flight. I’m too excited!
I became a TED Fellow in 2011, and had the great honor of giving a talk on the Kepler Mission at TED Global in Edinburgh. Today I’m headed to the last TED of my subsequent 2-year Senior Fellowship, and once again, I will be giving a talk.
In 2011, I had done relatively little public speaking. I gave a lot of short presentations as a grad student at UW, and of course I’ve taught classes and given professional presentations. However, most of those occasions have both a different audience and format than the highly polished, public-facing communication that one sees at TED.
I was therefore understandably nervous about my talk— I practiced it to death before the conference, even going so far as to record it and listen to it while I went running or fell asleep (for the record, I don’t think that was a particularly useful thing to do, but I think I was thinking it would be like that episode of Night Court where Bull is in a coma and they play him language tapes, and then he wakes up fluent in Spanish). I still have a very clear and visceral memory of stepping out onto the stage: just before, I was standing in the wings next to the man who’d attached my mic, who reminded me to breathe. Rather than calming me down, this comment made me hyper aware of my breathing: was I doing it right? Had he seen me not breathing? Was I breathing now? What if I forgot to breathe and then I fainted and…. well, and then I walked onto the stage and gave the talk, my sweaty palm wrapped around the boxy remote control for the slides. If you watch my talk from that day, you can even hear my voice quavering a little (one YouTube commenter remarked I sounded sort of autotuned). For anyone who knows me, I also probably appear more serious than I think I have ever been in my life.
The funny thing is, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was vaguely aware that my talk might go online, and I remember thinking that would be great because then my friends could watch it. Awesome! And though I myself watched tons of TED talks, there was some missing connection in my brain between the fact that those talks were watched by lots of people, and that my talk might also be watched by lots of people. It never occurred to me that strangers around the globe would be watching me and my sweating palms stand on that red circular carpet, simultaneously trying to tell people about the amazing Kepler Mission and hoping that I didn’t fall off the ambitiously tall heels I’d decided to wear.
Today, as I fly to Vancouver, I know what’s at stake. I’m giving a talk that is essentially about climate change and the importance of preserving the habitability of Earth, a subject I feel passionately about and a message I hope will reach a lot of people. And man, am I nervous! Despite the fact that I have grown calmer about public speaking in general over the past four years, the flames of my anxiety are fanned by my personal investment in doing justice to this particular topic.
This week, I brought my talk anxiety up with my very excellent and insightful SupporTED coach, Jen Sellers. Jen is amazing at getting me to see the bigger picture when I feel like a frog at the bottom of a tall empty barrel, flailing against the walls as I frantically try to hop out. As a serious practitioner of meditation, Jen gently reminded me that my anxiety was being driven by an attachment to outcomes— that if I want to overcome it, the key lies in being present at the moment I am giving the talk. That is, after all, the only thing I can control— I have no control over what happens to my talk, how the audience receives it, etc— I only have the moment I am on the stage and speaking.
I already try to practice mindfulness, but in the days leading up to the Fellows’ session on Monday, I will be trying something a little bit different: rather than meditating on being present where I am now, I’m going to channel that visceral memory of the first time I stood on the TED stage, and I’m going to focus on being mindful and present there. Essentially it’s sort of a mixture between mindfulness meditation, where you focus only on being where you are, and visualization, where you travel off to some imaginary place as you meditate. Before I stand on the stage in the future, I’ll be standing there in the past, feeling
the clunky remote,
the pile of the carpet,
my heart in my throat, and
the deep inhale before speaking.
Here we go.