Today I gave my talk at TEDxWaltham, “What Everyone Gets Wrong About The Environment.”
Before I got home, an attendee emailed one of the most encouraging and heartwarming reviews I’ve received:
“I just wanted to tell you, I was extremely inspired by you and your talk today. I can’t remember a time when I was more impressed by someone’s philosophy and dedication to action. I hope we can chat soon by phone or video. I’d love to learn more about what your doing and how I can make positive changes in my life. I am available at your convenience if you can chat for a few when you can.
Thanks for sharing your message – it was really a gift.”
It didn’t go as planned, though.
I prepared and practiced it for months to where I’d given it flawlessly many times. I felt what I would consider appropriately nervous given the size of the audience, the event’s production values, and the TEDx name.
The first two-thirds of my talk went smoothly. The funny parts got bigger laughs than I expected. I stuttered once or twice. I got a couple lines out of order, but recovered with some humor.
Going off the rails
About two-thirds through, I forgot my next line. I froze.
My mind filled with inner monologue like, “Josh, remember the next line! . . . What’s the next line? . . . Why can’t I remember it? . . . Oh no, it’s long enough that they can tell there’s a problem! . . . Remember the next line! . . . I can’t remember it. . . What can I do? . . . This is bad! . . . Everyone is waiting. . . What’s the next line?” etc.
The audience only saw me standing without talking. I think they couldn’t read my stress or how the stress prevented me from getting back on track.
I joked, “they’ll take this pause out in post,” which got a laugh. I felt it bought me some time and got them on my side. They applauded me, I think in support, I hope not in pity.
After maybe 15 to 30 seconds that felt like an hour, I grasped any later line I could think of. From there I continued, on-the-fly trying to figure out where I was, since I had lost context.
After a few minutes back on track, trying to find out where on the tracks I was while still talking, I realized I was approaching the end and had left out important parts, which I could remember.
I backtracked to cover parts I knew I missed, partly amazed I could reconstruct my script so effectively despite the stress, partly scared I might restate some lines, not sure how long I could maintain the kluge. I was also partly amazed I could notice that I felt partly amazed, losing track of the levels of thought going on while talking.
At one point, I realized a line I was about to say referred to an earlier part I had jumped over — about how bugs would eat a host plant until it shriveled up and decimated their own population, comparing us to them. In particular, I was going to say, “We are better than bugs,” which would sound crazy without the skipped earlier line. I successfully skipped it.
Jump to the end
Now at an indeterminate earlier part, I found myself approaching the part I had restarted from after my long pause.
I knew how to end so I jumped to a few lines before the end. I think I finished strong.
An old college friend who lives in Newton was in the audience. He shook my hand while they introduced the next speaker. I asked him to come outside since my adrenaline was through the roof and I didn’t know yet how things looked to the audience.
He said the performance looked flawless beside what he saw as a minor. He saw no sign I had stitched things together on the fly. I couldn’t believe it. Only when I described how things happened internally did he realize my stress and heard me out to help calm me.
For the rest of the day, people said they loved my talk and barely noticed the pause. After enough people said it, I started to believe them.
What I missed
I knew I missed the first bug part. That omission weighs on me because I consider the image poignant and evocative. The image recurred three times in the original, so I lost that weaving effect.
Not until I looked at my script did I see the next part after my pause — a reference to Greta Thunberg, noflyclimatesci.org, discovering the growing community of people enjoying not flying, and how in the past few weeks, people at last started telling me they’re reducing their flying.
I hope my accidental brevity results in more views than the meaning lost from the missing parts.
Over the rest of the afternoon I thought of how to represent what I did. I came up with this graph, which may take a moment to make sense of.
The horizontal axis roughly shows time — more specifically, how many words I’d spoken. The vertical axis shows which word in the text I’d actually said.
You’ll see I said the words in order until about word 1,600, where I jumped forward a few hundred words. Then I said a few hundred words in order from there, after which I jumped backward, but not all the way to where I missed. Then I continued to near the part I had restarted from. Then I jumped to the end and finished.
You’ll also notice I never said a few hundred words — the Greta and bug parts. Darn.
Now I can’t wait to give this talk again, next time as originally planned.
In the meantime, I feel gratitude to everyone involved in TEDxWaltham, who made it possible and helped drive me to create a talk beyond what I could have otherwise, who assembled such a warm and receptive audience, and who produced this sophisticated a show.
I stopped long ago intending to reach perfection in speaking. I also teach in my leadership class to expect conflict and problems. I consider mistakes and problems inevitable.
I’ve developed a belief, or mental model, for such situations, which I present in three versions to appeal to different people:
One: what makes a quarterback great isn’t how he runs the play. What makes him great is how he performs when the play breaks down.
Two: a ship captain isn’t great for sailing in calm seas but when the waves get big and white-capped, visibility drops, and so on.
Three: when a bone or relationship breaks, it heals stronger than had it never broken, so learn to recover from problems, not prevent all of them.