I have a confession to make. I’ve been keeping this TED thing under my hat for months now.
I’ve known about this since December. I just found out that I was actually the first speaker to sign onto the TEDxTbilisi project, which is really cool. In fact, it’s so cool that it might more accurately be described as “too good to be true.” That’s probably why I haven’t mentioned it until now, except to one or two friends in Tbilisi and my parents back in NYC. I was afraid that something would fall through, that I’d be sick or break a leg or that they would hate my talk and throw me out, and then I’d have to come back and explain that I would not actually be giving a talk at TEDx after all and then my shame would be multiplied by a thousand.
I went to a coaching session today with some of the organizers. They had a lot of positive things to say about the talk, which, frankly, I am thrilled about. My nervousness about the talk has been creeping into my daily life, and my girlfriend is frankly tired of it and can’t wait until I’m back to normal. Now I feel like everything is falling into place.
The thing is, I love TED. TED talks are amazing and interesting, and I’ve spent countless hours on their website, watching TED and TEDx talks, and it never once occurred to me that I’d be smart and interesting and famous enough to actually be on that website. Several of my intellectual idols, ranging from Dan Dennett to Jay Smooth, have given TED and TEDx talks. Just to be on the same website as those guys, to have my video available for all time on the TED site and YouTube – it’s tremendous. It’s indescribable. My friends are going to be jealous.
I went through a number of phases of preparation. The first was this idea that I had to be brilliant and earth-shaking and blow peoples’ minds, and that to do that I’d need a whole bunch of science and stuff. I combed through Jaynes, Lakoff, Wegner, and, yes, Dennett; I recalled my undergraduate work on primate cognition and linguistic development; and eventually I came up with a huge number of unbelievably fascinating stuff about the role of language in our lives, none of which had anything remotely to do with 1)Georgia, 2)TLG, 3)my daily life as a TLG volunteer in Georgia, or 4)the theme of the conference, which is “The Long View.” After a great deal of soul-searching, accompanied by pacing around my living room scrawling numbers and phrases on my whiteboard, I managed to trim the talk down to the real points – the real meat, the stories that I could tell, the things that I’ve actually learned in Georgia – the actual new ideas I’ve had here that are worth sharing with the world.
This was the second phase – trimming all the heavy stuff that I had only put in to seem like a genius out, and just focusing on what was real and immanent and engaging. After the second phase I felt a huge tension lift. I wouldn’t have to find those slides of chimpanzees pushing numbers after all.
The third phase was practice. Here’s where the other tricky part was, because I talk best when I haven’t rehearsed much. I am an improvisor. I think well on my feet, and even if I’m saying something I’ve said before, there’s a certain degree of naturality and conversationalness that I achieve when I’m speaking about something I’m passionate about more or less extemporaneously as opposed to when I’m reading or reciting from a script.
So when all was said and done, I had pages and pages and pages of text that I had written, all of which I discarded in favor of “lecture notes” consisting of basically four or five bullet points. Notes I could remember to hit along with a general idea of what to say about them. The only line I have scripted is my first line.
It’s incredibly nervewracking to give an unrehearsed talk to an international audience based on one scripted line and five lecture notes. I saw an interview with Lewis Black, the amazing comedian, who says that he doesn’t script his comedy; he just has topics to hit and he goes up and just riffs. And sure, the stories take on a note of sameness after they’ve been done five or ten times, but generally speaking Lewis Black does his routines the same way I’m doing my talk. So it’s not unprecedented. Just incredibly frightening.
So anyway, I feel well-practiced, although I have tonight and tomorrow to integrate the notes from my coaching session, but I also don’t feel like the talk is scripted or stilted in any way. I’m ready and also on the edge of my seat.
And I’m incredibly, unbelievably, mind-blowingly excited.
Sadly I won’t be as smart as this guy:
(Video: Mark Pagel, How Language Transformed Humanity)