Six Lessons I Learned as a Speaker at TED

Two months ago, I got an email that simultaneously thrilled and terrified me – I’d been selected to speak at the TED2012: Full Spectrum as part of a session called The Classroom.  After two months of frantic preparation – talk-writing and graphics-making and question-emailing – I flew out to Long Beach last week and checked into the Hyatt next to the performing arts center where the conference is held. It was an amazing week, full of insight, creativity, and courage, and I know that I’ll be processing for months to come. I’ve heard people say that it’s impossible to come away from a TED conference as quite the same person you were when you left home, and I think that’s true. It’s hard to be in the presence of such incredible thinkers and world changers without hoping to do a little more for the world, too.  So with that in mind, here are six lessons I learned at TED, from the light-hearted to the life-changing…

1.  Don’t leave your badge on the coat rack.

This is important if you hope to learn anything else at all, because without it, they will not let you in.  Not even if your face is on a great big poster in the lobby.  True story.

During the Monday rehearsal session, I had a chance to run through my talk on stage, with the microphone and my visuals and everything except the audience. When the AV crew helped me with the mike, they hung my TED Conference badge on the coat rack backstage.  When my rehearsal was over, they came out to the stage to help me take off the mike, and I left. Without my badge. I only got two steps out the door before I realized, but as soon as I turned around to go back in, the security guard who’d just watched me walk out asked to see my badge. I explained that I left it backstage, and as I was doing so, a nice TED staffer came along and offered to escort me back to get it. That was good enough for the first three security officers we met – but not for the last one, who detained me in a hallway while the terrific TED guy went to find my badge for me.  Silver lining: I felt very safe and secure all the rest of the week.

2.  Introduce yourself and make friends.

I knew this from way back in kindergarten, of course, but somehow, I was worried that it would be different at TED, in a sea of CEOs and venture capitalists. Not so – and while I spent a good part of the week with the other educators who were part of The Classroom session, I also met some mighty nice Google engineers, writers, magicians, researchers, futurists, film makers, artists, CEOs, angel investors, and social scientists.  You hear a lot about “making contacts” at TED, and I supposed I made some of those, too. But the best part of the week? Knowing that I shared this experience with some like-hearted people who will be friends long after I’ve lost track of my conference badge.

3.  Be brave.

The most moving talks I heard at TED2012 had a kind of raw honesty about them. Brene Brown spoke about vulnerability and what happened after her original TEDx talk on that topic.  Susan Cain talked about being an introvert at her childhood camp and told to put her books away and socialize.   Bryan Stevenson gave an incredibly challenging and honest talk about race, poverty, privilege, and justice.  New Hampshire teacher Angie Miller spoke about the box of primary documents she keeps as a record of her life – including the not-so-positive letters from parents, alongside the glowing ones.  Bravery takes many different forms, but it always inspires the people around you to be a little more courageous, too.

4. It’s okay to be afraid.  Because courage isn’t the opposite of fear; it’s what you do even though you’re kind of scared.

On the day of our speaker briefing, TED host Chris Anderson spoke to a room full of speakers who would take the stage over the next four days.  Some of us looked more anxious than others, but there we were – the preparation was over (except for a few more late-night practices in the hotel room!) and it was time to do this amazing thing we’d been invited to do.

“Let a thousand experiments bloom,” Chris told those of us who were clustered in the front few rows of that theater that would soon hold 1500. “Be proud of what you’ve prepared and how you do it.”

My new friend Cesar Kuriyama, who spoke about his plan to record one second of every day of his life on video, mentioned to Bill Nye that he was nervous. Bill assured him this was okay. “If you weren’t nervous, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”

5. Never underestimate the power of spectacular failure.

 If there’s one big idea I took away from TED, it was this. Story after story from people who took the stage were stories of failure.  Donald Sadoway from MIT talked about the liquid metal battery he and his students have invented – and he included the stories about how it didn’t work, before it did work.  Andrew Stanton, the creator of Toy Story and WALL-E, shared a scene he had originally envisioned for the opening of Toy Story.  It didn’t work and didn’t make the cut.  And Regina Dugan, the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, asked us this: What would you do if you knew that failure was impossible?  Without failure, there is no creativity.  There are no aerial robots, no new energy prospects, no stories at all. The only way to learn to fly, she told us, is to fly.

6.  Regular people can change the world.

I don’t care if it’s a cliché. It’s true. Speaker after speaker who took the stage at TED showed that regular people with extraordinary passion and courage can do seemingly impossible things.  This video, remixed based on the first three days of the TED conference, captures that feeling for me perfectly.

 Other speakers, it turns out, learned a lot at TED, too. Check out Brene Brown’s thoughts here – and more “Lessons from TED Speakers”  links on the TED blog.

12 Replies on “Six Lessons I Learned as a Speaker at TED

  1. I admit it – I’m so jealous! But I’m also so thrilled for you for the experience, and I just know you rocked the room. I love your lessons and admire your courage, and… thanks for giving us more ideas worth spreading!

  2. Kate
    Is there a link to your TED talk? I tried to search for it but couldn’t find it.

    Thanks for this post, so far have listened to the one on being an introvert and I loved that one.

    Looking forward to listening to yours.