Saturday, November 5, 2016

How I Survived My TEDx Talk at VNR VJIET

It started with a mail in my inbox on March 12, 2015. The mail came from Abhinay Renny, the young novelist and final year student from Vignan Jyothi Institute of Technology, who had invited me as a guest for his book launch. His mail said that he was proposing to hold a TEDx event at his college with 'Unshell' as the theme. Could he propose me as a speaker and could I furnish an idea that he could submit to get the license? He had read my writing, my blogs and thought my ideas would be worth sharing.

Wow! A TEDx talk. Flashes of all the great TEDx talks I had seen and that I had forced upon many other unsuspecting people flashed through my mind - Simon Sinek, Sean Stephenson, Ken Robinson, Josh Kaufman, Derek Sivers etc.

I wrote back the next day - something to this effect  "Abhinay, I am not an expert at anything - let me think if I have anything worthwhile t share." Abhinay was all patience. Sure sir, he replied. It was too preliminary so I stepped back too. Did I match up to the TED stage?

I had some time to think. Undoubtedly TED was a fantastic brand to be associated with and it certainly was a great opportunity. But was I ready for it? What do I speak about? The more I thought of it the more I was inclined to decline. Thankfully there were no further mails from Abhinay for a while.

I waited for the next mail from them to give my final answer (then, a No). Sure enough, one fine day after a couple of months, a gentle reminder came - any ideas yet? No, none. I stayed silent. I was not sure I would even want to participate.

Confirm please
Finally on March 12, 2016, a dreaded official looking mail with the TEDx logo appeared in the inbox - "Mr. Harimohan Paruvu, we need to finalize, are you on?"
I hated the mail. I hated the fact that I had to make up my mind now. I was mentally oriented to saying No. For greater clarity I asked Anjali, my eight year old (then), what she thought I should do.
"Wow!' said Anjali, her eyes going wide. "A TEDx talk? My art teacher shows me some talks Nanna. They are really nice. You must do it Nanna." she said all excited.
That decided it.

I called Abhinay saying Yes.

It Has to be My best talk
Things got moving rapidly after that. I got another mail in a couple of days thanking me for agreeing to be a speaker. There was a formal tone to it. It had two attachments with 1) speaker guidelines and 2) the TED commandments.

Speaker guidelines told us to talk to a smart audience, be youth oriented, creative, use music, pictures, videos etc to make it all more eye catching and engaging. But mainly wrap up the talk in 18 minutes.

The TED commandments told us to dream big and make it the best talk we ever delivered in our life. It must be an idea that can change the world. We were to show the real us. Show our passions, fears, vulnerabilities. Speak of our success as well as failure. Make the complex plain. Tell stories. Be specific and give examples. Connect to the emotions and make the audience go with you. Focus on one single aspect. In short deliver a fabulous talk.
Also, give us the details of the talk in two weeks.
What would you like to talk about?

Ah, that was what I did not know.

And - I had to give the best talk of my life. That was the expectation. Deep breath. Okay.

Choosing the topic
I wrote back in a couple of days - on March 5, 2016. I decided to talk about high performance. I gave a structure. For 18 minutes. It is my biggest story - where I scored 158 as an opener and won the match for us - and some nice insights. How we could raise our performance with sheer focus. It would have been an entertaining and powerful talk. Yes. This was good I thought. I sent off the basic structure in the mail.

The reply came after a couple of days.

The Team did not approve of the topic. They were nice and all that but felt it was an idea that was not new. How about another idea? Like 'How a cricketer thinks while writing' or even 'The struggles of a writer'. In fact Abhinay gave me a topic from the blog about Anjali and her business venture. I felt that was not a great idea to share on TEDx. To help me along he sent me a talk by TED curator Chris Anderson on what makes a great TED talk.

But I was taken aback. Even irritated. Now what do I speak about? I went into a shell. I did not respond for almost ten days after that. They needed a topic though. The event date was two weeks away.

So I called Abhinay and we discussed. We decided that maybe I should talk about the stuff I knew a bit about - cricket, writing, and the connector - creativity. It was pretty much the first idea he had proposed. I put down a loose structure for the 18 minute talk and shared the idea on March 20, 2016. Is this ok? The response was immediate and over the top. Superb, said the team spontaneously. This idea represents the theme of the TEDx talk - Unshell. I was also blown away by their response. Ok topic set - Cricket, Creativity and Writing. Most of the structure done. Some fine tuning and I should be fine. I had delivered 1 hour talks and even 2 hour talks till then - so 18 minutes should be okay I thought.

Use a Presentation or not
Then came stuff like - if you have a presentation, could you send it? I have never used a presentation in any talk. So I asked if I was ok to not use one. Abhinay liked it. That's the best way he said.

Preparation for the talk of my life
As the date came closer, I realized I could not let it go too late though I had much of it under control. It had to be the talk of my life. So I sat with my first draft - a full week ahead of the program.

10 Drafts
I wrote and rewrote the draft 10 times. I was clear I wanted to talk to those who felt they were somehow disadvantaged - size, colour, gender, sex - and made a symbol of the fast bowlers to represent that section.

Each draft became sharper, ideas got clearer. I wanted to get three clear ideas across - that creativity was hard labour to me be it in cricket or writing, that anyone could create if they worked hard at it and took complete responsibility for it and that creation could be done easily as one evolves, with love, and not just through sheer strength. Each draft brought a sharper thought, an image, a joke, a finer idea. Until I felt I had it all under control by the 10th draft - a day before the event.

Writing vs Speaking - Practiced delivering the speech thrice a day
Everyday for the whole week, I also delivered the speech aloud into a mirror - to even it out, iron it out, three times a day. Each time I'd adjust the talk some. It would read oddly some places. The opening would sound weak. Some lines would not fit into the next and I'd not remember the sequence. I had to keep the beginning and ending strong and have enough content in the body to keep the flow going.
Whatever happened, I would have to live my speech. I would leave no stone unturned for the preparation.

My Slot on the D Day 
As D day came closer I asked what was my slot. Abhinay asked me when I would prefer to speak. i said I could go early. Get done with it. I asked how many speakers were there? Who were there? What was expected of us? Should we be there all through? Yes, he said. Please listen to the others too.
The air was getting heavy.

Shirts, Shoes etc
There were no decent clothes to wear so Shobha and I bought a pair. All other stuff was okay.

2 Days Before D Day - Problem
I realized that I would be speaking directly with no props. No presentation, no cards, no cues. Since it was just 18 minutes I packed in a lot into the lines, I could not ramble. I needed to have my thoughts absolutely clear and the flow fully sorted.

That's when I realized that there was a problem in my preparation. Normally I have three main points, with three sub points each and I can go on for hours with those points in my head. But here I realized I had written the speech such that each sentence led to another and if I forgot one sentence, the entire structure could collapse. But I was too deep into it. I just had to prepare better.

Ice Breaker - Speaker Meet
The team called. They were having an ice breaker party. Could I attend?
Amidst all this, Shobha's mother was getting her pacemaker fitted so we were travelling up and down to the hospital in Kondapur. I skipped the ice breaker for two reasons. One was the hospital duty but more importantly I didn't want anyone to mess with my head. I wanted full focus on the job.

Forgetting Lines - Panic
As I worked harder, I found myself forgetting my lines more frequently, far earlier into the speech than I liked. I forgot the main points, the punches. If I remembered the jokes I'd forget the next line or an important point. It was just the way it was structured and written.

I decided to try my 18th delivery on Anjali, who was my first live audience.

She sat on the bed as I stumbled and stuttered through the talk. It was appalling. I forgot stuff, I hemmed and hawed. But I finished it. Credit to her, she listened to the whole thing. At the end, I asked, how was it.

'Awesome', she said. I knew clearly that she saw my messing up, that she got bored. But she also realized I needed that encouragement.

Just what I needed. Was I glad I did not try this in front of an adult? I gave her a hug.

I knew all the gaps and went to fix them. On and on. Next day was the D day. I was at a stage when I felt it could all just crash. Maybe I should have used a presentation?

D - Day - April 2, 2016
In the morning I got a call. We will send the car early. I asked when I was speaking. They said I was speaking last. You're the show stopper, Meghna said. I was not sure. I would have to wait all day. I asked if I could come a little late so I could prepare some more. They were incredibly flexible for such young organizers.

More preparation.

I delivered the speech to an adult audience. Raja and Shobha listened as I delivered my speech emotionlessly and unconvincingly. I knew it did not fly. But I also knew where I was missing things. They gave me a couple of suggestions. At this stage I could not change more than a couple.

At the Venue
I dressed up. I stuck to my favorite shirts however and not the new ones. I was all buttoned down, not my usual style. Stiff. I went late as planned.

I met Chakravarthula and Abhinay and the others in the committee. I was given a  kit, an id card. I had tea. There was the first break. I saw Ramana Gogula and his star presence as the children flocked around him. I went back to the room to prepare. I was getting worse. Now I was skipping lines from the beginning itelf. I told Abhinay I would like to skip all the morning sessions and prepare some more. He said it was fine.

Just when it looked like I could not do worse - Rooh came. Shreya, Sruthi, Nitin and Vivek, members of the band Rooh, were playing at the event. They spoke to me and talking to them took my mind off the speech. They told me how nervous they were feeling. I smiled. Little did they know my state. Then we had lunch.

The afternoon session started at 2 pm. I could not skip any more talks because the doors to the venue would be shut. Now, it was show time. I found a corner to sit in and watched the talks and the performances, mentally running the lines.
Nope. I was still forgetting.

Panic Rising
I watched a band perform. Prasad Kantamaneni spoke about design. A fine talk. But I thought of my speech. I was forgetting the third line. I wished I had a presentation like he had too. Most of what he said was washed away in the sounds of my panic. Seetha Murthy spoke next. She had a presentation too. I was getting worse each time I tried to think my opening lines.

My turn next.

If I forget the lines, the flow, which I was most likely to in my state, it would be a colossal disaster. My best talk would be the biggest embarrassment for me. I looked to see if all the doors were really shut. For a  moment I wondered if I should make a bolt for it.
It was really that bad.

Rooh played. They did a wonderful job. One song stayed with me - of how hope comes out of despair. from the darkest pits to the grandest heights. All is not lost. Ever.
Wow! They were singing to me. (Check out the part 3.01 - 3.40)
Somewhere I found a flicker.

Focus, Focus
I talked to myself. This is like any tight situation in a game. I had once saved my team from a 20 for 7 chasing 120. Same situation. Relax. Then I ran over the facts. I thought of my preparation. I could not have done more. 10 drafts. 20 odd rehearsals. I knew that stuff I was speaking about intimately. It was my story. With so much preparation behind me I cannot go wrong.
Unless I messed the delivery.

Less than 3 minutes to go. I needed to pull myself together.

The Self Talk and the Visualization - Pulling it back 
So I told myself that I was prepared more than needed. Now, all I had to do was to deliver what I had prepared for.

First, I told myself to stop the panic, the negative thoughts in my head and focus on the outcome I wanted. Just like I had written in the speech that one should hold on to that beautiful outcome they wanted.I saw in my mind the outcome I wanted for the briefest moment - the entire audience clapping, the best talk of the day. I held that vision.

Second, I looked at what I was worried about. That the audience may not like it. I decided I was not going to seek or play for their approval. I will own that stage. Those 18 minutes are mine. I will tell my story from there. That thought shifted the balance of power. It was about me and not them.

I stopped trying to remember the speech. I trusted my preparation.

As a mark of the change in my mood, I rolled back my sleeves. I wore my glasses on stage which was a first. I was now in that space where you feel you are being carried on some light space by some angels. My introduction was given. I walked up. I was relaxed.

My stage. My talk.
I will make it worth your while.

The Performance
I started tentatively
'My cricket coach of thirty years...'

The room was dark. The spotlight was on me. I could see no one. But I could sense the audience checking me out, my nervousness, my talk. After the first few minutes, came the first murmur, and then most unexpectedly a laugh when I least expected it. It was to be a turn in the flow.
'You get it, I said 'fast bowlers are slow'. It was a surprise. They laughed tentatively at first and then long and hard.

Then the talk went on. Line after line came magically to me from my subconscious. One point I missed the flow, for a few seconds, that was a tough place in the speech. I waited it out and then caught the next line. 12 minutes into the speech and I was well and truly in. I could feel a connection with every singe member in the audience. I knew I had their attention fully. The story unfolded. They wanted to hear me. They could sense the preparation. I forgot nothing. All the points I wrote got through and well. I slowed down in the final stretch. It was a performance - and I knew by then the verdict.

"...Clean bowled!" Ah.
The applause I had visualized.

The talk.

The Peace
The act of delivering of the talk was everything that I spoke about in the content of the talk. I literally walked the talk. The hard work, the patience, the trust and finally the love. ' need courage to see the outcome..till the entire field of possibilities...from being the victim to being a it with love...' As I went back to my seat Rao garu came over to congratulate me. Other speakers did. Ramana, Sandhya, I met them. Some members of the audience. A lovely memento - an illustration of mine by Kittu, some pictures.
Kittu's illustration - Beautiful memento
In his speech Abhinay referred to a few points I had made in my talk so I knew that I had got the message across clearly enough. That little talk he gave was a wonderfully mature talk and a great validation for me.

I heaved a quiet sigh of relief. It was over. We were over the line. The same feeling. A nice emptiness.

Did I give my best talk? I don't know. But I gave it all I had. Maybe now in retrospect I could have done better. Someone said 'hey you did not move on stage'..'you could have held a prop'... Yes. I could have. Maybe next time. Right now I'll take this. That if I could get out of that situation, I think I can back myself to get out of most.

Someone got me a cup of coffee. I met the band members again.  Couple of pictures. And then I was in the car, heading home.

Job well done.


Anonymous said... the clarity, honesty, and humility with which this is done. Exemplifies walk the talk. And thanks for sharing the behind the scene experience. It's truly insightful and inspiring.

Rama Raju said...

Now we now what it takes to deliver a original and great talk. Plus, Anjali is lucky to go to a school where TEDx talks are shown to kids.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Anon for your kind words. I am so glad it was of some help. The idea was to share what I felt and experienced so someone could get an angle or two - on 'how to' or 'how not to'. :)

Harimohan said...

Thanks Ram. That's what the fast bowlers do! Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Rajendra said...

18 minutes is not easy. It came off well- no doubt, preparation is key.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Raja. You suffered one of those preparatory ones! In retrospect - was super fun.

Anonymous said...

Hello sir

This is Meghana again from TEDxVNRVJIET. I just read your blog about your first TEDx talk experience and it is an eye-opener!

To begin with, I have to tell you, public speaking has always been my passion. Since a very young age, I have always marveled at the skill of some very eminent public speakers. The way they could sway the emotions of the crowds, make them laugh and cry along with them seemed like an extraordinary gift they have. At an age when I couldn’t even understand what the talks were about, I have decided that I wanted to have that sort of effect on the people around me, that sort of power to make people emote with me.
But the reality remained that I was the sort of person who would freeze in mid sentence if I realized that there were more than two people listening to me.
At some point in my life this passion became more of an obsession and I decided to come out of my shell and grab every opportunity I get to practice talking in public and try to lose the stage fear. For everything from elocutions to even the smallest of the presentations in my class, I would practice in front of the mirror for up to 2 o’clock in the night till my voice became hoarse.
Eventually I started getting better at it. The crowds did start to listen to my talks with great interest and I used to get some appreciation for my oratory skills. However the stage fright that has always been my mortal enemy, still clang on to me. But I found ways to hide it all and put on a ‘cool’ facade. All along, it still didn’t make any sense to me how the people who deliver the best speeches seem to do it with so much ease and spontaneity! They always seemed like super humans who could deliver a spectacular talk even if they were woken up in the middle of the night!
When you sent us your rough draft, I knew that your talk would doubtlessly be one of those great ones. On the day of the event, even though I had a ton of organizing work to do outside, I snuck in to catch your talk and watch it become a huge hit. And then you took the stage and owned it like a boss! I remember those pauses you gave. Wow! How dramatic! I thought with admiration. That moment you became the newest addition to my superhuman list.
Little did I know about all the sleepless nights and hours of tremendous practice that went into the making of this hit. If it weren’t for the pictures of your ten drafts that you put on your blog, I would never have believed that you actually put in that much hard work. That’s when I knew that real super humans aren’t born with super powers but they make every effort to acquire the super powers they want. In fact, the super power itself is not the ability they acquire but the dedication and determination they have to acquire those abilities.

Thank you for a brilliant talk and a great lesson that came along with it!

Harimohan said...

Dear Meghana,
Thank you for such a lovely, heart felt mail. I was so moved by it, by your honesty and your effort to reach out and to share your thoughts with me.

The reason why I wrote the blog was to share the actual process behind what shows up. Our fears and our doubts will always keep coming up but we have to keep seeing that beautiful outcome and hold on to it. Its scary and beuatiful and great fun. Just like I sad in the talk :)

I am so so glad you could connect to that effort and preparation behind that 'superhuman' performance. Like you said, all superhuman performances come because those guys work doubly harder, expose themselves to more risk and prepare like crazy. That's the only secret. Like Kung Fu Panda realises - the secet ingredient is nothing - its you.

I could not have hoped for a better reaction than yours. The talk, the effort, the doubt and even the sharing on the blog are all aimed at making you and whoever reads it believe that we are all fast bowlers inside - in one field or another and that there is a way to achieve what we want - to be super human. I only knew that I had to prepare and prepare and prepare until I dropped off. It had to be the best speech of my life right?

Can't tell you how glad and how contented I am feeling as I write this mail to you. That I have been able to share that space with you honestly - and that you can always hold it as you reach for bigger and bigger things in your life.

Do keep in touch. It's always wonderful to interact with you all.

Good luck and god bless