Sticky Lips and a Loose Memory: My TEDx Journey

Andrew Elsass - Why don't we teach social skills

I told myself a few days earlier I was going to treat this like a weightlifting competition.

“None of this really matters in the grand scheme of things. Clear your mind, go out and rip it, then you can forget about it.”

That seemed great in theory, except with weightlifting or other sports you can throw all that nervous energy into the bar/ball/opponent’s face. But when giving a speech there’s no real acceptable outlet to place all that anxiety at once, lest I start screaming at the audience or begin bustling through the talk at breakneck speed. 

My turn finally arrived (after needing the stagehand to convince me that my mic was indeed on) and I walked out on stage. And despite drinking water most of the morning, I began to feel my lips and mouth dry up immediately as I walked to my mark.

“Hope that doesn’t become a problem,” I thought.

Audition #1

One early morning last spring, I zombily relocated my body from bed to couch, and checked Facebook.

There, I saw a post from TEDxMileHigh, the Denver-region organizers of a number of different TEDx* events. They were accepting applications for speakers, which I assumed required me to submit peer-reviewed research, a boastful investment portfolio, or newspaper clippings about my startup’s IPO. 

But the application seemed simple enough: some standard personal questions, one about what my ‘big idea’ was, another about my public speaking experience.

It didn’t take me long to figure out what I could talk about: 90 Strangers In 30 Days was something that not only had a big impact on my life, but based on the emails I was still receiving long after the fact, clearly had a big impact on a large number of other people, too. Social skills in general are one thing I can talk ad nauseam about, and a rough outline of a potential speech began to form quickly. 

I put it on my to-do-list for that day, submitted the questionnaire, then forgot about it.

First Contact

A week or two later, I received an email from a @tedxmilehigh.com address. Like so many internship and job emails that have tried to let me down soflty over the years, the message began by thanking me for applying. As I began to temper my expectations, I read on, and to my surprise they were instead lifted:

So today was good. #tedtalks #ted #tedex @tedxmilehigh

Una foto publicada por andrewelsass (@slassy) el


The only thing grounding my excitement was the audition date, which gave me just two weeks to write, develop, memorize to some degree, and make slides for an 8.5 minute “sample” of what could become my full speech if accepted (the TED format allows speeches to be up to 18 minutes in length).

Reality not fully set in yet, I pored over my notes from when I read Talk Like TED, watched some TED talks about what makes a good TED Talk, sketched a rough outline, and then a first draft.

My first run-through ran something like 14.5 minutes, included way too many anecdotes exemplifying the same thing, a heavy dose of self-deprecation, and in general wasn’t ordered in any sort of fashion that was going to help me memorize it quickly.

I trimmed heavily from there, and by the time audition day rolled around I had some solid meat on my outline bones, a few slides I thought adhered to TED’s recommendations, and a note sheet with pictures I hoped would help me quickly regain my place if I were to lose it during the audition.

Due to it being April in Denver and snow still being a thing, my girlfriend and I dodged an incoming storm by staying in a nearby hotel the night before. My audition time the next day was mid-morning at a fancy downtown coworking space.

When we arrived, lingering around were a number of my fellow auditioners: a calm, stoic looking lady that undoubtedly was a professor in some field I never had to take a class in; a pacing, middle-aged man nervously fiddling with his iPad; and a guy closer to my age wearing headphones. I guessed he was auditioning for a performance role, as he would occasionally bust out a badass dance move that made me question my own audition approach (“maybe I should dance…”).

Then there was me, bouncing like a pogo stick over by the complimentary coffee and danishes.

I was ready: I held a focus group with friends a few days before; I had scribbled “I will give a TEDx Talk” over 100+ times in my journal the past few weeks; and even meditated daily by a nearby creek (not kidding), envisioning myself onstage at Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House, thunderous applause creating cracks in the building’s foundation as I walked off, the people demanding an encore performance of my speech…everything I thought I was supposed to do, really. This audition was mine.

Finally, I was called into a small room at the end of the hall. To demonstrate that I wasn’t a fraud in regard to my topic, I introduced myself to the three panelists waiting inside and made small talk about the crazy weather. Then, the clock started.

I felt that rush of hyper-aware yet simultaneous calm focus that only public speaking, weightlifting competitions, and marching band (shut up) has given me, and finished a little faster than I had practiced, right around eight minutes. They thanked me, I thanked them, and I left the room content.

I told myself since I had prepared and performed the best I thought I possibly could, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t make it. But that turned out to be a lie, as two days later I received an email saying I wasn’t a fit for their 2016 program. The bit in there about being just one of 40 to audition out of over 600 applicants only made me feel slightly less mopey, but I couldn’t help but mope nonetheless.

I comforted myself that night with Chinese food and playoff hockey. Then, in a day or two, I forgot about it.  

A Second (And Third) Chance

Flash forward six weeks later. Somewhere on my hard drive, I stumbled across my speech notes, and I got curious.

After some quick searching, I found out there were TEDxColorado Springs (where I live) and TEDxDayton (where I’m from) events, and that both just happened to be accepting applications at that very moment.

I had done all that work to iron out my idea and memorize eight minutes worth of speech; why let that all go to waste?

The application questions for both were similar to the one for Denver, except Colorado Springs also wanted me to submit along a video of me performing my speech.

Dayton liked my application and invited me to come audition, however it wasn’t possible for me to travel there on short notice, so they said I could also send in a video audition.

As I learned, every TEDx event likes to do their audition process a little different. Colorado Springs capped their videos at 8.5 minutes while Dayton’s was somewhere in the 4-5 minute range. Feeling only slightly overwhelmed, I worked up until the deadline for both, creating two new versions of the speech (neither of which I had completely memorized by the time I went to film).

Ready to get it over with, I recorded both back-to-back in one take each while balancing my phone on a ladder, then submitted them to the appropriate parties. 

A few days later I received another email with the familiar line thanking me for auditioning, but then also an again-surprising second line inviting me to formally audition for TEDxColorado Springs. The audition would be in just 10 days, and this time they wanted to see a “full” version of the speech, up to 18 minutes in length.

Not wanting to add in new parts that I didn’t have solidly memorized, I went in and delivered basically the same speech I had delivered in my Denver audition and in my video. The setting was similar (a co-working space), but this time I was auditioning for something like 7-10 people that covered the complete gamut of human emotion (minus crying) while I auditioned: two women I thought might have been statues if I hadn’t greeted them when I walked in, a few more-thoughtful looking listeners, and an extremely comforting man on my right that was nodding along with everything I said (and that even chuckled at my dumb jokes).

The panel then asked me a few follow-up questions during which I demonstrated that I had used up all my capacity for eloquence and conciseness during the actual audition. I was complimented on my shoes on the way out by my new head-nodding fan (which I took as either a good sign or as that guy’s way of letting me down softly), and forgot about it.

But I couldn’t for long this time.

Meeting My Fellow TEDdys 

Later that same evening, I received a call from one of the friendlier women in the room saying they would love to have me in their program this year.

A few weeks later we had our first official TEDx meeting, held at a local art gallery. While there, I got to meet my fellow speakers: clothing company president Jan Erickson; graphic designer Jenny Schnell; stage actor and director Jesse Wilson; life coach Jill Davis; world champion Paralympic discus thrower Kevin Broussard; social entrepreneur Kevin White; digital marketing consultant Lauren Hug; and social scientist Mary Boardman.  

For the first time since I was next to the breakdancer and the college professor in the TEDxMileHigh holding area, I started to question my credentials and place at the event. These were all extremely brilliant and accomplished individuals with letters after their names and medals with their names on them. I on the other hand, wrote about 900-words that a bunch of redditors clicked an up arrow on over three years ago.

But after everyone had given a short preview of their talk and received a cool plaque, the time came to mingle, and something happened that would become a reoccurring theme of sorts: people (including my fellow presenters) kept coming up to me saying things like “I wish my nephew/daughter/students could hear your speech”, and “I hope you know that your message is an important one.” I hadn’t really heard praise about 90 Strangers like this in-person before, and it felt good.

plaques

While there, I also met the speech coach that was assigned to me: Ed.

Ed was a fast-talking Long Islander that had countless years of public speaking during his time as a high-ranking official in the Navy. He was also, as I pegged him quickly, an extrovert.

Given the topic of my speech, I wasn’t sure how this relationship was going to work. How could this guy who probably had countless crucial conversations and tense, fate-of-the-world-in-balance negotiations aboard nuclear submarines possibly relate to my message and help me amplify it?

But I decided to trust the assignment, and sent Ed my transcript to look over. A day or two later, I received an email from him full of great feedback on my speech. Maybe extroverts were able to articulate and relate to #socialskillsprobs more than I gave them credit for.

From there, we were mostly left up to our own devices. Ed and I decided to meet bi-weekly when we could, up until a small group rehearsal that was scheduled in August.

These first practices mostly took place in an empty conference room at Ed’s office. There I would run through the entire 14-some minute speech two or three times, Ed fervently scrambling notes on my transcript as I did, feeding me my lines when I would blank on them (which happened often). Several times he recruited his co-workers (one who was a former TV writer) to come listen and offer their feedback, too.

At the mid-August feedback session, we gave a run through of our entire speech in front of our fellow speakers, their coaches, a few past speakers, and some of the event organizers.

Running the show was a consultant that had everyone write their feedback on different slips of scrap paper. On one piece we were to write warm fuzzies (e.g., “I love how you wander around every inch of allotted space while you speak”). On the other, we wrote “critique” that was stated in the form of a question (e.g., “What if you didn’t make all those corny jokes?”). After everyone read their feedback to us, we took home the pieces of paper so that we could later sort through and decide which ones were helpful and discard the ones that were not.

August came and went, and the actual event still seemed impossibly far away. But as the leaves changed, so too did the tone of my voice when I would tell people “oh, it’s not until November 5th” to “it’s on NOVEMBER 5th”, as in less than a month away.

The Struggle Was Real(ly Just Three Things)

My one-to-two week breaks from practicing began to dwindle into just a few days off here and there, and Thursdays at lunch or in the evening became regular practice time with Ed. Tweaks were constantly being made and while I could see improvement every time we met, I would still have bouts of frustration with three things in particular:

1. Memorization: No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to surpass the 95% memorized mark. There were a few spots I would struggle to remember consistently, and during practice these would turn into long pauses and stares at coach Ed.

All I would need is a single word to prompt me into remembering where I left off, but nonetheless it was frustrating. Closer to the event date, our full run-through practices turned into running the same section of speech over and over, sometimes five or six times in a row and drilling down on every phrase and every sentence.

2. Inflection: Many schools of public-speaking thought highly discourage memorizing your speech word-for-word, instead encouraging you to have a set opening, interchangeable ‘body parts’ that can be arranged in the moment as nededed, and then a set closing.

But as a writer, I carry the burden of obsessing over syntax and thus want to say things exactly as I wrote them down. That’s not such a bad thing because I’m far from being a good off-the-cuff speaker, but a consequence of it is that it can make what I am saying sound overly-memorized and monotonous. During parts where I frequently went on autopilot and my emotion would flatline, I’d try my damndest to inject more inflection and enthusiasm. But while in my head I sounded like Mickey Mouse on crack, to Ed it still sounded like Eeyore on downers. Chalk it up to being a ‘chill’ guy I suppose.

3. Slides: I had a few slide ideas I thought would be pretty cool if I could them pull off well. But I also received a lot of feedback along the lines of “you convey your message so well, you probably don’t really need slides”. And so, I put off doing these pretty much as long as I could. 

After a few rounds of feedback, I had slides remaining that I felt happy enough with, but by then the event was just a week or two out and I had to memorize a whole new non-verbal element of my speech: timing my slides to my speaking. Also, one of the organizations I requested permission from to use their logo denied me about a week out, sending me scrambling to try and cover up the hole they left.

The event date continued to creep closer, and as people would ask me how I was feeling, my stock answer became a half-joke/half-truth that “my biggest concern is what to wear so I guess that’s a good sign!” or a more deadpan “It’s like trying to memorize a really long song.”

Memorize This

The Saturday prior to the big day, we had a full dress rehearsal at the actual event venue, Stargazers Theatre. I had been to Stargazers once before for a small concert, but actually being on stage made the venue feel more cavernous than intimate. After being given some details about what the actual event day was going to be like, speaker Jesse led us all in a goofy ‘get loose’ warm up, and then it was time do a full run-through of the show.

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Out of nine speakers, I was penciled in for fifth (despite my low .OBP and never really being much of a power hitter).

My memorization was now up to about 97% in most of my run-throughs. To get that last three ticks, I tried everything from just saying my speech over and over as I was driving around town, to listening to a recording of myself while washing dishes or eating lunch.

What helped the most was using sort of mnemonic memory devices with certain parts of the speech. For instance, near the end of my talk I say this sentence:

More ridiculous perhaps is not that social skills aren’t taught, but is that they can be taught easily and at minimal cost.

I associated the word cost with a Target logo in my head (Target is a store which sells things that all have a cost), which reminded me of my next paragraph:

While talking to random people in the stationary aisle at Target like I did for my experiment might have limited “real world” utility, if you can muster up the courage to just do as much as say ‘Hi, how are you?’ or anything else to a stranger 90 times in a month, I can guarantee that next networking event or party is going to feel a lot less scary, and a lot more fun. Moreover, this idea is infinitely scalable–for someone that’s an even harder case than I was they could simply do 30 Strangers In 30 Days, or while not as catchy, Make Good Eye Contact with 30 People In 30 Days, then build from there.

I associated the word build with a staircase, symbolic for the idea of self-improvement, which reminded me to say:

Over the course of those years as my social skills improved

And so on. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably try memorizing the entire speech using this method from the moment I started practicing it.

So I went on to the roar of the three volunteers in the crowd at this practice rehearsal, and…crushed it. 100% memorized, feeling completely in control of every body movement and inflection of my voice, and I even got laughs in parts of the speech I wasn’t expecting to.

The countdown was now at under seven days, and from day one when we met as a group back in July, we were warned not to practice during this week. So what did I decide to do? Practice once more of course, a run-through the Thursday before the show for some friends that weren’t going to be able to make it to the event.

There, the wave of confidence I was riding came crashing down. In front of my friends I blanked on parts that weren’t in the 3% I hadn’t had completely memorized before, flip-flopped the order of others, and skipped a good 30-45 seconds of the middle. Not practicing didn’t feel like an option after that, and Friday was spent frantically trying to ‘map’ those parts of the speech that I had glossed over deeper into my consciousness.

Despite worrying that I had peaked too early and needed another four months of prep to get back to proper speech form, Saturday came. I felt one part kid-on-Christmas-morning, one part disbelief that the day was actually here, and one big part shit-my-pants-nervous.

I showed up at the theatre and we went through the same ‘be silly’ warm up (which I highly recommend before giving speeches, going into a job interview, in the dentist’s office, anywhere) and then it was showtime.

“Dude, you gotta breathe.”

Backstage, it was interesting to see people’s different preparation methods: some preferred to zone out with headphones in; others chose to pace outside; and some just preferred to chat casually with everyone around them like it was no big deal. In order to prove to myself that I did have this thing memorized, I chose to go in a small hallway and say my speech quietly to a wall at about 2x normal speed.

And then, after a brief application of makeup (though I’m told I can’t call it makeup because it was just powder), I waited. Backstage we had access to anything we could possibly need just short of a bowl of only-red M&M’s. As other speakers went on, I passed the time mostly by trying to decide if I was actually hungry or if my nerves were making my stomach eat itself. After about the first three speakers went on, I settled on something small to eat and began to go into hardcore preparation mode.

I went to scribble a few positive affirmations in my journal, and it was this moment I realized how much trouble I was having trying to calm myself down. If at my Denver audition I was a pogo stick, here I was a runaway jackhammer.

I tried listening to music, breathing deeply, getting fresh air, saying positive affirmations aloud, pooping, and repeating the few trouble parts of the speech to again convince myself that I knew them. Yet when it came time to get mic’d up while the speaker before me was giving his talk, the audio guy took one look at me and said “dude, you gotta breathe.”

By now, I had probably run through this speech (late additions such as my intro notwithstanding) somewhere in the ballpark of 100 times. I walked out, felt my throat and lips turn to desert, did my opening gimmick, and muscle memory took over.

Talk: Why don't we teach social skills

At this point it was kind of an out-of-body experience in the way that on one side of my brain, I had my internal teleprompter running through the speech:

Say this…do this with your hands…pause and smile so they know I am joking…

And then a sort of self-observing (and judgemental) third eye on the other side:

This is *actually* going ok…it’s really not as dark as I expected in here…they’re laughing at *that* part?…you hit your slides early jackass, just go back and keep talking…

I don’t have much more to say about what being on stage was like, because honestly, other than trying to pick out different people at the front tables to talk “to”, then realizing I was doing that maybe a little too much, then trying to talk more to the back of the house, I don’t remember much else.

I sailed through the parts I was struggling with easily, and once I hit the homestretch my inner monologue began celebrating too early, and I ended up skipping a small joke about my days as a video game message board vet. I realized this right away, but couldn’t invent a good way to loop it back in naturally, so I chose to just wrap up the speech as intended.

And as I did, the first thing I felt when I walked on stage came back to haunt me–while trying to slow down and e n u n c i a t e my closing for e m p h a s i s, my dry lips started to stick my teeth. I fought through, prayed there wouldn’t be a close up on my face at that point in the final video, waited for applause, resisted the temptation to bow or curtsy, and walked back off.

I high-fived the next speaker (the amazing Mary Boardman), was de-mic’ed, and slam dunked draft 11 of my transcript in a trashcan.

Back in the speaker room, I was greeted with congratulations (in my head that was short for “congratulations, it’s over!”) and was interviewed by the event videographers. I was told they wanted to do this right after so they could capture the speakers’ “euphoria” fresh off the stage, but I think what my interview captured were pattering nerves and a brain trying to calibrate back to normalcy.

I rambled off some answers, forgetting that I should be looking at the interviewer and not deer-in-headlights into the lens, and then I was officially off the hook of having to speak eloquently.

Ed came and congratulated me, and I watched the rest of the speakers from the upper deck of the venue, head mostly slumped on my girlfriend’s shoulder out of exhaustion and relief.

I felt a kind of eery weightlessness, eight months of stress freed from the back of my head where it had balled up and made a nice little home for itself. A few strangers congratulated me and told me that they agreed with my message and that their niece/son/coworkers needed to hear it, and after some celebratory meatballs and a beer at the afterparty, I went home.

And then I kinda forgot about it.

The Snarky Aftermath

In the weeks that followed I struggled to answer the “how did it go?” question.

In situations where I needed to answer concisely, I decided that, “It went like something that I practiced over 100 times was mostly supposed to,” would sound snarky at best despite its earnestness, and instead settled for, “Well, no one booed or threw anything at me so I guess that’s good.”

While those answers were technically true, more true was that I had trouble coming up with words to describe this thing I did in which every word was scripted.

Speaking at a TEDx event was something I put on my bucket list that I never expected to accomplish or even consider trying for until I was a mid-thirty something and had written a few more books, was more ‘established’, and opened a chain of drive thru-barbershops. Although I know this is a bad line of thinking, it was sort of this pinnacle on a pedestal I felt I would reach when I had ‘arrived’ and made significant contributions to some hyper-niche field, or maybe one of my #ideaaday-s that I post on Twitter would catch on and I’d get to explain how my inspiration was equal parts grogginess, coffee, and needing to scribble something in my journal so I could get on with my day.

Little did I know that TEDx was instead going to represent the beginning of my contributions, and I already knew exactly in what field those would be.

Now that I’ve gone ‘public’ (in a way more than just a blog or reddit post) with some of my feelings and experiences about the state of social skills in our society, I feel I have a level of accountability (read: a kick in the ass) where I have reached a point of no return, and need to make a serious investment in doing what I feel I have known for years now should be my life’s work: helping others become socially stronger.

With the help of the SCORE Association and the support of countless friends and family members, I’ve begun to develop a 90 Strangers-branded social skills course, am actively pitching a book/workbook about the idea to publishers, and am now open for in-person and Skype coaching, something I’ve envisioned myself doing for a while but hadn’t had the guts to start. I’ve even dipped a toe into a medium I’ve admittedly never pictured myself going into: YouTube (branding in development), and have put some serious thought into getting a master’s in developmental psychology.

I like to think I possessed the drive to do all of this someday anyway without needing the affirmation of a few hundred people at Stargazers to know who I am and what I am about. But even though I pride myself on my stubborn independence, I’m not ashamed to admit that…I did.

Now that I reached that pedestal that TED was sitting on in my mind, I can now look behind it and see that if nothing else, it was just a gatekeeper to the climb and real work that lies behind it.

Instead of being the landing strip I thought it would be, TEDx was instead the launching pad.

And I’ll never forget it.

*TEDx events are independently-organized events that follow TED’s structure (18 minute speeches about ideas worth sharing, etc.). Kind of like franchising a fast food restaurant, the organizers must follow certain regulations and rules in order to carry the TEDx license.

Photography by Jay Billups

2 Comments

  1. Susie Bauer Reply

    A very enjoyable read- proud of you!

    • andrewelsass Reply

      thanks Aunt Susie!

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