Bootstrapping It: Using My Own Work to Write My Own TEDx Talk
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6 Ways to Optimize Performance Through Openness & Accountability

By: Ethan Schutz

Pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps: (idiomatic) To succeed only on one’s own effort or abilities.

I was very surprised when my application to give a TEDx talk was accepted. There were 68 applications and only five open speaker slots, so I reasoned that something about my topic resonated. After speaking with a few people who had given TEDx talks before and asking them about potential subjects, the consensus was that speaking about defensiveness was the most intriguing. I had fashioned my application around that.

I had also heard from these former speakers that the process of creating the talk was one in which the speaker coaches were fairly ruthless in cutting things out to make the talks short and to the point. It sounded rather intimidating. However, as I thought about it, I became more and more excited by this possibility. I’ve done a reasonable amount of public speaking, but I have never had any formal training in it or any coaching for any specific talk. The prospect of working hard to get my point across in a mere 11 minutes was both daunting and exciting to me.

I began by reviewing a tremendous amount of information about giving these talks, including articles, books, and TED talks about giving TED talks! From there I began to fashion my own talk. I started by structuring it the way I normally do when I make a presentation for marketing or to introduce people to the work that I do.

The work that I do is based upon The Human Element®, a body of work created by my father that is intended to improve human performance in the workplace. It focuses heavily on self-awareness to help people become more open and less defensive and thus more effective in working with other people. My intent from the beginning was to draw upon this work for my talk.

My first draft looked very much like a shortened version of my standard presentation. It had an introduction, explanation of concepts, and several short bullet points about what an audience member could do with the information. I dutifully wrote up for my coach and sent it off.

By the time I spoke to my coach I had listened to most of Carmine Gallo’s book Talk Like TED, and determined that I had way too much explanation and way too little in the way of storytelling. My coach immediately agreed, pleased that I had figured that out. He told me that these talks were not like corporate presentations, but were much more personal without discrete points like you might see on a PowerPoint slide. These were talks meant to appeal directly to people’s emotions and be extremely simple and direct.

I worked my way through five rewrites, watched a variety of other talks including most-watched talks by Brené Brown and Simon Sinek, and practiced my own talk over and over again. What became clear to me was that the way information is presented in corporate and marketing talks becomes boring, even when it seems straight to the point and punchy.

And that required bootstrapping: that I listen to my own talk about defensiveness and manage my own defensiveness!

This feedback and realization was hard. After all, I’ve been giving keynotes and professional presentations for many years and the implication was that for many years I’ve been giving talks that are boring. Not so much fun to become aware of.

But it did give me greater insight into my subject and I was able to go further away from my usual talks than I expected. The hard part became finding good stories that were exactly on point and simple. In order to convey an abstract concept with a story, the story must be extremely simple and short, very relatable, and make exactly the point you are trying to make. I must have gone through 20 different stories to end up with the four that I finally used. By the time I got to my last rewrite, the talk was almost entirely stories with a tiny amount of explanation of concepts. Not only was it easier to say, it clearly had more impact.

I was feeling quite pleased when I got to this point, until I practiced in front of a couple of different groups. The feedback was consistent. They wanted to see more passion from me at the beginning of the talk and have my energy and delivery match the stories all the way through. One friend, a movie director and producer, give me extensive feedback about how I could improve my delivery along with many ideas to help me do it.

This was the next challenge. I had no experience or training around doing this and it seemed like it was very much like learning to be an actor, something I had never done.

My wife, an organizational psychologist and co-owner of our company, is also a former actress and she came to the rescue. She coached, prodded, and pushed me to deliver better, complete with exercises, preparation activities, and visualizations to help me do it. And at first I didn’t get it all. I felt embarrassed. I couldn’t figure out how to do anything differently or even what it might look like.

This was the second place in which my own topic of defensiveness came up for me. I realized that was once again I was getting defensive because I felt embarrassed about not knowing how to improve my delivery! It was time to bootstrap it again and listen to my own talk and learn once again how to reduce my defensiveness.

I finally found a way in. I practiced by myself several times. And by being alone, I was able to let myself get wild and crazy enough to see how I could be much more passionate and energetic in my delivery. The final step was to practice that in front of others.

And that was the third place to bootstrap it and to return to my own topic and manage my own defensiveness! I tend to be an understated person, not exhibiting a lot of emotion. In addition, my voice does not naturally carry, so even when I feel like I’m shouting people often complain that I’m not speaking loud enough.

So my challenge was to act in a way that felt exaggerated, too loud, and almost ridiculous. This was all the more important because I would be on stage in front of several hundred people and it is important to exaggerate movements and voice tone in order to come across with passion and vigor from a distance.

The proof is in the final result and I will leave it to others to evaluate if I was successful in both my writing of the talk and its delivery. For me, it was very satisfying process in which I learned a great deal. I know that I will never give a talk again which is not full of stories and very short on explanation. I know that I will allow myself to be more passionate and energetic, even when it feels like it’s too much from my point of view.

Here’s my talk:

I hope you find it useful. And well delivered!