Friday 15 November 2019

Crippling fear, lots of rules, and Prada shoes: The inside story of a TED talk

When Irish Independent associate editor Dearbhail McDonald was asked to deliver 'the talk of her life', she forced herself to step out of her comfort zone - and found her voice

What's the story: Dearbhail McDonald during her TED talk at DCU's Helix Theatre
What's the story: Dearbhail McDonald during her TED talk at DCU's Helix Theatre
Speaker: Dan Gilbert

The first thing I tried to do when I was asked to deliver a TED talk by one of my alma maters (Dublin City University) was to get out of it. Fast.

Public speaking, in the main, doesn't terrify me.

I frequently appear as a guest or presenter on television and radio and speaking at conferences or events has pretty much become part of the day job. And ever since I fell off the roof of the manger at the school nativity play, I'm pretty good at recovering during live performances.

For those interested, my twin Aoife, and I, aged five, were the stars in the bright sky and when she tumbled off the roof, during a rendition of Away in a Manger, I went with her.

But TED is different.

TED talks and their licenced affiliate TEDx - which I took part in - are a global phenomenon that have inspired and entertained more than a billion people. Their reach is awesome: TED talks - the acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design - receive more than 1.5million views a day, the equivalent of 17 new page views a second.

And I'm partly responsible for inflating those figures, tuning in as I do on an almost weekly basis to be inspired and motivated by amazing humans on everything from creativity to orgasms, strokes, the art of asking, love, robots and vulnerability.

The TED talk by Andrew Solomon, a gay dad, on the topic of unconditional love and unconditional acceptance - you must watch it if you haven't already - had me weeping.

I even managed to meet a 'real life' TED talker, the career analyst Daniel Pink, during my Eisenhower Fellowship programme in the United States three years ago.

But who was I to give a TED talk and what do I have to say to the world?

I'm no billionaire philanthropist, I haven't made a major scientific breakthrough and I've no formula for world peace.

I was blessed with a happy childhood (I could never be on reality TV) and I didn't think my years-in-the-making thesis on why shoes make women feel empowered was worthy of an audience, local or global.

It wasn't that I was short of potential topics or issues I feel passionately about, and I'm not soapbox shy.

But I've always felt that journalism has afforded me a shield of detachment: I tell other people's stories and I am uncomfortable - as I suspect most of us are - in sharing my own.

My biggest fear was that I would have nothing to say, that I wouldn't be authentic or that I might reveal - inadvertently or otherwise - vast swathes of myself I normally keep under wraps.

But I took on the challenge because I was reminded of the poem Risk by William Arthur Ward. Encouraging the art of courage, Ward said that to place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss, but that we must do so anyway because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.

So I said yes to TED, DCU and Ward. But how do you go about giving 'the talk of your life?'

Friends and family rallied around with help on ideas. That alone was an interesting 360 exercise: finding out from friends who they think you are and what you stand for. One friend (thanks Emily) kindly sent me a book on how to write a TED talk. I binge watched hours of TED talks and read all the articles about how to deliver that "killer" TED speech.

It was exhausting.

I swotted up on the rules, God the TED rules! The little red circle that you can't step out of in case you blow up or something. Ditto with the 17-minute time limit.

What will I wear? What shoes? Prada, in the end. What if they don't like me? What if people watch it and what if they don't?

Then I stepped back from it all and thought of the best piece of advice on speaking and writing I have ever received. The advice comes from a Cistercian Brother (and great friend) Alberic Turner who lives in Bolton Abbey in Moone where I seek sanctuary when I'm writing.

"Speak from the heart, conviction is always heard," Alberic once told me before a conference where I could barely speak my name, let alone give a keynote speech.

And that's what I did.

I reflected on what I do (tell stories) and what I have learned about life from being a journalist and author, and decided to speak about story. I am fascinated by the history and evolution of storytelling, about why stories matter, their transformative power and what goes wrong when we suppress them.

It's not an exaggeration to say that we live and die by story.

The first draft of What's the Story, handwritten in pencil on yellow legal paper, was truly awful. But I sent it out to a small and diverse team of secret readers.

All writers have secret readers and most writers will tell you that hitting the 'send' button on the first draft is as terrifying as appearing naked before a new lover for the very first time.

I felt utterly exposed, but I fine-tuned my thoughts over the following weeks as the writing (and the righting) is always in the re-writing.

It didn't help that I was trying to prepare the 'talk of my life' during one of the busiest periods of my professional life when the country was transfixed by the murder trial of Graham Dwyer - what a story.

I missed the day-before rehearsal at the Helix theatre at DCU because of court commitments. This was a near-fatal error and I should have known better.

I spent years touring Ireland with my local drama group Newpoint Players and later with the Ulster Youth Theatre, and one of the first rules of thumb is to walk the stage before any performance.

But I didn't walk the Helix stage and was struck with terror as I stepped into the famous red circle. It was only then that the enormity of it all hit me.

The twin sister, who years earlier at the manger had tried to sabotage my acting career, was the first person I spotted, cradling her mouth in her hand in the way she does when she is nervous for me. The lights and sense of occasion (the mammy and daddy were there too) almost blinded me and I struggled for the first few minutes.

Once, as a student at Trinity College, I froze during a big debate and such was the horror of it, I didn't speak in public again for years. Standing in that red TED circle, I thought I would freeze again.

But I steadied myself and gave myself a stern reminder that it was an incredible honour to be there; to be invited to be part of this amazing global phenomenon, to be invited to put my little ideas before the TED crowd.

So, I took a few deep breaths and decided to trust this room of hundreds of people who gave up their Saturday to listen to someone like me. It helped that DCU were awesome and that it was a warm and curious crowd whom, I felt, were rooting for me and the other (amazing) speakers.

I told them what I've learned about story. How there are (at least) two sides; how there is always a backstory, how we constantly edit stories to control our narratives, personal and societal.

I told them how facts are indeed sacred, but how this can be misleading because we can impose or superimpose our version of "the truth" on to facts. We can also try to present our stories as self-evident truths.

I explained how stories, well told, can transform the world and I warned of the risks when stories become dangerous orthodoxies - Nazi Germany or the financial crisis anyone?

That great storyman Robert McKee says that societies cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.

I agree, and believe we need safe spaces to express our stories, our ideas and our dreams, and perhaps that is why TED is the phenomenon that it is.

I'm honoured that I got a chance to share mine.

Talking the talk: The best of TED

Andrew Solomon: Love No Matter What

Bestselling author Andrew Solomon asks what it is like to raise a child who is different from you in a fundamental way and shares what he has learnt from talking to dozens of parents. In a moving, powerful way, he traces the line between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance.

Ken Robinson: How Schools Kill Creativity

The British educationalist argues that children are naturally creative, until we educate that raw spark of imagination and wonder out of them.

In his witty take-down of the traditional public education system, Robinson challenges us to "radically rethink" the way we teach our children, calling on educators to encourage kids to dance, experiment and make mistakes.

Jill Bolte Taylor: My Stroke of Insight

When the renowned brain researcher Dr Jill Bolte says she had a stroke of insight, she means it literally. One morning, at the age of 37, she suffered a devastating blood vessel burst in her brain. In this deeply personal, inspiring talk, she recounts her eight-year recovery - and what she learned about her own mind.

Dan Gilbert: The Surprising Science of Happiness

The author of Stumbling on Happiness challenges us to do just that - to find a new way to happiness and personal growth.

This talk could change how you see your own happiness in an often emotionally confusing world.

Susan Cain: The Power Of Introverts

In less than 20 minutes, the American writer and lecturer Susan Cain champions that rare creature in modern society - the introvert. Cain sets out how introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated.

(all available at

Irish Independent

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