How Doing a TEDx Talk Taught Me I Don’t Have to be Perfect

There’s a good reason why I became a writer and not an actor.

Although I can be deceptively outgoing and sociable, at my core I’m an introvert who dislikes large groups and being the centre of attention. Writing was the ideal way to express myself and remain out of the spotlight. This worked well for a while, until what I wrote and my story started attracting attention. With the attention came invitations. The worst of them, in my mind, were invitations to appear in public. If those invitations involved speaking in public, they gave me the shudders and were to be avoided!

The first time I was asked to do a TEDx talk in India a few years ago, I flatly refused. I felt totally incapable of it and didn’t want to subject myself to such an ordeal. However, when I was recently asked again, I knew I couldn’t say no a second time. Many people would love such an opportunity. I didn’t want to be, possibly, the only loser in the world who had turned down two of them! Besides, the theme of the event interested me and I actually wanted to participate.

I knew it was going to be the most challenging experience of my life though.

For those who are unfamiliar with the format of TEDx talks, they must be no longer than 18 minutes, and delivered without reading from notes or prompts. Some speakers are so proficient that they can improvise as they go along. However, the majority of speakers fully memorise their talks. This ensures they get their ideas across succinctly, for maximum impact, and don’t ramble.

There was no way I’d ramble. Rather, the opposite. If I didn’t memorise what I was supposed to say, the terror of being on stage would make me incoherent. Memorising the talk still created a risk. Like a theatre actor, I might get stage fright and forget my lines. Being alone up there in front of a big audience, with bright lights directed on my face, would be so unnerving.

For better or worse, I’m a perfectionist who sets high standards for myself. Such perfectionism probably stems from insecurity. If I do something well, there’s less chance of being criticised.

It was difficult knowing, and having to accept, that I wouldn’t be able to deliver the talk to the standard I wanted to because I’d be so far out of my comfort zone. However, as a friend said, it’s not about you. It’s about what you can share with others. And, it would be selfish not to do it.

My goal was just to get through the talk without making too many mistakes. And, thankfully, I achieved that. I also achieved something I thought I’d NEVER do (and something that a lot of people probably thought I’d never do)! Yet, I found it easy to berate myself for not being perfect. I was so freaked out I nearly ran off the stage! It was obvious how scared I was.

My friend was right though, it really wasn’t about me at all. It was about my story, my message. And, it was about the students who told me it had inspired them.

Sometimes, rather than being perfect, it’s better simply to be real.

There are people who are amazing speakers. However, all of them had to start somewhere. Most of the time, we don’t get to see where they start though. Instead, we only see how good they’ve become, and it can be intimidating. It’s common to feel nervous when standing on the stage for the first time (or even the 100th time, according to some theatre performers). By showing that vulnerability and doing the talk anyway, I also showed those students with a fear of public speaking that it’s possible to overcome it. They could relate to me.

What was imperfection to me, was empowering to others.

The theme for the TEDx talk was Symphonic Chaos. I spoke about what happened when I threw myself out of my comfort zone and into the chaos, and the resulting symphony — how I went from being an accountant who hated change to a travel writer living in India, and what I learned along the way.

Part of my talk was about the importance of taking action to overcome fear and self doubt. So, in doing the talk, I completely lived it. And, a strange thing happened. Around halfway through the talk, I realised that not only could I do it, a part of me (that wasn’t still terrified) had unexpectedly begun enjoy it.

I went from almost convincing myself not to give the talk, and having one of the most challenging experiences of my life, to having one of the best and most enriching experiences of my life. An experience that I’m very grateful for.

The TEDx event was held at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Roorkee in Uttarakhand, one of India’s top engineering colleges, and professionally organised by an outstanding group of students there. Getting to meet them and see inside the impressive campus was really insightful.

To put it in perspective, only 6,000 or so places are offered at these IITs across India every year, and hundreds of thousands of applicants sit the entrance exam. Many of the graduates go on to become entrepreneurs and found startups that are changing how India functions. It was exciting to envisage the impact these students and their ideas will have on India in the future, and how India will develop in the next decade.

For those who would like to see my talk, it’s available here on the TEDx YouTube Channel.

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