This month I'm shining a spotlight on a remarkable woman and client, Jenni Calihan. My intention is to share an insider’s perspective on speaking at a TEDx, to demystify what happens when you hire a story coach, and to offer tips for speaking with meaning, depth and connection.
In 2013, Jenni Calihan founded Eat the Butter, a nonprofit whose mission is to change how this nation eats. Her goal is to help people eat real food, not the processed, low fat renderings of food that the USDA suggested we start eating in the 80’s. The TEDx organizers reached out to Jenni to fill in for a cancellation 8 days before the event. That's when she emailed me for help.
Q. Jenni, Congratulations!! You did it! What was the best part?
I was determined to craft my message into a more personal (and less clinical) piece. Unlike some of the lectures I give, TED is about sharing stories and ideas. So that, and then being able to deliver it well enough that I actually might reach some people!
Q. What was the worst part?
When you [Katherine] said to me that I needed to let go of the idea that I was going to memorize this perfectly scripted speech. You knew if I tried to memorize every word, I would've been standing up on stage trying to remember what I wrote rather than connect with the audience and tell the story. Thank goodness I devoted those 8 days to creating the script and then getting familiar with the words. I came across more approachable and animated.
Oh, and this may sound strange, but even though I was lucky to be able to devote most of those 8 days to working on my script and practicing, I was really sick of the content by the time performance day arrived.
Q. The rehearsing really helped though, right?
Of course! Every time I practiced, I made a mistake which made it much less likely that I would make the same mistake later. In addition to practicing with you, my family and my “fake audience” of card board cut outs, I also recorded myself. Listening to myself definitely helped me retain the content.
Q. We worked together for a total of 4 hours during those 8 days and focused mostly on your script. How many hours do you think you practiced outside of our work together?
Close to 40 hours.
Q. Do you wish you had memorized your speech?
Memorized? No. One person at my TEDx event memorized and choreographed the whole thing and honestly, it felt phony. I’m glad I focused my energy on getting familiar with the words rather than memorizing the exact script.
That said, I really wanted to deliver my talk without notes. But when I was rehearsing, I would blank on what the next point was. There’s so much pressure to be perfect, not just for the audience in the theater but for the much larger video audience, too. I think a note-card-free performance would have been possible if I had had more time to prepare, but I’m really not sure.
At this point, over 7,000 people have watched my talk. I've added it to my website, and it gives viewers who are interested a chance to connect with me. I don’t think the notecards in my hand get in the way. The message is resonating and helping people question what they are eating and why. That is the impact I was seeking to make.
Q. How did you feel right afterwards?
I did it! I didn’t embarrass myself! And I didn’t skip a whole section.
Q. Isn’t it amazing how we are all so afraid of embarrassing ourselves?
You’re putting yourself out there (unless you are performer) and most of us don’t do that very often. It's intimidating.
Q. Was it worth it?
Yes, I felt like I had this in me. I feel grateful I got the chance the way I did.
Q. What do you mean, I had it in me?
There are a lot of people giving the same general lecture about high fat, low carb eating and the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It’s usually more science or more of a lecture. I think I could say it in a way that other people, especially mothers, could hear it better. You helped me with that.
Q. What did you learn about yourself?
I learned if I could go from being a really lousy public speaker to a good one, anyone can!
I was nervous about people in my personal life watching me. For example, I used to cringe at the thought of my husband watching me. He doesn’t give a lot of praise. Well, I learned that was silly. Those are the people who are going to be the kindest, not the most critical. He was definitely rooting for me. Actually, it’s been beautiful to experience.
Q. How did working with me help support you?
You simplified what I was trying to say. I have a formality about how I might say something but it doesn’t always come across the way I want. Where you got me to be more real, it translated really well.
Another thing. You got me to insert more of myself into the script. I really see how not including your story is the worst thing you can do. Leaving out my own story was tempting, because there is so much else I wanted to say. You consistently helped me bring it back to me. It wasn’t sterile and the audience could connect with me.
Lastly, when you [Katherine] felt the script was ready, you said, “Put your script away and don’t look at it ever again,” I didn’t look at my script again. That was a game-changing moment for me. I only had a few days but I'm thankful I stopped obsessively tweaking my script and worked on delivery.
Q. What would you say to some one who is resistant to get help in preparing for a TED-like talk?
I think people know that you can get public speaking help with body language etc, but I don’t even think people know what a story coach is.
When I watch people in my sphere give a speech, they tend to be impersonal. It’s people’s impulse to talk at others, to lecture. The piece of making the connection, the story, the “why am I telling this” is so often left out. Some of it is hiding. Part of it is not even being aware.
Your strength is so much about getting people to share pieces of themselves that they might not want to share. You find a way to help someone be more approachable and connectable.
Q. Any other advice for others thinking of doing a TED-like talk?
Adrenaline can feel so scary. When it makes your voice shake, it feels horrible, like a betrayal.
I’ve learned to give myself about 5 seconds before I speak so I can see that the people sitting there are not threatening. It allows the adrenaline to work for you. It allows you to be animated, to do your best job and to share your message.
Watch Jenni's TEDx here!
Close to 1.5 million views and counting!
Watch Lucy's TED Talk here!