It’s What I Do

I have an acquaintance who says we all have talents and gifts, but we also have what he calls a “pinnacle gift.”  He describes a talent as something you are good at, but do not necessarily enjoy.  A gift is something you are good at, and enjoy so much you lose track of time.  A pinnacle gift is your most affirmed gift.  It is practicing your craft in such a way that people say, “She is one of the best.”

I have been blessed with a lot of talents and gifts.  I have been affirmed as a CEO, writer, counselor, teacher, and pastor.  But I have been most affirmed as a public speaker. I am very much at home in front of an audience, whether that audience is 5,000 people at TEDxMileHigh in Denver this past Saturday, or the worshippers at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City this coming Sunday.  Public speaking is what I do.

At the TEDxMileHigh after party, a number of attendees noted how comfortable I appeared to be on stage.  Once I settle into a rhythm, I do feel comfortable on stage.  It is easy to find that rhythm when you have an audience as amazing as those who attend a Ted related event.  The audiences at TEDxMileHigh are among the best I have ever known.  But as comfortable as I might appear, it is never as easy as it looks.

An inordinate amount of time and energy went into last Saturday’s speech.  After Briar and Helena suggested starting over, I worked for the better part of two days before declaring to both seasoned TED coaches that I didn’t think what they were asking me to do was possible.  They said, “Yes it is.  Try again.”  The final talk was edit number 29.

When the final script was completed, just a couple of weeks before the event, I began earnestly memorizing a few hours every day.  I memorize sequentially, beginning to end, and had most of the talk in basic memory mode about 10 days in advance of the event.  But at any TED related event, “basic memory mode” is not adequate.  The talk must be memorized, word for word.  The talk was memorized word for word about seven days in advance.  Except that it wasn’t.

When I have a script locked in, I usually have it truly locked in.  This talk did not follow that pattern.  Late Friday night, less than 15 hours before I’d be on stage, I forgot my lines in two places I had not forgotten them before.  That had been happening all week.  I ended up with about 12 transitions in the script that I kept forgetting, a different one each practice session.

When it happened at 11:00 PM Friday night, I cursed loudly and went to bed.  Saturday morning as I got ready to go to Denver, I went over the talk two more times, then another time in the car.  Every time, I got tripped up someplace new.

As soon as I arrived, I went over the talk in the green room.  Jennifer Reich, one of the other speakers, said she had just started to go over her talk for the umpteenth time and remembered pretty much nothing.  She asked if that was normal.  I said, “Yep.”  Jennifer was the third speaker and did an amazing job.  She did not forget a single line.   I kept going over my talk right through the first five speakers, until 10 minutes before I went on stage.  Not once did I do it without a mistake.

Then Jeremy announced me, and I was on the red TED carpet looking out at an expectant crowd.  Twelve minutes later I finished without having made a single error.  I had even thrown in an extra line or two.  When I walked off stage, I asked Helena and Maegan (another coach) if I’d really done okay.  They looked mildly annoyed that I had asked.  Later Maegan said, “Of course you nailed it, you are a pro.”

I suppose I am a “pro” in that I do speak for a living.  But I also know I work extremely hard on every single speech, whether I have an audience of 10 or 10,000.  I figure there are a lot of cumulative minutes out there I do not want to waste.  Last Saturday it was about 60,000 minutes.  That’d be a lot of minutes to waste.

This was not an easy talk to give.  You’ll understand why it was when the talk is up on video sometime in December or January.  I said a lot of hard things that are difficult for men to hear.  I also bared my soul, which is fraught with danger.  Baring your soul is one thing.  Shedding your sickness before an audience is another.  The line between the two is thin.

My daughter Jana was at the talk.  (I am at TEDxMileHigh with Jana in the picture above.) She sat with my friends from Left Hand Church.  They had to hurry back for services, but Jana stuck around through my book signing time.  She said, “My whole life I loved hearing you speak, but today is the first time I’ve ever heard the real you speak, and I could not have been prouder of who you are, what you said, and how you said it.”  A standing ovation is nice and all, but to hear those words from your own daughter?  That makes every minute of preparation worth it.

I went over the talk in my mind while I was running today.  I thought of changes I could have made that would have improved the talk.  There were several.  I am rarely satisfied with my work.  I always want to improve.

I am a speaker.  It is what I do.  I try to speak words that will make the world a little better than it was before.  Sometimes I succeed.  Sometimes I don’t.  Saturday wasn’t perfect, but I did the best I could, and that’s about all we can ask of ourselves.