The email I received in March of 2019 ─ approximately half a century ago when measured by my pandemic-induced perception of time ─ had an eye-widening proposal: “I’d like to ask you to apply to be a speaker at this very special TED event.”
As lovely as it was to be asked, this was clearly not for me. Inspirational tech entrepreneurs, prize-adorned academics, political leaders, astronauts ─ these are the people who give TED talks. Not the likes of me.
TED’s mantra is “ideas worth sharing.” And I, as I pointed out to my husband Charlie, I don’t really do original ideas. My job ─ and I’m privileged to do it ─ consists primarily of taking other people’s clever, original ideas and sharing them as stories on the BBC.
Charlie replied: “Are you daft? Of course, you have ideas. And this is an amazing opportunity. Apply!” So I did and embarked on a fascinating, nerve-shredding and ultimately hugely positive adventure that was different from any journalistic endeavor I’ve undertaken.
Having ‘the idea’
Chris Anderson, the head of TED, wrote a book with excellent advice for public speaking that does a far better job than I could of outlining how to develop your “idea worth sharing.”
He and his colleagues have nurtured terrific talks over the years ─ some offbeat, some amazing, most inspiring.
I’ve listened to talks with huge, universal themes: love; time; equality. But some of the simplest ideas have stuck with me. I have in mind Amanda Schochet’s talk on her brilliant idea to bring miniature museums to uninspiring vestibules and bus stations or the wonderfully inventive Nadya Mason’s passionate belief that we should experiment more to understand the objects we take for granted.
For me, the spark of an idea came from vividly remembered reporting experiences that make me want to prattle on excitedly to my friends in the pub. Drinking shots of home-made vodka in the garden of a self-settler named Maria in her Chernobyl exclusion zone garden; visiting the home of a Syrian refugee named Abu Wasim, who has taught dozens of his friends in the refugee camp in Jordan how to create a hydroponic garden out of mattress foam; and possibly most of all, walking into a room in a Mexican convent that had been converted into a conservation breeding center for a strange, wonderful and critically endangered salamander called the achoque.
Each one of these experiences was possible because of the relationships that people ─ scientists, refugees, self-settlers, nuns ─ had built together. I decided to talk about: “What a nun can teach a scientist about ecology.”
Turning my experiences into 12 minutes of TED-approved performance was a six-month adventure triggered by that initial email. The invitation came from TED via The Kavli Foundation, which had partnered with the Simons Foundation and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to organize “TED@NAS,” a day-long series of TED talks at the Academy on Nov. 1, 2019. The Kavli Foundation had proposed my participation at the suggestion of AAAS and its AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards program. In 2017, BBC producer Andrew Luck-Baker and I had won a AAAS Kavli gold award for our audio documentary about menopause among killer whales and the role of sprightly matriarchs who lead from the front, helping their pod mates, including the adult males, find food.
The many drafts
After pitching my idea in an application form and via a short video, I made the short list for the NAS event and was asked to describe my proposal to the TED team in a video chat. I was delighted, and intimidated all over again, to be chosen to speak. Being selected marked the start of the very collaborative part of this whole TED talk process. TED’s David Biello was my mentor through the long process of drafting, checking, rehearsing, online workshops and boot camps.
The first task was to get what the TED team lovingly refers to as the “sh*tty first draft” out of the way. Being told in no uncertain terms that the first version of my talk would be a mess and bear very little resemblance to what I would say on stage was pretty liberating. Just get your rough ideas down, send them in and you have something to work with. It’s good advice for embarking on any writing exercise.
David and the rest of the TED team walked an impressive line of encouraging my enthusiasm while also offering an honest critique. The video rehearsals with the team were particularly crucial. It was strange to sit in my spare room, usually quite late in the evening, talking into my laptop. But a talk doesn’t come to life until you speak it.
Memorizing without memorizing
Once we had crafted 12 engaging minutes, it was time to learn how to deliver the talk on stage. TED doesn’t use teleprompters. It’s a conversation, not a presentation. Again ─ terrified.
TED’s Briar Goldberg helped me and my fellow speakers determine our styles of learning: visual, audio or experiential. It turned out I am an audio learner and benefited from talking along as my recorded talk played in my headphones. It became a weeks-long earworm. I’d find lines from my talk popping into my head while I was doing laundry. The goal was to know the talk without memorizing it. No “reading” from a script in your head.
Polishing that conversational delivery occurred during a three-day “boot camp” at the National Academies building prior to the TED event. It was there that I met my fellow speakers in person rather than as faces in boxes on a Zoom call. We each had on-stage and off-stage rehearsals and were encouraged to practice our talks on one another.
This brought out my British reticence, but the delightful friendliness and comfortingly collegiate nervousness of everyone else managed to melt that away. For public speaking, there is no replacement for rehearsing in front of an audience ─ especially a group rooting for each other as much as our lot had been.
My overwhelming memories of TED@NAS day include near-debilitating nervousness, wonderful co-speaker camaraderie, and then, finally, the most longed-for glass of wine I had ever tasted.
Even to a broadcast journalist, the TED production set-up was seriously impressive and utterly professional, with a vividly coloured and beautifully lit stage. The theater was packed.
I was second to last, just before Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz’s beautiful talk about the stardust that connects us all. Nerves were building all day. I drank coffee, walked to the Lincoln Memorial and spoke my talk over and over in my head. Backstage, I had my final pep talk from TED’s Amanda Miller, another wonderful human who has managed to refine the art of smart, quiet cheerleading.
My mouth was dry, I ran over on my timing by about two minutes, but giving the talk was a joy. The audience was friendly and polite ─ listening rapt to all of us, laughing and responding in all the right places.
I have to admit, though, that glass of wine ─ which my husband Charlie handed me after a proud, congratulatory hug ─ was possibly the most delicious drink I have ever tasted.
Like so many people, I’ve been working from home since the pandemic lockdown. The whole experience may change the way future conferences are organized. But I hope, when it matters, that we’ll still be able to come together to share ideas and stories at live events like TED@NAS.
Editor's note: At last count, Gill's talk had been viewed more than 1.4 million times on the TED website and YouTube.
This article first appeared on the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards website.