Updated: Jun 15, 2020
"73% of humans fear public speaking more than death." - National Institute Of Mental Health
A shocking statistic but truly there are few things that evoke greater anxiety in humans than public speaking. The pressures and paranoia of failure when the stakes are high have always been very real.
As humans, our fears go back to our primordial roots where we perceived predatory animal eyes watching us as a threat to our existence. Today, the consequences of not communicating eloquently while you lay out your most vulnerable self, giving the talk of your life in a harsh online and offline world is enough to send most bodies into a frozen state.
No surprise there then that I, like many TED speakers before me, did not manage to sleep a wink the night before my talk where 1,500 eyes would be watching to a sold out audience in the Philharmonic Hall of Luxembourg 🙀.
But the deeper reason for my insomnia that night wasn't just the incredible pressures that surround the deliverance of a killer talk, it was also the fact that the invitation casually landed on my desk on at 18.18 (Luxembourg time) on 02.05.2019, just 6 WEEKS before the talk was set to take place. And I happened to be in 6 countries in those 6 weeks, managing one of the biggest events from the road for my company, while touring heavily across Africa, America and Ibiza.
6 weeks spread across 6 timezones to prepare for the talk of your life.
Most speakers prepare for their TED talks at least 3-6 months in advance. Some speakers even go to the lengths of hiring speech writers and coaches to maximise their success.
But there was no way I was going to turn down this opportunity, and so as I got on a plane to Marrakech a few hours later, I started researching how one even prepares for a TED talk and that's when I started discovering crazy rules of thumb for TED speakers like 1 hour of speech rehearsal for every 60 seconds of speech.
Spending so much time on rehearsing could sound counter intuitive when the best TED talks have appeared as natural as possible, but the truth is most TED speakers prepare for their speech in this way for two main reasons:
1) They can maximise their attention towards things like pronunciation, vocal range & body language - all of the essential components of communicating powerfully.
The beauty of TED talks and why they have been so successful is because they remove all physical barriers in order to be as authentic as possible to the audience. This means no lecterns and most certainly no notes, which in turn puts a lot more pressure on your delivery style.
2) When the big day comes you could experience a brain freeze at some point during your speech, and trust me this will happen for many reasons, it could even be as simple as getting tripped up by seeing the 18 min countdown on stage staring back at you as you perform.
With no notes to hand, by rehearsing relentlessly your mind will quickly be able to bounce back to the key point even if you formulate it differently from the written version. It really is fight or flight mode up on that stage!
*Side note I got away with 20 mins 😎
As I hurried from airport to airport in those weeks attempting to write my speech on planes, there was no way I had the luxury of time for 1 hour rehearsal per 60 seconds of speech when the speech wasn't even put together properly yet.
It was during those moments I realised that I stood at the base of a very very steep mountain.
But there was also another important element in all of this.
For months I had been planning to host one of the biggest events for my company in the motorsports industry; a 12 hour long secret garden party screening the Monaco F1 in Regent's Park.
We had managed to get a number 1 selling artist and composer for the Royal Family, Olga Thomas, to perform for 150 UHNW guests while we screened the F1 over an incredible BBQ and we also had a charitable auction organised for our ambassador's incredible NGO, Professors Without Borders. The event was then to be followed by a DJ set from my homie and newly signed artist to Crosstown Rebels, Francesco Mami (Frankie).
There were a lot of critical things to manage for this event that I was solely responsible for from: venue management, PR, decor, sponsors, artists, music production, backup logistic plans for if it rained, and crucially ticket sales. It was a serious entrepreneurial grind and I remember being in the DJ booth from Marrakech to Ibiza using every single break while on tour to manage all of this behind the scenes.
Safe to say the event was a huge success 😊 but now we were almost entering June and the clock was truly ticking. I was exhausted and had still barely written my speech, struggling heavily with writers block. TED talks need to be impactful, intriguing and inspiring with a clear call to action in a short space of time. I had sketched out the key points I wanted to relay and had a couple of strategy calls with the organiser of the conference, but the 18 minutes of structured prose was still not there.
As I was cramming Chris Andersen's book 'TED Talks: The Official TED Guide To Public Speaking' on yet another plane ride, this time from Dubai to London, there were so many themes on my mind that I wanted to explore; from the bullying I had experienced in my childhood life, to the themes of diversity, humanity and overcoming mental barriers that I have experienced in my professional pursuits.
With over 50,000 TEDx talks out there, a lot of the golden ideas worth spreading have been said several times over. As I took a break from reading, I scrolled back to some of the pictures captured from my 48 hours in Dubai where I was on a motorsport mission and I saw the following words of "#DontCrackUnderPressure staring back at me in front of a Formula 3 car and it was then that the lightbulb moment happened 💡.
It was Dyspraxia; a learning difficulty whereby the brain sends delayed motor signals to the rest of the body, affecting 1 in 10 people.
It was something I got diagnosed with late on in my teenage life that could have been detected very early on, they say around the age of 3. After my diagnosis there was zero guidance on how to navigate all of the associated pressures of dealing with something like this. All I got was extra time in exams and luckily an amazing family to help nurture me through it.
The 15 years that followed were an incredibly tough battle in staying true to my intuition of knowing that music and motorsports were my calling in life, whilst facing the key issue that it is very difficult to operate in these industries without exceptional co-ordination skills. As I stared back at that picture again, I realised underneath that helmet nobody really knew what was going on because I had kept quite private about it...imposters syndrome some may say.
This is what was going on:
I did a search for TED talks on Dyspraxia and could only find 3 or 4. The truth is it has been a hidden difficulty for too long and there are still many people who do not even know they have it. People think they might just be naturally clumsy, be bad at sports or subjects like maths and science but there could be a deeper reason behind it. It should also be noted that people also commonly confuse Dyspraxia with Dyslexia when they first hear the word.
I realised that sharing my story in how I had rewired my brain to navigate around the difficulties to be able to succeed in motorsports and music, compounded by the bullying, held similar principles for helping others to overcome their weaknesses in life. I also felt that my talk could expose some of the weaknesses of the educational system and felt right then and there at 30,000ft this was the call to action I was looking for.
From then on, I wrote the entirety of the speech with 7 days to go. I had it scrutinised by the TEDx organisers, a couple of trusted journalist friends and my family before setting about trying to memorise as much as possible.
There was just one other thing alongside all of this and that is of course the Philharmonic Hall.
It's every artist's dream to perform on such a prestigious stage. Closing out the speech in this way would be a huge honour and an incredible way to relay what words can't say and I got the go ahead from the organisers in around week 3 of 6 to perform on stage. From then on I worked on getting some vocals and guitar overlays by a very talented friend of mine, Alexis Rodriguez, from Berklee College of Music to complete the track I wanted to perform.
I managed to squeeze in a session in the music studio with Frankie to master the track a few days before the talk and although I was really happy with the production, I left feeling nervous about performing this on stage with very little time left to practise the live elements and memorise the speech (t-minus 6 days).
So this was pretty much the insane lead up to the talk! You can imagine I barely slept as the days got closer and it feels exhausting just even writing all of that. If you are reading this and have the wonderful opportunity to do a TED talk I obviously don't recommend such short notice prep 🤪.
So let's finally get on to the good part!
I arrived in Luxembourg on Friday afternoon and had a meeting set with the main organiser to run through my speech shortly after landing. I checked into my Airbnb, had a quick power nap and headed out to the city to meet the organiser.
I got to to the meeting point at the Sofitel behind the Philharmonie and headed up to a private room to practise the speech. I was in serious luck because unbeknown to me, the organiser of TEDx Luxembourg City also happened to be a public speaking coach and he was amazing! In just 1 hour he absolutely transformed the delivery of my speech and took it to another level.
It was the small things like walking across the stage after each key point to allow the audience to digest what I was saying, paying more attention to the way I was using my arms which I thought I was using expressively but were actually getting locked, and painfully also removing some of the speech. The speech without the musical performance was already over 18 mins and I needed to cut out a serious amount in order to be able to fit in the performance.
My sister landed in the evening and she came straight to the hotel before we headed back to our Airbnb. I had thought it would be a nice treat if I got us a cool pad to hang and be more comfortable throughout the weekend but this turned out to be a rookie mistake as there were some very strange issues with the people in the place, which we uncovered as we got back and we didn't feel comfortable staying there. So at 1AM after spending an hour on the phone to Airbnb, we found ourselves on the streets of Luxembourg waiting to find a taxi to take us to the Sofitel where most of the other speakers were staying. Not what you need when you still have so much to practice!
And so as I lay in bed that evening jet lagged and desperate to sleep, there was still so much to memorise and perfect, unsurprisingly my mind refused to switch off. I tried everything from soothing chamomile teas to face masks but it just wasn't happening and soon it was 9AM, which meant it was time to get ready for the dress rehearsal and leave the room.
We got to the Philharmonie where a military like operation was going on by an amazing team with various speakers being shown to their dressing rooms, media and sponsors setting up everywhere, and sound engineers setting up each person to get ready. There turned out to be no time for any speaker to practise on stage before hand, all we really had time for was a quick walk on to the infamous red circle to test out the sound and get a feeling for the stage. I also had to set up my production equipment and find the right balance for how my music would sound in such a huge hall that's typically designed for classical music. Venues like these aren't the best for dance music as there's so much reverb bouncing across the room that productions with multi layer electronic percussion elements can easily get lost.
My sister was alarmed I didn't sleep and she truly became my hero in the entire process. We snuck back to the hotel for a quick 20 min power nap and then it was time to rock and roll, TEDx Luxembourg City was about to begin!
We were taken to our seats, which happened to be placed right next to the head of the Philharmonie, Erna Hennicot-Schoepgs. An incredible woman who not only established the hall but also founded the University of Luxembourg, became the first women president of Parliament and subsequently the Minister of Education, Culture & Religion. She opened up the stage with RTL & the curator of TEDx, Dirk Daenen, and then the first round of speakers delivered their talks.
The bar was set very high in the first session. We heard from people like Sébastien Bellin, the highly acclaimed basketball player who survived the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks and had the audience in tears, and David Goldrake, an award winning magician who marvelled the room to another dimension.
After the first session ended, there was short break for lunch and that was it, I was next and there was no turning back.
At this point I was in the changing room and there were no words to describe the nerves. My amazing sister stepped in again and took me through a calming meditation followed by lion's breath to remove tension in the face and chest, strengthening the lungs, throat and voice. All my fears melted as much as they could in those moments and then I just went on stage and did it.
In the end it really wasn't as daunting as I thought it would be. After the first few minutes I got into the groove and responded magnetically to the energy in the room. I had a few moments where I got distracted by the timer on stage and consequently forgot to say some things, but everything in general flowed passionately in the ways I had wanted it to. The audience cheered and all that was left now was the musical performance. This was probably the most terrifying moment in the entire 20 mins because as luck would have it, whilst everything worked fine in the sound check earlier, suddenly none of my equipment was working on stage 🙀. The audience were really cool about it though as I apologised and quickly started rebooting my laptop, they started clapping and luckily it all worked fine after that.
After it ended I felt so relieved. I gave every ounce of energy I had in those 6 weeks and on stage that I felt completely zapped like never before. People and the media were everywhere and I needed to take a moment to recalibrate outside and get some peace alone. My sister and I headed outside and we stumbled upon a bench right outside the Philharmonie.
When I finally closed my eyes on that bench, it truly felt like I had climbed the Mount Everest of public speaking.
The rest of the day went by fast. We went back in to enjoy the rest of the conference and met with some amazing people, including many who told me this had opened their eyes in realising what may also be going on with their own children and even themselves. This was the most important thing for me.
As I was writing this article reflecting back, I noticed the frequency of the number 6. I'd like to share the deeper meaning behind this number from a numerology perspective:
"The number 6 occupies a unique position of mental power. There is a responsibility and service which needs to be achieved through love, nurturing and protection. There is an innate desire within the 6 individual to bring harmony, peace, justice and truth to all experiences in life. The 6 energy will fight for their ideals and principles caring deeply for the world around them. 6 has the greatest depth of emotion of all the numbers and their intuitive energy needs to be developed and used for the highest good. " (Source Sacred Scribes)
I hope this is what I encapsulated with my talk. At the end of the day it wasn't and never was about the publicity. Too many people get caught up in wanting to do a TED talk to leverage themselves, and the authenticity of their message gets lost in translation. I truly believe it's about pushing yourself to do more than you ever thought you could, not cracking under pressure and empowering as many people around you in the process. That's when the beauty of magic and manifestation happens.
Full talk available at https://www.ted.com/talks/farah_nanji_rewiring_dyspraxia_from_the_brain
Follow me @dj.n1nja
Farah is a journalist, music producer, DJ and mentor. She has been at the forefront of the dance music industry for over a decade and loves to write about thought provoking musings from the underground world.