At the end of September, I was invited to speak at TED X Vancouver. I’ve seen my share of TED Talks. TED Talkers are inspirational, motivational, and some of them are really, really famous and culturally important. Like… Bill Gates. Bill Gates has presented twice at TED! During one of his presentations, about reducing the number of malaria infections, he released a jar of mosquitoes into the auditorium. Bill Gates is doing great work with his foundation. He’s using his wealth to elevate our society. And then there’s me, a professional gossip, addressing 2,500 people in-house and thousands upon thousands more online on a subject that’s at best polarising, and is indisputably much-maligned…
It was a huge opportunity. But at first, I considered turning it down. Not because I’m afraid of public speaking but because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to defend Gossip the way it deserved to be defended. TED attendees pay to spend their day listening to scientists, financial wizards, philanthropists, and extraordinary entrepreneurs and they expect to engaged and challenged, to be introduced to “ideas worth spreading”, encouraged to examine issues from new perspectives, to question existing assumptions and consider alternative solutions. What place does Gossip have in that environment?
But isn’t that the raison d’etre of the Faculty Of Celebrity Studies?
Last summer, I toured Canada with vitaminwater to launch the Faculty and to crusade for the value of Gossip in society. We debated. We argued. We analysed the importance of Gossip in its observation of social behaviour, and the insight these observations can provide in understanding modern social culture —- who we are, where we are going.
Amazingly enough, TED organisers didn’t disagree. They invited me to make the case on a much wider scale. I accepted. I had three weeks to write the speech. But I had help.
TED organisers are just as invested in their speakers as the speakers are invested in themselves. After all, they’re responsible for protecting their brand. The speakers represent their brand. The speakers are, arguably, the only representatives of the TED brand. They wanted me to do well, and they provided every resource to make that possible.
I worked closely with my TED adviser to outline the core ideas of my speech. Initially we didn’t write anything down. He just told me to talk about Gossip, to talk about why I love Gossip, and why Gossip is important, how gossip is a reflection of our current standard of morality. Then he asked me to provide specific examples. We still weren’t writing anything down. It was a conversation — just like gossip is a conversation, and it happens to be the conversation that exposes who we are. Because the interesting thing about Gossip is that it cannot be consumed without bias. We all consume Gossip through the prism of our own experience. And in filtering Gossip through our own experiential analysis, what comes out the other side is a pretty definitive declaration about what we believe, what we expect, what we reject, and how we process.
There it was: my thesis. It took a week to get there.
I spent the following week writing the first draft of the speech on my own but struggling with the tone. It was initially too… judgmental. When I presented it to my adviser he advised me to focus more on the thesis — that gossip is academic — and to relate every section of the speech back to the idea of gossip as anthropology, like we did at the Faculty Of Celebrity Studies, where we made our point not by giving the answer but by asking the question. Which is… kinda the point of going to school, right?
Is there a gender double standard in our interpretation of celebrity cheating scandals? And if so, what does that say about our society’s expectation of females in relationships? What does it say about our society’s attitude about violence towards women if a singer who abuses his girlfriend can go on to win awards and sell out concerts?
These were the questions I’d be asking the TED audience. The speech was coming together. And now I had a week to learn it.
According to conventional speech-giving wisdom, you’re not supposed to memorise. You should know the ideas, and the order of your ideas, but you should never learn every word by heart because the fear is that if you blank, you won’t be able to find your spot, pick up, and keep going.
But I am a memoriser. I have always been a memoriser. And there were specific lines in the speech that I had written with specific words in specific phrasing that I really wanted to hit. I decided not to change my technique. I memorised my speech. All 18 minutes of it from beginning to end. TED was scheduled for Sunday, October 21st. I spent the 5 days leading up to the presentation learning every word. Two days before the event, I was reciting the speech from memory up to 6 or 7 times a day. Then, the day before my speech, they told me that I was going last.
I arrived at the venue on TED Day at 9am. I wouldn’t be speaking for another 9 hours. I was worried that this would freak me out. That the anxiety would build to a point where I’d have a meltdown and not be able to perform. The first speaker was scheduled to go on stage just after 10am. Her topic was noise pollution and how it’s affecting whales in the Artic. She was amazing. They were all amazing. And so supportive of each other. And so interesting! Did you know that one of the proposed ways to avert an asteroid-earth collision disaster is to fly a rocket up to it and spray paint one side of it to cause a thermal imbalance and throw it off course?
Look, I’m not going to lie and say that meeting all these great people totally took away my nervousness. Of course not. But I was part of a community that day. And I realised that the speech itself wouldn’t be my only take-away from the experience. It was an unexpected bonus that would somehow balance it all out if I bombed.
In the end I didn’t bomb. And I didn’t blank either. I delivered my speech, completely memorised. I’m told it went well. That it was received the way it was intended to be received — some responded positively, and some were offended.
After all, if Gossip isn’t polarising, it’s not doing its job.