I did a TED talk

Nov 24 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jon Craig @JonCraig_Photos

On the 17th November 2019, I stood on the infamous red dot on the middle of Bristol Old Vic's main stage and spoke to an audience of hundreds about my life and my work. It was filmed from several different angles and the resulting edited film will exist in the ether for the rest of time.

You could say “Wow” or you could say “What an insane thing for a tiny person who has spent a life-time suffering with chronic stage fright to do!”

I would agree with both those responses, dear imaginary reader. You're spot on. It was both an amazing and ridiculous thing to do. I've already blogged about what led me to make such a preposterous decision and how utterly terrified I was in the weeks leading up to the experience. This one charts the 10 days leading up to the show and the experience of the performance itself.

10 days before the show - Dress Rehearsal 1

I travelled to the lush, green campus of Bath Spa Uni, to perform my talk for the TEDx Bristol team. Walking through the autumn leaves, past my old friends, the cows (yes there are actual real life cows on the campus), I remembered a little snippet of my time at Bath Spa uni as comedy lecturer for the drama students – when I forced my melancholic students to put on their coats and shoes and go outside to kick leaves about until they'd let go of their roly-eyed grumpiness, fun times, worked a treat, I'd recommend it.

I reached the TV studio, where students were busy setting up to film us live. Team TEDx Bristol had organised this day so that the students could have a practice at filming us and to give all us speakers a kick up the arse to learn our scripts.

I felt so proud of the other speakers, having seen their talks taking shape through the script development and public speaking workshops. When it came to my time, I challenged myself to do it without my script. I had a lot of fun, bouncing my talk off the audience of team TEDx Bristol and Bath Spa uni students, but I did do a lot of standing on one leg and singing little songs about how I couldn't remember the next bit of my script. I got a lot of laughs, but over-ran to 25 mins (TED talks are supposed to be 18 minutes max). At the end, TEDx Bristol had stern words with me. “Learn your script. There can be no asides!”

With A LOT of help from my friends

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: A rehearsal for my facebook friends, photo by Joe Rosser

Even though I have decades of stage experience, I am an improviser. I'm not used to learning and performing scripts. Improvisation helps me to side-step the stage fright; when there's no planning involved, I can only do the best I can. Improvisation allows me to use my innate, some would say over-developed sensitivity, to feel the audience and tailor make my material to the atmosphere in the room, moment by moment. 

But I needed to learn my script, so I called my friends and pleaded for them to watch me do my TED talk. I performed my talk in a park in the rain for my friend Liz and a robin. The robin didn't stay until the end. I didn't take it personally (I did take it personally). I performed my talk for my best friend in her kitchen, pausing only once for a brief cry + a cuddle. I performed my talk for a small crowd of facebook friends, who braved the pouring rain to watch me struggle to remember my words (they all said this was their favourite part, as I was actually vulnerable in these moments- which is exactly what my talk is about...)

I performed my TED talk for household items. The kitchen clock was a pretty demanding audience, filling my silences with loud, sarcastic ticking. The bath taps were a more compassionate audience, offering reverent silence and the occasional tear of appreciation.

I performed my TED talk for my boyfriend over dinner, in bed, in the car, walking down the street and one time on the sofa, while he hid under a blanket, suffering with a terrible hangover. My, how fascinating he found my talk that particular day.

The day before the show - Dress Rehearsal 2

All 15 of us speakers were called into Bristol Old Vic for a tech rehearsal. I assumed we'd be in the theatre, practicing with the lights and microphones, but when I got there, I discovered we were in a big, day-lit function room. The smell of coffee and sweaty anxiety lingered heavily in the air as various members of team TEDx Bristol sat around, ferociously typing into laptops.

We took it in turns to go through our slides and run our talks to a big empty room. When it came to my turn, I asked the few speakers and TEDx Bristol partners who were around to make an audience – it would have felt weird doing a talk about interactive clowning to an empty space. For the first time, I nailed it – word perfect and 17.5 mins. Bam! I looked to team TEDx for some feedback; “Remember, no asides tomorrow!” “OK” I said and I meant it.

The night before the TED talk

I felt sick as a dog, whining on to my boyfriend “I don't feel very well.” He kept reminding me that I was not ill, I was just about to do a TED talk. I couldn't sit still, I didn't want to be in the house, I didn't know what to do with myself, so I looked up what was happening in Bristol. Aha, a Shamanic Trance Dance class. Yep, that's the place for me.

Shamanic Trance Dance looks like a room full of people dancing to loud music with blindfolds on. At the beginning, we were taught a potent imagination-inducing style of breathing called the 'fire breath' (2 breaths in through the nose, one breath out through the mouth). We were then invited to find a space, put on our blindfolds and set an intention for the dance. I set as my intention 'to prepare for my TED talk'. For 5 minutes, a room full of people breathed noisily with blindfolds on. When the music kicked in, we were invited to follow our flow, dance, move, be still, respond to visions that appear in our imaginations or whatever feels right. Our guide kept us safe by making pathways out of blankets on the floor, to keep us in our separate spaces. We danced with bare feet so that if we felt a blanket, we could just move away from each other.

During the dance, I called in my ancestors, the room quickly filled up with big nosed jews and hardy northern sea farers. I danced for them all, with utter irreverence and total abandon. I danced for my living family and all of my friends. I danced for my students, my critics, for Buddha and for the statue of Mary who lives on top of the hill out the back of my dad's house. I danced for death itself, who appeared as a huge blind crow. In giving my gift of joyful irreverent play, I grew bigger and bigger until I was 15 foot tall. I was a giant, standing on the Bristol Old Vic main stage, holding my space, offering and receiving energy lightly and easily. I came down to the ground, to sing my thanks to the earth and in the stillness that followed, my former selves appeared, one by one. I held their hands and looked into their eyes and thanked each of them in turn.

I was ready for the big day.

The Big Day

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jon Craig @JonCraig_Photos

I woke up early and went about my normal morning routine of meditation, breakfast, TED talk in the shower, choosing an outfit to wear. The prickly nervous sweating had already begun, I had to change my clothes several times before even leaving the house!

I wasn't on until the afternoon, but I decided to get in early and watch the morning show. I wanted to get a feel for the space and support my fellow speakers. I've been to see many shows in the Bristol Old Vic, but somehow, my imagination had replaced the compact, sweet auditorium with a stadium. So it was a relief to experience the intimate reality. Still didn't stop me sweating like a pig throughout the first five speakers talks. They were all amazing- I was astounded and moved to tears many times as they each took their space and spoke from their hearts.

One of the other speakers described the build-up to their talk as “like being on death row.” I'd have to agree. We were all backstage, pacing about in our tiny dressing rooms, mumbling our lines, doing a lot of wees and trying to remember to breathe. I was alternating between vigorous shaking and meditating, as I've learned to do to handle adrenaline overload.

Then I heard my name being called.

Welcome to the stage Holly Stoppit

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jon Craig @JonCraig_Photos

I did a TED talk. I remembered all my words. Of course I did asides. Sorry team TEDx Bristol, but put me in front of a live audience and I'll always want to acknowledge what's happening in the room. Audience connection is my main skill, I think it's why they commissioned my talk and ultimately it's what the talk was about. So I'm not that sorry. But it did overrun to 25 minutes, so I am sorry for all the editing they'll need to do to make it fit the TED spec of 18 minutes.

I think I had a nice time. It's still a bit blurry. I remember having a couple of out of body experiences where I was suddenly watching myself, thinking “Oh look- I'm doing my TED talk, cool!” It was pretty intense not to have had a practice in the lights and with the microphone. I could see some of the crowd, but not the people up in the gods, which felt odd. As a clown, I thrive off the bounce, I need to be able to see the audience to get a sense of how my material is landing so I can respond to their reaction. In my heart of hearts, I'd like to have had a go in front of an audience in that space before it got filmed – but it was what it was and I did it.

You'll be able to see the edited video in a few weeks. I'll post it up here when it's done.

Massive gratitude

I'm enormously grateful to team TEDx Bristol for all the guidance and support and especially to producer / curator Mel Rodriguez from newly formed Gritty Pearl Productions for having faith in me and to Barney Grenfell from Hodos Consultancy who was my public speaking coach. I'm grateful to all the other speakers for their constant inspiration and support. I'm grateful to all my practice audiences mentioned in this blog and to the ad hoc crowds that both Jess and Jesse gathered for me in Cornwall and Glasgow and to my Fools students for giving me their full attention on the final night of their fools retreat. I'm grateful to Nick from Shamanic Trance Dance and all the friends who showed up in my vision quest. Huge thanks to everyone who came to see it live. Most of all I'm grateful to my fella Joe, who can now recite my TED talk in his sleep.

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