3 things I learned about development from giving a TEDx Talk

Mar 31, 2016

I cringe every time I think of my TEDx talk.

What those on stage in California make seem effortless is actually the result of months of work: an incredibly difficult process of condensing thousands of ideas into one simple message.

For me, this was all the more difficult because I am a bureaucrat.

Advocate, promote and represent are verbs in my job description but “give an inspiring talk without notes or slides on a difficult development topic in front of hundreds of people which will be posted online to be seen by many more” is not – at least not until now.

In Armenia, we’re partnering with TEDx Yerevan to bring difficult topics into conversation, and to do it well: no notes, no props, no speech writers.

Here are three lessons I learned from the experience.

1. Messaging matters:

Public officials are, at least partially, in the business of selling ideas, values, messages.

Development, though, is a complex process.

Still, how can we condense complex phenomena into manageable messages?

The TEDx format encourages us to prioritize what’s most important, and think about what is the best way to transmit them.

A week before giving my talk, I read my draft speech to my brother (a speechwriter by profession). “It is very nice,” he said diplomatically, “but I don’t understand what on earth your main message is. It’s clear you are an expert in this but you are lost in detail.”

Here’s the advice I found most useful: Take three points, provide an example for each, add a top and a tail, and you’re on your way.

2. Say no to jargon:

The first time I rehearsed my talk in front of a group of 20-something students, I sent one of them to sleep.

Not quite the kind of reaction you hope for in your debut TEDx talk. But it did make me rethink the story and how to communicate it better.

The UN is famous for its “UN-speak.” Explain our work without using the technical terminology is enough to make any UN official nervous.

My biggest challenge, then, was to figure out how to communicate my ideas in a way that people who don’t work in development would understand.

If you have similar struggles, try this: simplify the concept as much as possible, give the example first and then the point, and always use active rather than passive language.

3. Be accessible:

Bureaucrats and public officials, too, are human.

So we can and should be more available to the people we serve – and sometimes without all the pomp and ceremony of official visits.  

In speaking, we all too often hide behind notes that someone else has prepared for us. But TEDx talks forbid ceremony.

Of course, there were others that supported me in this journey - I brought the talk home to my husband every night for a month and bounced around ideas about good governance with those at work. For their contributions, I am eternally grateful. At the same time, I eventually came to realize that for it to work, the talk had to be personal.

So, if you want to establish a connection with your audience, forget the ceremony - rely on being human.

* * *

Public speaking is an art. If, as public officials, we are going to inspire and change the world, it’s an art we need to perfect.

Even having given hundreds of speeches before, I had never done anything quite like this.

My TEDx experience was probably the best public speaking training I will ever do. It is the start of a process that will last a lifetime; a lifetime of crafting the message, and pushing myself outside of the comfort zone to stand up and perform it.

It has flicked a switch in my brain.

This bureaucrat will never be quite the same again.

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