The two words that we rarely want to admit. Two words I never thought I would associate with my TEDx talk a few weeks ago.
Those were the opening words of my final rehearsal, thirty minutes before we went live. The beginning of Act III of my speech, which closes dramatically with a pantomine, in the final seconds. The theatre was empty but for the technical crew who were setting up.
It was a Sunday night, the final speech of a two day conference, and university security required the entry door be armed. Each time the door opened it emitted a loud buzz. Enough to make anyone crazy. They had a team member stationed at the door to make sure no one came in while speeches were going on.
We wanted to get the camera angles right. The words poured out of me just as I had practiced them. When I arrived at the pantomime, I knew I had it nailed. The camera operator told me I had to exit stage right. Moving toward the left would be a problem.
All I had to do was repeat those moments during the live performance. Moving right didn’t sound like much of a challenge, given that I was shuffling at the pace of a ghost. Or at least the pace I imagine old ghosts move at.
But did I get it right?
The performance consisted of a live audience of seven. The organizers. Damned Canadian-University COVID restrictions required everyone else to attend virtually. I had the seven attendees set up around the auditorium so I had faces to focus on as if I were speaking to a full house.
Only one problem. They were on instructions not to make any noise. How was I going to know if any of my jokes were working? Silence is not much of an encouragement. We’ve all seen comedians die on stage. Not a pretty sight.
I can remember the echo of a warning from one of my university students twenty-five years earlier, when I was lecturing on a course in business law. It followed a smattering of polite chuckling in response to one of my ad-lib jokes. “Don’t give up your day job, Norm”.
I delivered the entire speech a few minutes later, complete with three or four jokes, the last one added just the day before. Always a risk. But I am a risk-taker at heart.
I arrived at the final moments, thirty seconds before my eighteen minute time allotment expired. All my jokes had been met with expected silence, but were they laughing at home? No time to wonder about that but plenty of time to shuffle to the right, like a ghost.
I was relieved to find out the speech was well received. I completely let down; the adrenaline rush had taken over. The organizers asked me to Zoom with the virtual audience for fifteen minutes and answer their questions.
I returned to the auditorium to discover there was only one hitch.
The tech failed.
"Norm, we are going to have to re-record the entire performance," Samar, the chair of the conference told me in her most assertive voice.
"Are you kidding me, Samar?" I thought it but I couldn't say it.
Instead these words came out of my mouth. "Sure, no problem."
I figured it was an opportunity to ask the most important question of the night. “Was the joke I added at the midpoint of the speech funny? If not, I’m scrapping it.”
I was met with a chorus. “Keep it in. We almost couldn’t hold it in.”
A half-hour later we went at it again, the production team as determined as I. After all, wasn't this experience about rebounding from failure, the identical theme of my talk?
The second take may have been better than the first. Except for just one thing.
Just after I delivered my new joke I saw a panicked look on Samar’s face. I saw her look left, toward the armed door. I knew what was coming next…..
You guessed it. The mind-shattering buzz of the door opening. I froze. Looked over at Samar. Were we headed for “take 3”? Samar said nothing as I waited for the buzz to stop. Where the hell was I? I’d completely lost my train of thought. After what felt like an eternity, I resumed and carried on to the ending shuffle…. to the right.
The director yelled “cut”, just like in Hollywood.
“Thank goodness you stopped speaking,” she added. “We can cut the door opening out of the final version of the recording, but if you’d continued speaking we would have lost everything. Great decision.”
Decision—was she kidding? More like pure luck.
Finally, is the final version any good? I have no idea. It’s still not back from editing by the TED people. Samar tells me she loves it. Nothing like encouragement from someone about a third of your age.
Regardless, only you will be the judge when the TEDx is released next month.
On to the next challenge.