I’ve been honoured to be asked by so many people for a copy of the poem I read out at the Tunbridge Wells TEDx day, so I’m happy to share it here. It was made of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s words of the year from the last nine months – Vape, post-truth, selfie, squeezed middles, omnishambles, toxic, youthquake, Big Society and … well, look at the end of the poem for the ‘word’ for 2015… a little challenge for a writer.

I hope you enjoy it. And if you fancy doing a TEDx talk yourself, I’ve given some tips here. It’s not compulsory to write a poem.

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Icarus vapes over a dictionary (2014)
by Sarah Salway

The weather was post-truth that summer, (2016)
we lounged in our gardens,
took selfies in lycra. (2013)

Those sunny Sundays,
even us squeezed middles (2011)
could imagine ourselves gods –

with music breaking through walls
and us dancing,

a rest from the omnishambles (2012)
of so many toxic headlines, (2018)

and if sometimes we looked up
in the hope
that it might never end,

perhaps we were waiting
for the promised youthquake (2017)
who would build us a Big Society, (2010)

a term many of us still liked the sound of
but few had ever understood –
if we were completely honest …

face-with-tears-of-joy_1f602 (2015)

And yes that last one was the Word of the Year in 2015!!

It was also a joy to see alternative words put up by the people who attended the day of talks, including more positive words that we WOULD LIKE to remember 2019 with. Here they are. I’m going to have to make a new poem, I can tell.

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NB, Thank you to Simon Pearsall, the wonderful cartoonist who drew that cartoon at the top during my talk. It was a reference to how I use words in the same way as a builder uses bricks.

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It was a real privilege to be allowed to stand on that famed circle of red carpet last weekend as part of TedX Royal Tunbridge Wells. ‘One for the bucket list’, a friend commented and indeed it was. Friends who know me well will know that this was a BIG THING for me, getting up on a stage and talking (let alone to over 1,000 people). But if I did it, then so can you. So if you’re ever tempted to do something like this here are some of the things I learnt and that helped me prepare, and which might help you too …

1. Do have an idea that you really do want to share. I don’t think anyone should want just to do a public presentation, they should need to share something, and it can be anything – we heard about flesh eating parasites, the power of climbing trees, and the importance of bearing witness to grief. However each of the talks had a point to them, they weren’t just a meditation on a subject.  Thinking hard about the one thing I wanted people to do as a result of hearing me speak – to realise that the words we use everyday can have an impact – really helped me prepare. To be honest, my first draft was just a lecture about dictionaries.

2. Read a book. YAY! Who even needs an excuse?  The two how-to books I found particularly helpful were Viv Groskop’s book How to Own the Room and Caroline Goyder’s Gravitas. There’s also the ‘bible’ – Chris Anderson’s TED talks.

3. Do voice exercises as part of early preparation.  I’m used to reading my work on stage but even so, I always find that my breath goes higher and higher up my body when I get nervous so I end up squeaking even more than usual. What worked for me most was when my actor friend, Michael Shaeffer, suggested I concentrated on the consonants rather than the whole words. Amazingly something as simple as this helped stop my words running into each other AND made me feel more purposeful. It’s so strange how it works, almost as if Michael knows what he’s talking about. We also practiced reading in different accents, the more ridiculous the better. Laughing took away some (not all) of the panic because it felt playful, and this playfulness helped to give me back my voice.

4. Edit, edit, edit so your script is easy to understand. One of the useful points made in Gravitas is to make sure you know exactly how your points link to each other. I’m used to writing for the page so I found I twisted and turned all over the place in my first draft, coming back to certain points again, digressing into others. That’s OK on the page because people can refer back to the paragraph before, but not when it’s being spoken. And when I found myself freezing, it was always when there wasn’t that clear link between one point and the next. I also took away several of the million points I felt I absolutely had to make and guess what – I didn’t miss them.

5. Make the language fluid, and fluent. Reading it out aloud (not just in my head) was the best editor I could have had. I kept asking myself, could I make this easier for myself to read? And every time, I could. I wasn’t quite at ‘unaccustomed as I am to…’ levels but my early drafts did get perilously close to a sermon written by the most pompous vicar you’ve ever heard.

6. Use all the resources available. I was so lucky because the whole team behind Tedx RTW are AMAZING. Just knowing I could call on them was such a comfort, so if you’re doing a talk, then make the most of what the organisers of the event are offering. They are the professionals, they know exactly what they’re doing – and when to do it!

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7. Respect your audience. Imagining the audience naked or on the loo doesn’t work for me BUT thinking that every seat was occupied by someone who wanted me to do well was a great help. I think there’s a temptation, especially when you’re nervous, to imagine you are about to enter a gladiator ring with the audience baying for blood (!) so instead I concentrated on how I might explain it to my mum instead, knowing she’d be interested and on my side but still needed to know what it was I was actually on about. She wouldn’t have let me get away with just mumbling, and  besides I wanted her to know what I was saying.

8. Rehearsals are for failing. During the proper technical rehearsals on Friday, I froze, couldn’t remember my words on my first attempt, and actually walked off stage during my second. Reassuringly we were all the same. However, on the actual day everyone was fluent and got through without stumbling – I’m sure there was some magic involved.

9. Practise, practise, practise. I’ve never learnt a script like this before, and for weeks I have been walking around mumbling to myself. I’ve woken up reciting it, recorded myself as I’ve run, performed it to friends via Skype. Only to find that half an hour before I went on stage I COULDN’T REMEMBER ONE WORD. Not one. I thought I might actually die. But muscle memory is a marvellous thing – as soon as I was on stage and I’d said my first sentence, the next came. And the next. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I do know it was as a result of all that mumbling. No amount of practising is ever too much.

10. Remember it’s you speaking, and that you’re enough. As I said, my first draft was a rather turgid lecture albeit filled with hundreds of ‘interesting’ facts other people had found out, and with very little of me in it. Thinking how I would say this to a friend I’d just met up with was helpful – did I really need to go through the whole history of every word ever spoken in order for her to believe me? So once I had my ‘bones’, I went back through and added as much of ‘me’ in it as I could, even if it meant giving up the ‘expert’ role. There is a terrific vulnerability in that. I went through hours of sweating over all that unhelpful ‘who am I to say this’ stuff that the inner critic loves so much. But, going back to point 1 here, ‘Do have an idea that you really do want to share’ made me see that just getting across why I loved and cared about words was enough.

And because of all this, to have people share their own words later made me cry because yes, let’s really make a better word for 2019 than last year’s toxic. We really do deserve better. And on that note, welcome to my TED talk…

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