How TEDx became the 'best short talk of my life' for graduate student Jenna Weiner

Grad student recounts prepping for, fretting over, and ultimately delivering a memorable 'TED' talk

Jenna Weiner shown during her talk on Feb. 23, 2019 at TEDxUniversityofNevada at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.

4/26/2019 | By: Staff Report  |

(Editor's note: On Feb. 23, 2019, Communication Studies graduate student Jenna Weiner was one of the featured speakers at TEDxUniversityofNevada. In the story below, Jenna recounts how she came to be chosen to be among the featured speakers from an earlier student competition, the rigorous preparation that led up to the talk and ultimately, what emotions and thoughts whirled through her mind as she gave one of the event's most memorable talks.)

By Jenna Weiner

They told me that I was going to give the "best short talk of my life" at TEDx University of Nevada 2019 on Feb. 23, 2019 at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, and for ten minutes I did. Then I said my last sentence, said thank you to the audience, and walked off-stage, head in a cloud as I tried to comprehend that I had just given a TEDx talk to about two thousand people.

You have to understand that while giving a TED(x) talk was something I had thought about before, as a graduate student at the University it didn't seem like something I was going to be able to do anytime soon. And yet there I was, a mere five months removed from winning the University's student speaker competition, The Road to TEDx, walking off the TEDx stage having given the best short talk of my life.

The Road to TEDx

But let's go back to the start of this adventure, back to when I had no clue what I was getting myself into and simply thought "Wouldn't it be cool to give a TEDx talk one day?" It's a thought I think many people entertain, even if only for a moment, and I had the opportunity to live it out because of the Road to TEDx. The event was one night in September and I and five other students each gave what was essentially a practice TEDx talk to be judged, with the winner earning a spot at the main event in February.

To even give a practice TEDx talk I had to have something to talk about, but my topic was clear to me from the beginning: to invite people to reimagine gender inclusivity in sports. In short, questioning our assumptions about men's and women's athleticism and thinking about how we can make sports more mixed gendered and more inclusive of people of all genders.

The topic was also personal to me as I am not only a graduate student but also a transgender athlete in the sport of Ultimate Frisbee (ultimate), and the experiences I had as I transitioned and played ultimate shaped the talk from the beginning. I knew I wanted to tell my story and then take it broader to all sports and to issues affecting people of all genders and of all backgrounds.

So I wrote up what I hoped would be a good talk and then competition night arrived. All six competitors waited nervously backstage and went one by one to give our speeches; I was fourth. After everyone finished, the judges took a few minutes to come to their decision and then they announced the winner.

"And in first place, this year's Road to TEDx winner, Jenna Weiner!"

"Really??" was the first thought that popped into my head after they announced I had won, initially disbelieving the result. But it was true. Out of six great speakers with great talks, I had just won and earned a spot in the main TEDx event in February.

As I floated home, head in a cloud, I called my parents to tell them of the news: "Mom, guess what? I'm giving a TEDx talk!"

Astonished, in part because I had neglected to tell them I was even doing the Road to TEDx, but excited, they got on the mailing list for tickets and wished me luck in the preparation going forward. None of us knew at that point what I had just gotten myself into for the next five months.

Practices and Preparation

The most memorable TED(x) talks seem to be spoken right to you as you're watching, as if the person giving it wasn't through a computer screen years and miles away. How do they do it? Through lots and lots of practice and preparation, and plenty of good feedback about what to include, or not, in the talk. TEDx University of Nevada embraces this whole-heartedly, through a lengthy but extraordinarily helpful process spanning a full five months.

It all began in October, scarcely a week after the Road to TEDx, when I received my first email laying out the schedule for the coming months: monthly meetings with part of the organizing team starting in November and concluding with the event in February, with progressively more required at each meeting. First, in November, an outline of the talk.

That November meeting went well since I already had a script done, but the December one was a little trickier. Some of the people at the meeting were confused about some of the terms I was using, asking for definitions, and then recommended that I remove about a third of my talk. The definitions I could do, but taking a significant part of the talk out? That might be a step too far.

In the end though, I took their advice and pulled out that section, in no small part because the TEDx team had been through this before and I was just a grad student out of my depth when it came to crafting TEDx talks. From there it was only two months before the event, one month before our final live practice with no notes in front of an audience, and I hastened to get my script together and memorized for that final January practice.

The Final Month

It came time for the final live practice and I was feeling pretty good. I had my script basically set, I had been running through the whole talk about once a day, and I still had a month before the actual event. I was ready to go, and once in the fabled red circle, I started my talk, opening strong with an intro I had kept from the first drafts back in September.

Then, all of a sudden, it all fell apart. I had lost my place and couldn't remember what was next. I panicked. Here I was, now just a month out before the event, in front of a true live audience for the first time since September and I blanked. After some moments I found my place and continued, but soon found myself lost again. It was all going downhill quickly.

Eventually, though, I did get through the rest of the talk, albeit with much pacing, nervousness, and more forgotten lines and passages. While the feedback from the audience was generally positive, the experience stuck with me even after I walked offstage because I knew that if I could screw up like that in front of an audience of twenty, I could do it in front of two thousand. That thought haunted me for the next couple weeks as I got further into preparations and practices.

Between that final January practice and the event in February, I tried to do at least one full run-through a day, whether in the car on the way to work or alone in my house, but the knowledge that I could blank in front of two thousand people at the event was still on my mind. It wasn't until I had a near perfect run-through one morning that I finally convinced myself that yes, I could do it without messing up, and that I wasn't going to have a repeat incident in February.

The last few weeks before Feb. 23 were a frenzy of practices and logistical organization as I made sure that I had everything ready for the weekend. I had friends and family coming into town, practices to do in some of my classes, and nerves to calm before the big day. Then, before I knew it, the weekend arrived and it was go time.

TEDx University of Nevada 2019

The night before the event I slept fitfully, restless with anticipation, and an early morning came quickly. After a quick breakfast, and a last-minute check to make sure I had everything, it was off to the Convention Center and TEDx University of Nevada 2019.

When we got there, my head was in such a whirl that I nearly forgot my presentation clothes in the car, but didn't and went in for a pre-event speaker meeting. They gave us the rundown of the event schedule, key things to remember ("Stay inside the red circle!"), and answered any questions we had, including one of mine about advancing the slides. Then it was backstage and prep time because the start was just an hour away.

Backstage I put my things down, changed clothes, and then went to get my hair and makeup taken care of. One thing I hadn't expected initially was how formal and professional the proceedings were going to be, but I very much appreciated all of the help I received from all of the TEDx team. Once my face was made and hair done, all that was left to do was wait, and I put on some music to try and calm my nerves. Only thirty minutes to go, I told myself.

I was the third speaker and so was in the final waiting area while the intros were given and the first two speakers gave their talks. Without my music at this point, I dealt with my nervous energy by doing some practice ultimate throws, trying to get my body to relax. Then it was time to sit, have some water to keep my mouth from drying out, and get mic'd up.

Ten minutes.

The second speaker went up to give her talk and now it was my turn to have a mic put on and tested. They asked me to do some practice lines to make sure the s's and t's weren't catching ("Susie sells seashells by the seashore; trying to trek to a secret forest") and then it was my turn. Up the stairs, hear my intro, wait, then walk onto stage. Find the red circle, center myself, and breathe. Zero minutes and it was time to speak.

I started with my intro, nearly unchanged since September, and went through my slides-1,2,3,4-then moved on. But wait, the last slide was supposed to go away and it didn't, blaring bright white behind me. My internal dialogue: "Breathe. Ok, it's not changing and they told you to leave it on your last slide, so I'll leave it. Breathe. Ignore it, ignore the clock, and give your talk. You can do this." And I did.

Then I said my last sentence, said thank you to the audience, and walked off-stage, head in a cloud as I tried to comprehend that I had just given a TEDx talk to about two thousand people. I received a hug from one of the stage crew as I came off, had the mic taken off, and then breathed again, this time a big sigh of relief. I had just given the best short talk of my life, a mere five months after winning the Road to TEDx, and what a whirlwind those months had been.

Giving a TEDx talk had been something of a dream for me, and even now, with the video out loose in the world, it still hasn't quite materialized in my mind. What I can say now though is how thankful I am to have even gotten this opportunity, as simply a student who received the chance of a lifetime. The past five months were nothing I could have imagined even just six months ago, but it was a journey worth taking, as I gave the best short talk of my life at TEDx University of Nevada 2019.


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