MY BUCKET LIST DREAM WAS DASHED, BUT SOMETHING MUCH BETTER HAPPENED …
I’ve often said the most fulfilling storytelling work I’ve done is leading groups of WW2 Prisoner of War veterans’ families through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand as a specialist military history tour guide.
On the back of a book I wrote ‘The Missing Years’ -- chronicling the hardships of the POW’s -- I was asked to design the itinerary and lead several groups on 17-day itineraries that had them crying, laughing and in some cases finding the life-changing closure they had long yearned for.
But something that was nearly as fulfilling happened a few years back when the first TEDx in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Creativity & Collaboration was being staged.
The organizer, Sheila Pham, approached me, and I got excited that this would be my chance to tick off one of my bucket list dreams: to do a TED talk.
Instead she threw me a curve ball: “I want you to be the TEDx MC and Speaker Coach, Stu.”
I was initially disappointed, seeing it as a bit of a demotion.
But then it dawned on me – Hey, I don’t just get 18 minutes of fame, I get to be on stage ALL AFTERNOON!
I soon warmed to my role, and one week before the Big Day we set up a coaching session, where I ran through some warm-up exercises for the assembled speakers, who included a vibrant and eclectic mix of ideas people:
Photographers, authors, journalists, artists, and even a Nobel-nominated Buddhist monk in the form of Dhammananda Bikkuni (or Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh as she is known in academic circles).
Each did a ‘stand and deliver’ run through of their proposed TED talk, followed by brickbats-and-bouquets evaluations.
The charmingly unassuming Jon Jandai is an organic farmer in northeastern Thailand, and founded the Pun Pun Centre for Self-Reliance.
My initial reaction in listening to his rehearsal was to jump in and say “Hey, John, you need to project more, animate more.” But then I realized that that’s who he naturally was, and the strength of his personal vision and conviction in the area of sustainable living was going to speak for itself.
In fact, more powerfully because of his personable understated delivery.
(Sometimes as a pitch coach in presentation skills training, you need to known when to get the hell out of the way. This was one such occasion.)
Come the day, Jon, stepped up the energy one notch (the upside of nervousness), and his likeable personality and humorous take on life in the Big Smoke vs in the Carefree Country, won the room over.
Many were ready to sell up their big houses and move into a mud hut!
I’m proud to say, with no thanks to me, Jon’s talk ‘Life is Easy, Why Do We Make it So Hard?’ resonated with everyone in the sell-out audience that day, and has now gone on to notch up nearly 9,000,000 views.
Voluble author and storyteller, Mo Tejani, also lifted his game dramatically from the rehearsal/ coaching session, to deliver a word-perfect rendition of his chameleon-like life story starting as a refugee in Idi Amin’s Uganda.
But perhaps the biggest challenge in that TEDx coaching session was with American Pulitzer-grantee photo-journalist, Ryan Libra. As a visual storyteller, he typically lets his camera do the talking. In rehearsal, he struggled, to put it mildly, to structure and articulate his amazing adventures in strife-torn parts of Burma.
After evaluation, the decision was taken to do something very un-TED like:
Ryan would be better off delivering his ‘talk’ in a Q’n A style format, with me as the interviewer. This would then prompt his answers, and we could cut to his photos and video clip to augment the story.
Thankfully that worked well, and Ryan delivered his story ‘100 Million New Journalists’ with a quiet confidence, as you can see here.
What’s not so obvious from this clip is the unfortunate technical glitches that marred the live session. But he soldiered on well, and I think the edited session came across really well.
In fact, a couple of years later he was invited to make another talk at TEDx Bangkok.
I’ve since been increasingly involved with the TED movement, as an adviser at TEDx Suzhou in China, where they run an amazingly busy program of events, and have attended quite a few other TEDx’s around the region (and watched hundreds online of course).
You’ve got to love and admire the passion that is poured into these events, freely sharing ideas with the world.
As a pitch coach in Asia, I’m proud to have added “TEDx MC and speaker coach”, to my resume, and to have worked with such inspirational characters.
But I still harbor the deep-seated desire for my own 15 minutes of fame. Which would probably be on military history, such as the ghastly story of the Alexandra Hospital Massacre in Singapore in 1942, which is the subject of my next next book, Bleeding Slaughterhouse.
In that episode around 300 young lives had their bucket list dreams well and truly dashed in heinous fashion. So I don’t dare complain about mine.