What it’s like to give a TEDx talk: Q&A with travel writer Robin Esrock
EARLIER THIS YEAR, travel writer and travel talk show host Robin Esrock gave a TEDx talk in Vancouver, BC. According to Robin, it was the largest TEDx event ever held. Seems fitting considering that next year Vancouver will become the host city for the main TED conference for at least the next two years, perhaps permanently. The conference is moving from its original home of Long Beach, California.
Robin has traveled to over 100 countries. Most recently, he finished an epic trip visiting all the provinces and territories of Canada, the result of which will be a book released in the fall of this year titled The Great Canadian Bucket List. He draws upon all of his experiences to give a compelling talk on travel which, in my mind, is really a metaphor for life.
As a longtime fan of TED, I was curious how one goes about not only being a speaker at an event, but preparing and delivering a presentation. Without falling apart, that is.
CA: How did it work, did you approach them, did they approach you…how did it come about?
RE: A friend of mine, Sean Aiken, did TEDx last year and when I saw that they were going to do it again this year I said, ‘hey who is organizing it?’ and he gave me a name and somebody’s email and I emailed them. I was surprised at how seriously they take it, because I thought, you know, you find a bunch of interesting people, you give them some parameters and you let them talk. But they take it super seriously…you have to submit some work with them and they’ll give you lots of feedback and if they’re not happy with it they’ll cut you. They want it to be very strong.
Because it’s associated with the TED brand, even though it’s kind of a volunteer offshoot.
Yeah…they charged $100 a ticket. That’s also a TEDx limitation, a ticket can’t be more than $100. So it was $99 a ticket and they got around 2,000 people, which is unbelievable. The main TED event is $7,500 a ticket.
Wow. So what was the process like? How long was it to work through your material with the producers of TEDx?
It was about a two-month process from the time I got in. I came in quite late, there was a bunch of people who were there before me. They always had confidence in me because I’m confident on stage. I gave them a bunch of options of what I could talk about. My first choice was to get up there and bust the myths of the travel media industry. Just the idea that what we sell are dreams and fantasy…just like any industry, except our industry is leisure. [But then] I thought that would be a little too cynical and over the top for people.
You wanted something more inspiring?
Inspiring, yeah. I said look, the reality is when I meet people and they ask me what I do, they always ask me the same questions: Where have I gone, what are my favourite things, what have I learned. I thought well, if I can wrap it all up into a bunch of short, easy-to-digest messages about travel with the idea that it’s not scary…then maybe that would go down well. And it did, it went really well, on the day.
But you went way beyond just talking about what your favourite places were. As opposed to just tangible travel advice you really dug into much bigger themes, and the way I saw it, these were themes that I think anyone can apply to lead a more fulfilling life, not just travelers. You could never travel and I think it would still apply to you.
I’m curious about a couple of things: One is, what were you feeling or thinking 30 seconds before you walked onto the stage?
The guy before me killed it, which was like “argh!”…now I gotta be even better. I was standing offstage, they put the mic thing in my ear and I was super nervous. [I knew] there’s certain beats I want to hit, I knew that the pictures would kind of drive me forward, and it did a couple of times — I completely forgot what I was supposed to say next but I hit the next slide and I was, “okay now I remember.”
The experience — earlier last year I did the Explorers Club thing, and standing backstage there I was thinking, “oh shit I’m about to walk onstage in front of 1,000 people in tuxedos with teleprompters.” The same experience I felt standing on the edge of the TV tower waiting to bungee jump, or booking a big ticket, or any of these adventures where there’s this thrill, like “oh shit, this is real, this is real stuff.”
And that last message [from the TEDx talk], ‘don’t panic,’ that really is crucial to the whole thing. That’s what I was telling myself backstage, “don’t panic, you’ve got this, you’ve got this under control, you’ve read it, you’ve rehearsed it, you know the stories inside out and you know that no matter what happens you have an accent that [makes] people think you are smarter than you are.”
That’s your crutch. It’s the accent.
It’s the accent. Believe me, I get away with a lot because half the people are thinking, “where is this guy from? Is he Australian, is he British, where the hell is this guy from?”
How were you feeling and what were you thinking a few minutes into the talk?
It took me a few minutes to settle into it for sure. To slow down and breathe. Once I got comfortable it was amazing. Once the first laughter happened and I knew a joke landed or a story landed…I don’t know how many opportunities we get in life to have that kind of audience. With the Explorers Club it was a script written for me and I still did some adding. How often can I get in front of people and tell them something that is important? When I look back now, I’m really grateful that that was the talk. That it was positive, as opposed to something more cynical…I’m glad this is something I can leave behind.
It looks like you had a standing ovation at the end there.
Yeah, people really resonated with the message.
I think the main reason it did resonate was that you presented it in a way that wasn’t exclusive. It was something everyone could relate to and not feel like they have to be a traveler. It really did touch upon things people deal with on a daily basis in their normal lives.
Bringing people in, when I asked all those people those questions [reference to a past project in which he asked people on his travels questions], that was like a crazy little experiment that I did and I still don’t know what to do with it. I have 1,700 people answering three questions about their lives. To me it’s just such a great way to bring that into the talk. When I think about it now I should have closed out with the third question, what people are grateful for. One day I’m going to find value in that, I don’t know when but…
Could it be a book?
Is there anything else that you learned from doing the talk that our readers might find interesting?
What I said wasn’t mind blowing or revolutionary and I don’t think that any self-help stuff is. For any motivational speaking, I don’t think it’s like, “wow, I never thought of that before.” I think the best type of ideas give people permission to act on what they already know.
The stuff I touched on — the grass is greener, people are intrinsically good — I think everybody knows this, but when someone gets up there and says, “hey, I’ve travelled all over the world and in my experience…” In their eyes, it’s much vaster than their own [experiences] and I’ve come to the same conclusions that they already know, so it must be true. I think the very best ideas are the most simple ideas, stuff we know already, and that’s why it resonated.
I really like that idea of “giving people permission.” That’s one of the main things that drives me to talk about things your typical male may not talk about much, like emotions and vulnerability. That’s the message I hope to convey: By me doing it that’s giving permission for others to do it as well and I think that’s what you’re touching on, too.
Totally, I thought about it and Matador; the audience will appreciate that I’m trying to get this talk out. I want people to see that you don’t get paid doing TEDx, it’s completely volunteer across the board for everybody. They made a ton of cash but that’s the production value; they rented out the Orpheum and had crane camera operators and all that kind of stuff. And to pay back something from last year where they went over budget.
But, it was just this opportunity to spread some good news and I said that in the talk, that travel is the only good news you read. In the media everything is war and corruption and economy, and travel is just all this good stuff…we’re not going to talk about how the economy is fucked, we’re going to talk about how travel’s great. I think it’s because of that good news that travel doesn’t get nearly the attention it should.
Yeah, especially when it has the ability to break down barriers and stereotypes and connect people. That’s funny, that’s something you think should be prevalent, right? That’s the message you want people to have, but I guess there’s no money made in making people safe.
Yeah, totally, even though tourism is the third biggest industry in the world after oil and gas and automobiles. It’s the third biggest industry in the world. Tourism is leisure, showing people a good time.
So what’s next?
Next, we are having our baby next month so…
I don’t know if I knew that but congratulations! Are you ready? Are you ever ready?
Don’t panic. Everything is about to turn upside down so I’m really looking forward to that, and my book is coming out in September and that’s been a really interesting process because it’s been over two years, the whole cycle.