How Giving a TEDx Talk Changed My Life

In February 2013, I gave a TEDx talk at TEDxWindyCity about the gendering of childhood in the earliest years of life.  TEDx events, for those who may not know what the “x” stands for, are independently organized TED-like experiences created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading,” only at the local level. So, in an auditorium along the frozen shores of Lake Michigan, I stood on a stage before a sold-out crowd of 650 smart Chicagoans, said things like “gender binary”, and wore a pair of mismatched pink and blue tights.

Preparing for and delivering this talk were some rather peak experiences this year.

I’ve since received many questions about the process: “Did you audition, self-nominate, or get tapped?” “How long did it take you to prepare?” “Did you receive training?” “How’d you do it without notes?” “Where’d you get those tights?” (A: I made them.)

There’s a real hunger, I’ve learned, to know more about what goes on behind the scenes. And I’ll tell you. But first, please know that like many public thought leadership forums, women could afford to lean in here a bit more. When speaking to my authors group back in New York City, Kelly Stoetzel, Content Director and curator for the mothership TED said that women turn down invitations to speak at TED with far greater frequency than do men. If the phone rings, lady readers, and it’s TED calling, promise me one thing before continuing to read this post.  Promise me you’ll say yes.

But you don't have to wait for the phone to ring to speak at a TEDx event. Unlike TED, which invites its speakers, TEDx events are fully planned and coordinated on a community-by-community basis, and the organizers often outline their submission process clearly on the event's site.

TEDx talks can lead to TED invitations. They can lead to media appearances, speaking engagements, and books. Regardless of doors opened and views accrued, preparing for and giving a TEDx talk is a valuable experience in and of itself.

I say giving this talk changed my life because it did.  It got me out of a writing rut and pushed me into multimedia. It ushered me into a new city and gave me a local calling card (I relocated from New York last July). And it taught me that I could experience more joy while giving a talk than I ever knew was possible. That’s right, people. Joy.

Much of the joyfulness I attribute to the organizers. (Shannon Downey of Pivotal Productions, you are a one-woman bundle of brilliance.)  A team of 20 volunteers (aka the Dream Team) did a seamless job producing the event, and co-sponsors included the Museum of Science and Industry and the Ravinia Festival, which catered a mid-day indoors picnic on astroturf. Ten speakers shared the stage with dancers, poets, and a comedic duo. The audience, too, was key. Everyone there was interesting. The mood was one of mutual inspiration and support. TEDx events are a reflection of their organization, and this one was tops.  Not every event will explode with this level of creativity and be this well organized, but the trick is to make the most of it, whatever the production level, because one TEDx can also lead to the next.

Here’s how mine went down:

July 2012: A friend sends me a call for speakers for TEDxWindyCity. The theme is “contrast.” I have girl/boy twins. I write about gender. I decide to propose a talk that brings to life key research about the gendering of childhood in the earliest years of life. With help from a filmmaker friend (who also happens to be a girl/boy twin mama), I prepare the requested 2-minute video submission using a 500-word script, an ultrasound video, and some stills.  I write a short proposal explaining how, adhering to the TEDxWindyCity Commandments, I intend to inspire listeners to think beyond convention; innovate by unearthing the studies that turn previous findings upside down; revolutionize the way listeners think about not only the gendering of the tiny, but the gendering of the adults who shape them; move listeners by speaking very personally about my experience as a new mother of boy/girl twins who, after years of studying and writing about gender in theory, suddenly found herself in the belly of the beast and questioning her core beliefs; influence by launching a Pinterest board in which I ask followers to post a photo of a young child breaking or upholding a gender norm; entertain with a brief slideshow; and, above all, inform. I explain that my inquiry is part of a larger project, I explain who I am, I send a few links related to the project and to previous talks and videos, and I attach a few testimonials attesting to my speaking skills.

September 2012: I’m accepted. (I think: Huzzah! Then: Oh lord, what have done?)

October 2012: I stall. Or, put another way, I try to figure out a talk that will also help me think toward the book I’m (slowly) working on. I end up going in circles, trying to do too much at once.

November 2012: I receive an email from the organizers:

As you know your TEDx talk needs to tell a story or argue for an idea.  I need you to please submit to me the title of your talk + in 5 sentences or less the thesis statement/main point of your talk.  You can find a million examples on

I’m reminded to think short, and think pithily. I come up with the following: “Learn, from kids, to embrace paradox and get out of your gender binary zone.”

December 2012: I’m freed, now, to write the talk. I come up with a simple three-part structure, and working backwards from that tagline, I pull together a narrative that interweaves my personal story with research from various fields. I get feedback from my writers group and other trusted advisors.

January 2013: I send my draft to the organizers. I have a month left to revise. The organizers hook us up with a webinar called “The Foundation of Great Presentations,” with Doug Carter and Brian Burkhart of Square Planet. From them, I learn the importance of knowing what I want my audience to know, feel, and do.

Afterwards, I receive an email from Doug:

Remember, this is an ALL IN proposition—you've only got one shot at this. There are no "do-overs" like we had when we were kids. No late night cramming on February 22nd hoping that it will magically sink in. You HAVE to work at it to be the best you can possibly be.

I’m inspired to go all in.

February 2013: I revise and revise, tightening and cutting wherever I can. My graphic designer husband (convenient, I know) helps me refine the slides, which I’ve by now come to realize need to be just as concise as the words.  A few weeks before the event, the organizers host a pre-show gathering so the speakers and Dream Team can all meet and greet. I spend the last week memorizing my talk, getting it down to just notes on one page, and eventually to notes on a single note card. I practice, practice, and practice some more. I video myself doing it once. The day before, I do a full run-through on stage. The event takes place. I go second and get to enjoy the rest of the day. Everyone does a great job. In the lingo of TEDx, we killed.

The talk resulted in views and media (like here and here).  Ink Factory Studio graphically recorded my talk (see right).

This all, of course, was well and good, but most importantly, for me, preparing for and delivering the talk led to a loosening up.  Mixing up the visual and the verbal felt playful and expansive at the same time that it pushed me to be precise.  And now, I think I'm hooked.

To find a TEDx event to apply to near you, click here.

Watch the talk:

Visit the Pinterest Board, Tots in Genderland (and hey, if interested in becoming a pinner, drop me a line!)

Got questions? Please leave them in comments or tweet me (@deborahgirlwpen) and I’ll try my best to answer. Even if they’re just about the tights.

Originally posted at Girl w/Pen via The Society Pages.

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  • Karen Devaney

    I am a professor as well as writer/performer--loved to use TED for class awareness and writing a response paper as well as stimulating discussions.  

  • Jennifer L Myers

    TED is a great concept! I'm interested in learning more about TEDx! Here's a link to an interesting CNN opinion article about children, gender and stereotypes.

  • This was a terrific talk! Your data and visuals were right on. And I liked your reference to the previous pink/blue stereotyping. How did that change?  I wish you had returned more strongly at the end to the issue of gender and power, because this is the REAL problem with "gendering."

    I'm a biologist, and I believe the evidence shows that male and female brains are wired differently. Much of that wiring is dependent upon the hormones we were exposed to in utero, although some (much?) also surely happens post-partum. A complex symphony of hormones (not just sex hormones) as well as other chemicals (including alcohol and medications) combined with genetic endowment influence our predispositions: intelligence, scientific inclination, nurturing, sociability, etc...

    I'm a biomedical scientist by training and inclination (born and raised during an era when women didn't "do science." I received a lot of flak from peers in high school and college about being a girl in science and math classes, but I had support from parents (my father was an engineer).

    Yet I was also very interested in having children and nurturing them. I believe the greatest internal conflicts in my life involved the competing demands/urges of work vs. mothering. I wish the scientific work environment had been more mother-friendly. I don't believe that has changed much yet.

    I had three daughters, none of whom went into science. Although I gave them dolls and kitchen toys as well as toy cars and mechanical toys (erector set, clocks that could be taken apart, log cabins), only one of my girls seemed interested in playing with the mechanical toys. (There were NO Barbies or guns in the toy box.)

    I now have grandsons (five of six grandchildren are boys) and I see differences in the way they play from the way my girls played. I don't think my daughters have tried to genderize their children's play styles. The boys do seem to be more interested in throwing things and banging on things than my girls were. These differences may be hard-wired, testosterone-dependent, and may have had had an evolutionary advantage during the Paleolithic era.

    But today, power SHOULD come with intelligence and persistence, rather than physical strength, and women seem to be as intelligent and persistent as men, if worthy goals are available to them. Moreover women do tend to be more nurturing, and this behavior is needed more than ever in our highly complex--even bewildering--society.

    Let's make all options available to all children, while also honoring each child's individual internal drives and preferences! Power should not have to mean physical strength and control.

  • Romi Grossberg

    Congratulations Deborah. I must admit i had the same excitement and fear when I was asked, and then accepted to do a Ted in Cambodia in 2010. I love writing, I love public speaking (wierd I know) but the truth is, hours before the presentation, I was out the back in tears. Terrified! But of course, it all went great, and apparently i looked at ease and very comfortable (little did they know...).

    What an amazing experience, one I will never forget, as I am sure neither will you :) 

  • Elsie Maio

    Awe-inspiring, Deborah!  and courage-inspiring!  I know in my bones that multimedia captured in video is IT! Thanks for the push.  And thanks for reminding me that it's not about 'oh some people are just brilliant at this stuff.'  Yes, some are.  But hard work and polishing, polishing, polishing and refining and practicing and rehearsing make the difference.  I needed to hear you say that. Thanks a million! Elsie

  • Virginia Llorca

    I might mean epigenetics, but I am a layman. 

  • Virginia Llorca

    You did a great job with the Ted talk except I wanted to know what was in the diaper bag.  I want to comment on the subject of the talk.  

    I have seen children under two make gender based choices. I do believe that much of this is imposed on a child by its peers, its environment, but I also strongly believe that a lot of it is biological and, perhaps concomitantly, neurological.  I understand about metagenetics (in the vaguest layman kind of a way) but I also know some  people do not subscribe to the theory that environment can produce genetic change.  I do.  I wrote a small book, actually it is probably jut a treatise and I have some footnotes which are inserted just to support my own theory.  It is written tongue in cheek, but I believe it is  valid premise.  Actually, I don't think it even contradicts what you talked about because I am aware of transgendered people. Whether it is biological or philosophical is frequently known only to them. I just felt uncomfortable at the end of your talk.  I think I feel you are anti-gender, or came off that way in the talk and I think gender has a very definite place, purpose, need and cause in our world.

    I am 69 years old.  My youngest child is thirty.  I had amniocentesis and the doctor asked me if I wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl and I said no.  He said, "They always call back."  I didn't and my daughter didn't when she had either of her children.  Not for gender-based reasons but because we wanted to be surprised. I think when there are studies that show a boy (not every boy) will make a  gun out of any stick when he is two and the girl will give the toy dog a ride in the toy grocery cart if she is not provided with a doll and a stroller, those things also need to be considered as valid evidence.  

    When i asked my doctor about a certain medication's effect she said, "There is a lot we don't know about neuro-biology."  I don't think we can make the gender issue only a sociological one, and that is not to say it isn't.  It is, but it is more than that.  

    What do you think?

  • Virginia Llorca


  • Thanks Deborah, you rock! This is fantastic information and great details and suggestions as to get ourselves into the Ted-mix. Inspired, xoxo

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Fantastic, Deborah!  I agree that giving a talk can be wonderful for writers.  For some more pointers, check out my SheWrites post, Ten Ingredients for a Successful Book Talk

  • Ilie Ruby