From Toastmaster to TEDx | How I Landed on the TEDx Chelsea Park Stage

Elaine Montilla on the TEDx Stage

The Beginning – My Toastmaster Experience

As I stood up at my first NYC Toastmasters club meeting I was so nervous, I could barely say my name. I received my book and started to prepare for my first five-minute speech. For the life of me, I couldn’t put my thoughts together.

Fear of public speaking is the most common of all phobias, making it worse than the fear of death. When I decided to join Toastmasters, it wasn’t just because of my fear of public speaking. I knew that it was deeper than that. I was afraid to fail, I was afraid to disappoint others, and I was afraid of being judged. I am sure you have felt the same. I’ve been told that I am a natural when it comes to public speaking, but what nobody can see is what is going on inside my head or the crazy sensations I experience in my body. It’s like an emotional and physical thunderstorm.

I can tell you that the support I received from the members of Toastmasters who were also trying to improve themselves was extraordinary. After a few months of attending bi-weekly meetings, I started to feel more confident and less worried about my fears. I started to realize that forgetting a line or a number was indeed ok and part of my growth. I realized that my fears actually came from focusing on myself instead of focusing on the actual message I was there to deliver.

Being part of Toastmaster gave me the confidence I needed to lead with authority, speak to inspire, entertain, and inform. The meetings helped me greatly improve my grammar and vocabulary, which as someone who speaks English as a second language is invaluable. Toastmasters helped me with time management skills, and to become a more effective communicator. I will forever be grateful for that experience.                                                                          

If one of your personal goals this year is to improve your public speaking skills or communication in general than I strongly encourage you to give it a try. Click Here to find a Toastmasters club to join. Here is where to go, if you want to find a club to join.

The Middle – TEDx Application and Tools Used

The truth is that you never stop feeling afraid of speaking in public, never. You simply learn to manage it. Through practice, breathing, and a sense of surrender to the moment it becomes manageable. When the opportunity came up to apply for a TEDx talk in NYC, I was thrilled. This was my dream. I knew I had to give it my all.

I nervously submitted my video application and waited as a kid waits for Christmas. Each time I received an email, I would pinch myself. Each email confirmed that I was moving to the next phase. Most events book a few months before the event date and you can find a list of all upcoming TEDx events online.

I was blessed enough to work with an amazing team of TEDx organizers who made sure I understood every step of the process. They helped me consolidate my ideas into one meaningful message. I honestly can’t praise them enough; from day one, everyone made me feel so comfortable. We had weekly check-ins and continuously worked thru the idea and the content.

One thing is for sure, your first draft will look nothing like your final submission.  Ideas continued to evolve throughout the process. I believe I went through close to 15 drafts and kept adding and removing sentences, paragraphs, and statistics. I devoured endless videos on YouTube of other TED speakers. I wanted to see how they performed and to get ideas on the overall structure, opening lines, and their calls to action.

I was so excited the day I came home to my mailbox and found a gift I will always cherish. The organizers of TED sent me a book that helped me put it all together. Holding that book in my hand I felt like someone had pinched me, this was really happening, I was really going to do this.

The book is titled “TED Talks, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking.” It was written by the head of TED Mr. Chris Anderson. I can honestly say that if you read that book cover to cover, you don’t need anything else. Chris Anderson shares insightful information from some of my favorite talks that included :

  • Elizabeth Gilbert – A talk on success, failure, and the drive to keep creating
  • Brene Brown – A talk on the power of vulnerability
  • Amy Cuddy – A talk on how your body language can shape sho you are, and my all-time favorite,
  • Mel Robbins A talk about how to stop screwing yourself over

While working on my talk one thing I struggled with was my decision to use slides. I created a PowerPoint presentation with a few slides. In the end I decided it was too risky to worry about using a clicker, or the order of things. On top of that, I wanted to ensure people focused on my words and the message and not the visual aids. In the end, using slides is a personal choice. But if you work in IT as I do, then I’m guessing you’ve probably seen a few technical disasters which may affect your final decision.

Towards the end of my draft validation process, I downloaded an amazing application to my cellphone called “Easy Voice Recorder” which allowed me to record my entire presentation. I would listen to it on my way to and from work, over and over until I had it memorized. There are many other applications online you can check them out. This app honestly saved me. I tried so many other techniques to remember my lines, and nothing was more powerful than hearing my own voice.

Another technique that helped me was creating a structure to know exactly the number of paragraphs I had. Then I took one index card and wrote only the first four words of each paragraph on it. I would look at the first four words only. It helped me visually memorize the entire speech. It allowed me to sense when I was halfway through and when I was near the end. I did that for a week and the audio for three weeks leading up to the main event.

I practiced my talk honestly more times than I can remember. I would recite it in the shower, to my family, to selected groups of friends, and while walking the streets of NYC. My dog Nola knows the entire talk more than me at this point. I made the poor thing bark wildly while I was presenting to her (she just wanted me to walk her in silence).

I also attempted to create a map of my talk on the walls of my basement, but that didn’t work out as planned. I had yellow sticky notes all over the house, and hundreds of printouts from research I had done to prepare. I want you to know that this did take a lot of time and effort on my end. I am a perfectionist.  I wanted the exact amount of statistics and the ones that would have the biggest impact on the audience.

I also wanted to read as many articles as I could so that I could combine my experiences to what researchers have discovered. Every article and every podcast confirmed what I already knew, and that’s how the title was finalized.

The End – I Freaking Did It!

The day finally came, and I was ready because I was lucky enough to take a few days off from work so that I could relax, meditate, and practice. Somehow, I was just ready to share my message, and I knew that the words just wanted to come out. I felt like I was holding onto a big secret that wanted to be set free.

I was glad we got some time to walk around the stage and laugh and take pictures before the audience walked in. It helped me be calmer and bond with my fellow speakers.

I am always fascinated to see how pain, fear, and challenge can bring people together. I felt like I knew my fellow speakers for months, some of them for years. We had just met a week or so before the final day. Seeing how great they were also pushed me to try harder, which is the norm for most immigrants for whom English is a second language. The amazing part is that some of us are still connected and supporting each other in all we do.

Right before the event started, I told myself that I didn’t want to practice too much the day of, so I locked myself in a closet with a fellow speaker. Inside we each went over our speech one final time, and that was it. I decided to do no more practicing and no more thinking about it. What would happen on stage would happen and I would be present at that moment. I wanted to take it all in.

I was the third speaker, and I couldn’t have been happier to go early. I wanted to be able to enjoy the rest of the talks from the back area, somewhat stress-free. My family and close friends were waiting for me, and all I wanted was to make them proud. I was eager to show them that our dreams do not have expiration dates. My mom was sitting on the first row ready to watch her immigrant daughter kill it on stage. Her eyes told me she was so proud and I couldn’t look at her too much because I would forget every single line. She raised us as a single mom and I had to make her proud.

TEDx Sign
Right before the doors opened

Most people share they are intimidated by the red circular carpet but I had pictured myself on it so many times that it was just welcoming me with open arms. I walked right into the center and the nerves miraculously dissipated. Next thing you know, I am done and walking off stage to applause.

After the talk, the one question I get the most is “How did you get selected?” That is not an easy question to answer. The selecting committee and the Curator already had their own vision for the event. I happened to fit that vision. Depending on the theme and timing, applicants may or may not be what the curators are looking for.

In the end, anyone with a great idea can give a talk, any talk. It doesn’t have to be a TED Talk. Giving any talk well is an accomplishment in itself. The advantage you will have as a speaker is that the idea is the star of the event, not you. It doesn’t matter if you are famous or not, the idea is front and center, and then the rest comes, so try and try again and keep trying until you get it.

To celebrate this huge milestone in my career, I booked a trip to Italy. I took my time while cruising the narrow streets of Rome to reflect on it all. The time away confirmed for me that there are absolutely no limits other than the ones we impose on ourselves.

I wish I could transfer that feeling to everyone I know. I honestly do. I think we waste so much time worrying and wondering and people-pleasing and seeking validation. The truth is that we are all already equipped to achieve amazing things in this world. Just as we are.

I cannot end without taking some space to thank my friends, my family, my peers, my IT team, the TEDX Chelsea Park team, and of course, my dog Nola for all the support. They spent months listening to me talk about absolutely nothing other than how excited I was for this dream to finally become a reality.

Rome Visit
Celebrations included a trip to Italy to reflect on my accomplishment

The second question I get a lot is, “Is there anything I would’ve done differently?” and my answer is absolutely nothing. I am happy with the planning, the experience, the process, the team involved, the pounds added by the camera, and the lessons I learned after each step (Post to come later on this).

Hey, did I mentioned five years ago I would close my eyes and picture myself in the middle of the red round carpet?

I did!

And if visualization worked for me, it can work for you too.  Ok, I tortured you enough. Without further due, here is my very first TEDx talk. It is titled “The Value of Mentorship for Women and Minorities in Tech,” and you can read more about this topic in my previous post.

If you know anyone who needs to hear my message, please share it.

Much Love!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *