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How my Year of TED was a lot like the Wizard of Oz: A Q&A with Kylie Dunn

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Kylie Dunn follows the Yellow Brick Road, with the help of the scarecrow, tin man and lion. Illustration: Matthew Dunn

Kylie Dunn has come up with the perfect analogy for her Year of TED, a self-improvement project she dreamed up in 2011 to infuse ideas from TED Talks into her everyday life. She says that the experience was akin to the Wizard of Oz, with herself playing each of the main characters.

Dunn was recently invited to give a talk about her experience at TEDxHobart in Tasmania, Australia. “I’d been watching TED Talks for years. I’d been hoarding this inspiration in my head and heart, and I decided it was time to do something with it,” she says in her TEDx talk. “There was a great analogy for the process I was going through—the journey to find my authentic self and to honor that. I may not have been following the Yellow Brick Road, but it’s a great way to explain the experience and the lessons from it … And yes, I did feel like I battled more than one Wicked Witch and an army of flying monkeys in the process.”

Below, watch Dunn’s talk for much more about what it was like to journey toward the Emerald City. And after watching, read a Q&A with Dunn about what it was like to, after years of watching, give a talk herself. Her thoughts on the process of writing a talk are truly insightful.

How did you first discover TED?

I was stumbled into the TED world back in 2007 or 2008. And I mean by that: I found TED through StumbleUpon. I’m pretty sure Jill Bolte-Taylor’s was the first TED Talk I ever watched although, having watched around 400 talks now, it is hard to remember.

Having watched a ton of talks over the years, how did you go about writing your own?

With some difficulty! I’ve watched so many amazing and inspiring talks that the bar in my mind was set pretty high. So, of course, I looked to the wisdom of a TED Talk — I watched Nancy Duarte’s “The secret structure of great talks.” It’s interesting because the talk I ended up giving wasn’t my initial plan. The original talk was more focused on the construct of the Year of TED and how it gave me accountability. I still touch on in the talk, but overall if felt too dry and it didn’t get into enough of the nitty gritty about the activities. So I went back to the Nancy Duarte talk, and started again with what I had wanted to achieve from this project. I got the idea to group the talks instead of give a laundry list and, once I did that, everything started to fall into place.

The rehearsals with the organizing team and other speakers were a valuable part of the process for me. Since they didn’t know the story, they could point out the things that didn’t make sense, the areas where I needed to explain more or remove something. That helped me make the talk a lot tighter, and a lot more personal in many ways. For some reason, they really wanted to know about the parts where I failed and struggled. You know, the bits that are so easy to stand up and talk about.

How did you start to recognize the parallels between your Year of TED and the Wizard of Oz?

That idea came to me in the fifth month of the Year of TED. It started with a comment I made about feeling like I’d gone down the rabbit hole. That’s about the only parallel to Alice in Wonderland, but it started me thinking whether there was some analogy that worked – some story of a transformative journey that focused on finding yourself. It wasn’t much of a leap from there to the Wizard of Oz. The parallels just leapt out at me. With the lead characters wanting a brain, a heart, courage and to get home, it occurred to me that — when you broke everything down — this was the core of what I was doing. I love how that’s come together for me as a way of explaining some of the core lessons from the project. Last January, I wrote a blog post about it, but the analogy has taken on a life of its own in the last few months. Which is why I wanted to include it in the talk.

How did you handle the stage fright of giving a talk?

Does anyone handle it? I feel like I just pushed through because I wanted it so much. It was weird for me because this isn’t the first time I’ve presented to an audience — I’ve done that a few times in my life. It’s not even the first time I’ve spoken about My Year of TED — I presented to a smaller group last year. But this was something altogether different because it was at a TEDx event, and I knew it would be recorded and therefore very discoverable. It also meant no notes, so part of the coping process was rehearsing at least five times a day in the week leading up to the event. This included giving the talk in the shower or when I was driving the car. Sometimes, I think I was even doing it in my sleep.

The thing that was great was being able to rehearse in the space the day before the event. It gave my brain a calmness of, “Oh I’ve done this already, so I can do it again.” That helped me sleep, actually, which was very beneficial. Since I spoke last at the event, I had many hours of watching other speakers to work the stress levels back up. But once I walked onto the red dot and the spotlights went on, I sort of went into auto-pilot. It was quite surreal. I felt calmer than I appear to be on camera.

What surprised you most about the experience of giving a talk?

Just how difficult it was to verbalize some of my experiences. I felt that since I had been quite fearless in writing about my faults and failings on the blog, that talking about them wouldn’t be too daunting. But I found that saying out loud how broken you are increases the vulnerability ten-fold. The first time I read out the talk, I was teary and my voice cracked — and that was just to my incredibly supportive partner, Derek. The rehearsals with the organizers and other speakers were a little easier, but still hard. I was worried about breaking down into a blubbering mess on stage. The speaker coaches were great, though, and along with the curator, they encouraged me to be even braver with what I was willing to include.

The other surprise was how much I needed visual feedback from the audience. I couldn’t see the audience for the most part, and it’s very daunting to stand in a darkened room and bare your soul to a room of strangers. It helps that the people at the event were very supportive and engaged with all of the speakers, so I felt safe in the room. That made a huge difference.

If could only recommend one single TED Talk to the people you love from now on, which one would it be?

Mine, of course. But seriously… I knew that you were going to ask me a question like this. After the number of talks I’ve watched, it’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child – it depends on the day and the mood we’re all in.

A large part of me wants to say Susan Cain’s “The power of introverts,” because it’s so universal. If you are an introvert it helps you get that there is nothing wrong with you, and if you aren’t an introvert it should help you understand that you need to stop trying to fix us. But then there are Brené Brown’s talks, which are great for helping people understand that shame and vulnerability are universal, and learning to overcome the hurdles of perfection is the only way to live. And of course, I want the people I love to be happy. Neil Pasricha’s “The 3 A’s of Awesome” was fantastic at improving my general happiness.

If I have to pick one though, my choice is Philip Zimbardo’s “The psychology of time.” It’s nice and short, so that would work well for a lot of the people I love. But mostly, I’d chose it because the activity that I did around this talk had such a profound effect on me. I would also hope that because it is such a sharp talk would inspire them to learn more — not only about that topic, but about TED as a whole.

That is a very unfair question to ask me though. If you asked me next week I’m sure I would give a different answer.

Check out Dunn’s e-book, 30 Days of Drive: A Practical Guide from my Year of TED. Or read more about her at her website.