It was almost exactly 12 months ago that my legs were shaking and my heart was pounding. My mouth had suddenly turned dry. I looked up to see a huge audience all staring at me, waiting for me to speak. It doesn't matter how many times I leap out of planes, from the top of buildings or off the side of mountains, fear still hits you. Standing in front of an audience is one of those times.
"I believe I can fly," I half spurted out. The audience took one look at me and laughed. I hadn't expected it. It does sound kind of funny, now, to think about it. But then I realised that they were laughing with me. I'd engaged them. Those that were busy tweeting and texting looked up from their phones. They wanted to know more. My heart kept pounding but an ounce of confidence had returned.
I was at TEDxHousesofParliament. The curator of the event, Tom O'Leary, had seen a video of my team, Jump4Heroes, flying our wingsuits from the infamous north face of the Eiger. He was going to give me 2 minutes to show the video to his audience.
This was a great opportunity but, perhaps slightly greedily, I wanted more. I had more to offer. I had a message to share, an idea worth spreading, and showing off the stunning imagery of our human flight endeavours just wasn't enough.
I met Tom and his deputy, Grace Rowley, at Portcullis House. We sat at a coffee shop styled meeting area and discussed my message. Tom agreed to flex the schedule and give me an extra 2 more minutes to talk in addition to the video.
As we discussed what I should wear I got out my wingsuit and BASE jumping rig. Almost out of nowhere the police swooped down at our table, concerned that I may be some crazy demonstrator. Tom had a little explaining to do before our meeting continued.
Because TED talks are so short, every sentence must count. The normal fillers, the waffle, the um's and the ah's all have to be erased. There's no time for them. The message has to be crystal clear, refined. Every single word that is uttered must add value.
I started weeding out my content, removing what I thought was good but not excellent. For every sentence I'd ask how it contributed to my overall message. I had whittled it down to 10 minutes but still considered everything that I had as value adding. I started prioritising, removing the lowest of my high quality material. It was a tough exercise but it ensured that every word I would utter would absolutely compliment my core message.
I rehearsed again and again. I filmed it and sent it to Tom, twice. We discussed where to make more cuts. I negotiated more time. In the end I think he gave in and found it easier to give me an additional 2 minutes rather than listening to me plead, cry and beg him further.
I arrived early to survey the room. I always do this when I'm giving a speech. My message is not about what I say but about what the audience take from it. To deliver value to them I need to rehearse from the stage, sit in a range of seats and understand what it will look like from their point of view.
I was amongst some of the brightest and most creative minds around. Lord David Puttnam was on stage rehearsing, I sat next to Jack Andraka, Colin Salmon was herding an incredible group of kids, Baroness Onora O'Neill was looking over her script, Suli Breaks was lounging in a comfy chair and looking relaxed while Baroness Patricia Scotland had a truly incredible story that she was preparing to share. I pause here as there are so many more names to drop but I think the point is made - I felt like a fraud. Who was I to stand here with some of these all time greats?
I shut my eyes for a few seconds and took some long deep breaths, attempting to calm the stress hormones that were stabbing my stomach lining. I looked over at my wife and it was then that it became clear.
I was there because I had a story to tell, a message to share, an idea to spread. My team has spent years raising awareness for the sterling work undertaken by The Royal British Legion. We've inspired and motivated others along the way, helped others less fortunate than ourselves and shared the idea that it's not about what you can do, it's about what you can do with what you can do.
I stood up on stage, calmed my breath and delivered my message. As I walked off, I wondered how it had been received.
Tom came up to me. "You nailed it," he said.
"Really?" I asked lacking confidence and seeking a bit of reassurance.
"You absolutely nailed it!" he repeated.
I felt my hard work had paid off. I hope you do too - decide for yourself when you watch my talk in the video below:
TEDxHousesofParliament 2014 is this Friday. The event sold out quickly but there's a livestream starting at 11:00 and going all the way to 18:40. Last year was incredible but I know the team have upped their game even higher. My wife and I have tickets. We'll be in the audience this year (please come and say hi). For those of you that didn't buy your tickets in time you'll need to call in sick, grab your popcorn and a notebook and get ready to be inspired; click here for the livestream.
All photos by Paul Clarke.