One of my 2016 highlights was the opportunity to share Circumspecte’s story on the TEDx Accra Women stage; a story that has been nine years in the making (and counting). My decision to accept the TEDx Accra invitation to speak on October 28 was simple: for someone who tells other people’s stories I had done a relatively poor job of telling Circumspecte’s. My talk focused on how I turned my travel blog into a website and explored the value of time and starting small. Watching the video is surreal, especially considering the doubt and second-guessing that came before it.
Giving a 12-15 minute talk might seem simple enough. Except when the TED talks you love the most are delivered by the likes of Chimamanda Adichie, Elizabeth Gilbert, Ken Robinson, Monica Lewinsky, Brene Brown, Taiyie Selasi and Malcolm Gladwell – public speaking at its best! I couldn’t think of a single thing that would be worthwhile. My idea of a great talk is one that is insightful, witty and inspiring. At the very minimum it has to be useful. What could I possibly have to say that would fall under even one of those I wondered to myself. Many times, I wanted to send an email to TEDx Accra’s team lead Leslie to pull the plug. That week was a particularly busy one for me so I was covered excuses-wise. But I had promised myself that 2016 would be my year of teaching, of sharing all I’ve learned thus far about blogging, content creation, storytelling and social media.
After much restlessness and mental back and forth, I came up with not one, not two, but four possibilities! This time, my issue wasn’t a lack of ideas, but rather indecision about what to cut out. Hoping that the fates would decide on my behalf, I shared my TEDx Accra Women ideas with my sister, a friend and Leslie. Unfortunately, they each had their own ideas about which topic was “the one”, so I was back at square one. Time was ticking and I was yet to decide on a topic, much more begin preparing my slides. I said a prayer asking God to guide me to choose a topic that would be most useful to the audience and kept it moving. I was in a very reflective mood because Circumspecte was turning nine that month; for me that means looking back and reminiscing.
As I was digging through our archives I chanced upon my older articles, reader emails and notes of encouragement I had written to myself. I had forgotten I ever wrote many of those articles – and between you and I, I think I was way wiser when I was younger – but I remembered written pep talks: each had come at a moment when I thought of “quitting” Circumspecte and deleting the site. Over the next two or so days I sifted through the site archives and emails; a picture began to emerge. I began to see the patterns, how time had woven itself into the conduit that would lead me to that exact moment. As the phases that make up my journey with Circumspecte became clearer, so did the insights, lessons and the people who had unknowingly helped shape my path. By the time I was done, I had both my talk and presentation in what I eventually called “The Circumspecte Story”.
Now you would think that’s all there is to it. Quite the contrary. Next up: bout of doubt. What makes you think anyone wants to hear this? Why should anyone waste their time listening to you talk. You built Circumspecte from a travel blog into a platform, big deal, get over yourself. Why did you wear this jacket – you look terrible! What the heck am I doing? While I hadn’t expected such judgment from myself, the sentiment – fear – was familiar. It was a nerve-wrecking feeling that I had nothing worthwhile to share; that the story I had painstakingly waited on was an ego-trip more than anything else. By this point it was too late to back out, so I had no choice but to swallow my self-doubt and prepare for my talk. I generally manage to get through public speaking and presentations with as few notes as possible; this time I had virtually everything written on my cue cards and went over them obsessively as I waited for my turn on the stage.
Then, the show began. All the women did a great job and each talk resonated with me in one way or the other, particularly the one by Ethel Cofie on validation and Maame Adjei‘s talk on finding courage in the face of fear. I heard Ethel’s while she was on stage and Maame and a few moments before I went on stage, Maame and I had a chat about how hard it was to come up with a topic. Needless to say, I was in good company. Getting on stage, I found out that I would have to hold both the mic and the projector’s remote. So much for cards. I handed them over to someone and stepped on stage. Those 18 minutes are the longest and shortest of my life. I literally lost track of time. While my voice rang through the audience, another voice rang in my head: all these people are hear because you have something worthwhile to say. To calm my nerves, I pulled out my best public speaking hack: looking above everyone’s head. It wasn’t necessary – the stage lights were so bright I couldn’t even see anyone. And so with that comforting voice in my head, I made it through. When I finally stepped off, I was a mix of emotions: elated to have kept my promise to myself, nervous about how I did, sad it was over (I was just getting into it!), and thankful for the opportunity to speak at TEDx Accra Women.
Reading snippets of my talk on Twitter afterwards was surreal, and now, months later, it’s like I’m watching and hearing the talk for the very first time. The most surprising element? How calm I look. I was anything but. Undoubtedly, I will be referring to my talk and those of the other ladies like I did other kind reminders when I couldn’t find the courage in myself to continue Circumspecte, to grow, or to try something different. I encourage you to take a look at the TEDxAccra Women playlist and hope you find something worthwhile – insightful, useful, witty or inspiring – in there. If you do, please do share it with someone. Because it’s been a long time coming and it’s about time. Thanks for reading / watching.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.