In this guest post, Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager at Pro Bono Net, shares her experience of preparing and presenting a talk on civil legal aid at a TEDx event in her community.
This is a guest post by Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager at Pro Bono Net. Claudia presented a talk at TEDx Richland on September 16, 2017. (Watch the video of her talk on YouTube.)
I have watched TED talks for years, so last June I was excited to learn that TEDx Richland, the chapter in my Eastern Washington community, was planning an event with the theme “Foundational Truths.” I decided to submit a proposal to talk about my passion: access to justice.
I am comfortable and confident speaking in front of lawyers, advocates, court staff. Part of the appeal for me was to see if I could speak persuasively to a group of strangers who do not necessarily share my views of the world. My TEDx talk was not going to be about topics that people around here love like rivers, salmon protection, or irrigation management. Could I connect with strangers in a short time and create some awareness and impact in my town?
I felt sure that I could, because part of my strategy was to use the Voices for Civil Justice messaging guidance, plus data from the American Bar Association, the National Center for Access to Justice, and the Legal Services Corporation. However, I soon learned that being confident and having a plan did not mean I was ready to deliver the talk. Participating in TEDx is a serious commitment.
Once my proposed topic was accepted, the process quickly became intense! We were required to participate in three-hour practice sessions, twice each week, for six weeks. At practice, Toastmastersvolunteers, the TEDx team, and our fellow presenters gave direct feedback on everything about our presentation: style, voice, diction, and effectiveness of our delivery. They counted all of our “ahs”, “ums” and other verbal crutches, taught us how to breathe, how to modulate, how to stand. They also helped us improve the structure of our talks.
This could be intimidating or annoying for someone who is not open to feedback; but it was exactly what I wanted. They helped me make my talk graspable to those who do not spend their time thinking about overcoming barriers to civil justice. The eight other presenters were diverse, generous, and supportive.
We also had to practice on our own. This meant rehearsing even during my vacation. I practiced as I walked up and down an Oregon beach with my husband listening to me, over and over, working on each word and each breath, hoping to convey my passion for civil justice in a way that would connect with people I did not know.
On the day of the event there was a buzz of excitement in the theater. My community was well-represented by a crowd that was diverse in age, income, and ideology. There was hot coffee and good food to sustain us. My talk was the last one, so I sat listening and silently cheering for my new friends as they spoke about their foundational truths, each one successfully taking it to a new level.
Finally, it was my turn. As I got up and put on my mic, I wondered if the crowd would be tired after sitting through a long day of exhilarating topics. But as I talked, I noticed the audience was with me. They laughed at my dry jokes. I heard gasps when I said that “you are on your own” when it comes to solving civil legal problems. I also saw them perk up when I invited them to become a go-to person for their families, schools, and communities, and challenged them to consider if there might be a legal solution to certain problems.
I felt their acceptance when I said the law is beautiful.
Since the talk, people have reached out to me from across Washington, including educators, librarians, and other groups working with the public at large. Many told me that before my talk they didn’t realize they do not have a right to an attorney in most civil legal matters. That fact stays with people.
It was hard work, lots of hours, and lots of wrestling with myself, often while exhausted, frustrated and – yes – a little scared. Would my accent be a barrier to connection? Would my immigrant background impede a bond with my audience due to implicit biases? I had to work through these demons and I’m happy to report that the demons were tamed. I came out from the process a better person and a better speaker, and I made friends with some exceptional people. I think my community is now better off, too, for all of our talks.
If your community has a TEDx event, I strongly recommend that you participate. It is a great opportunity to share what we do, and why we do it. It is a way to reach out to those in your town or city who might never otherwise think about the problems we tackle day in and out. Make a point to get engaged, to get connected. Speaking your truth is more important now than ever.
If you are considering delivering a TEDx or similar talk about civil justice in your community, the Voices team is eager to assist with messaging. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have given such a talk, please let us know; we would love to hear it.