The SCDiaries had a chat with 2018 TEDxOdense speaker Kay Xander Mellish. We kept it short and sweet and touched upon the fate of public speaking, then and now.
Kay is American-born and currently a dual US – Danish citizen, and has taken cultural awareness to a whole new level, as only a journalist can. Observant of seemingly unimportant habits and the cultural norms that are often taken for granted, Kay makes the best of both American and Danish humor and helps Danes and privileged immigrants understand each other better in their everyday working and social life.
1. Let’s get the most obvious question out of the way: do you have stage fright?
I’ve done about 200 speeches and I still get a little bit nervous. But as soon as I get on stage I’m fine. I can give an impromptu speech about, say, vegetables – I’ll be totally cool as soon as I step up there.
2. Your worst fear when you’re about to do a talk?
That someone’s going to take me off the stage, ha ha. No, sometimes you get a non-responsive audience, usually because something’s happening in their lives that’s not connected to the speech at all. I spoke at one company just a couple of hours after it announced massive layoffs. They were a little down-in-the-mouth, but fortunately it was an upbeat speech, and later several audience members told me it had actually helped them take their mind off things.
3. Did you ever think you would become the successful speaker you are today?
No, the whole thing was an accident. The podcast lead to the book, and then someone who read the book asked if I could speak, and it all went from there.
4. First talk ever?
5. What do you like to have backstage?
At an event like TEDx, where you’re giving a unique talk for the first time – a room to block everything out.
6. How was TEDxOdense different from other events?
With a speech you’ve done repeatedly and refined over time, you can be on autopilot, you can hang out with everybody and watch your favourite movie when you’re backstage. By that point, your talk should be almost muscle memory – you shouldn’t be fine tuning it any more. But with a TEDx talk, a which was a unique and one-time speech, I needed full concentration.
7. The hardest thing about doing a TEDx talk?
Not being able to refine the material over time: it’s a one-time thing. Watching the talk again, I kept thinking I could have given the audience more time to laugh here, or slowed down a bit there – but I don’t get to do it again. One and done.
8. Best kind of help you can get while preparing a talk?
Feedback on content and style of delivery before the talk – what works, what doesn’t.
9. Do you find it easy to adapt your language to second-language speakers of English?
Yes, and I do this in my talks – I use shorter sentences, simpler structures, and much more direct humor. Verbal language is always more direct than written language. When I write though, I use whatever vocabulary I want; people can either skip over what they don’t get, or look it up.
10. And in Danish?
I give speeches in Danish, and that can be a bit frustrating – you stumble a bit, as everyone occasionally does in a second language, and it’s hard to time jokes and be spontaneous.
11. What should speakers be wary of?
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, especially because as a speaker you get feedback mostly on ideas, and not so much on your delivery. You need to resist the temptation to pull out the same PowerPoint you’ve been using for the last 10 (or even 2) years. It’s like when you see a woman doing her hair the same way she used to in 1995, and thinking that because it looked good then, it still looks good now. Your ideas need to develop and move with the times. I don’t even agree with everything I said 10 years ago.
12. What’s your dynamic with other speakers?
Backstage at TEDx there was a very nice atmosphere, because the speakers are not competitors. But whenever I see someone new in my field, I invite them for a cup of coffee and try and get to know them. A former employer of mine used to say “We have no competitors, only potential partners.” So I like to invite the people in my niche to not be competitors, but potential partners.
13. Your least favourite thing about being a speaker?
It takes a lot of sales, marketing, and admin work. At least 75% of the work of speaking isn’t done standing on a stage.
14. Your work priority number 1?
Writing. That’s how I develop the concepts and ideas that I can share through speaking.
15. Why do you think speaking is becoming a job?
It’s the flip side of the internet: we’re so fragmented each of us sitting alone with our machines at home, that it’s nice to have a live person standing there every now and then. People like to be in groups with people sharing the same interest.
16. Where do you see public speaking heading in the coming years?
It will be a form of the entertainment industry.
17. Being a journalist yourself, do you like being interviewed?
Love it! A good interviewer can pull something out of you that you didn’t know you had, and can make you see a new point of view.
Kay is the voice behind the long-running How To Live in Denmark Podcast, the author of four books about Denmark, and a communications consultant to some of Denmark’s largest companies, specializing in investment and finance. In April 2018, she gave the TEDx talk The Privileged Immigrant: