Kangal dogs with massive bulging muscles surge across open fields as they chase our train. We are moving so slow that the dogs stay with us for minutes which drip into hours. They trample through meadows and forests, hugging our winding tracks. They only give up the hunt as we enter the narrow canyons, deep valleys, and craggy mountainsides of Somewhere Central Anatolia. I am on a 47-hour train-ride from Kars to Istanbul. I have one mission, and despite my attention span’s protests, it’s not admiring Kangal dogs from the safety of the restaurant car. I want to write one good 10-minute speech about Balyolu. This speech is to be presented at a conference called “For the Love of…” hosted by the Turkish Women’s International Network (WIN). So far, my preparations are going something like this:
Hour 26, I am pondering about the borders, honey laundering schemes, smuggled contaminated beekeeping supplies, trade agreements, and impending road construction (the post about this is in the que).
Hour 32, I am dreaming of wide open rolling Asiatic tundra, wrapped in elegant blankets of flowers, and nectar, and pollen.
By hour 36, I have written eight speeches, and none of them come close to communicating what I want to say. The process is painful, and disappointing – why am I struggling to tell my story? Why is it so difficult to express my idea? I have this belief, that when you are doing what you love, it doesn’t feel forced. What you love is where your brain goes on its own will, when you are staring out the window, or making tea. What you love is far from simple, and that’s why it is exciting to think about it, most of the time. All summer I have been bursting with stories that I want to write; about women beekeepers, about the raging debate around organic honey, about the humor and politics of selling honey in Kars, about the poetic musings of Ardahan’s majestic environment, about the dam construction projects that haven’t made it into the news, even about the Kangal dogs who guard the beekeepers and keep any foray into yayla territory exciting… this is my complex socio-geo-political landscape that I can talk and write about for days (and as you can tell by the site, I have).
Then why is it so intimidating to stand up in front of an audience and talk about this love? By hour 40, I redirect my efforts towards trying to answer this question and come up with the following personal conclusions.
- It’s hard to talk about what you haven’t done yet.
A good friend told me, talking publicly about an idea-in-progress is like inviting everyone over for dinner when the vegetables still have several weeks to ripen. Thus far, Balyolu has been beautiful, sad, awkward, and inspiring. It’s my own adventure following a vision, a love, and an idea. It’s also the story of my discoveries and relationships, interacting with the mesmerizing people and cultures of Turkey’s Northeast. Yes, it’s all held together by a sticky substance called honey, and yes, I could tell you all about my love for honey, for its stories, for its complexity. But what interests me most is honey’s potential. And rather than showing a sideshow of my summer trip, I want to invoke in others a belief in honey’s promise through talking about my vision. But who gives a talk about something they have barely started? The only reason why I agreed to speak in the first place, is to give that vision a chance. To share it with a community of people who might embrace it, and help me take my idea to the next level. By presenting to an engaged group of doing dreamers, I can see the effect of the idea on a supportive audience. However standing among remarkable women – like Tara Hopkins and Safak Payvey, who have overcome, learned, and achieved so much – is marvelously intimidating.
- TED Talks have raised the standards for public speaking an almost unfair degree.
While preparing, I spoke with several Turks who were baffled as to why I was nervous. Their fabulous response was this, “You have a power-point right? Just put the text of your presentation up there, get over it, and come eat with us already! Allah Allah.” In TED talks (or at least the ones we all send around), you never see someone reading from their notes, and their power-point slides usually have six words or less. Their talks are short, compelling, provocative, and they take a complex esoteric subject and boil it down into a memorable, sharable, universally poignant message that nearly anyone can take with them or tweet in 160 characters or less. That is a tall order. More and more TEDx and micro-conferences are using quick, powerful speeches to move people, and these examples are also marvelously intimidating. The days of public speaking – where you were a winner if you remained fully clothed by the end of your talk – are over. People’s allotted time for these kinds of things are short, and their attention spans are shorter. There is so much nonsense overwhelming our media channels, that if you want to make your point, it should be concise, and nothing less than mind-blowing (or so bad that people can’t even stand to hear it, case in point, Serkan is my girl).
- Is there an equation for a good talk?
As each long hour on the train rolls by, I slowly download TED talks, the one about classical music, the one about bees, the one about love. I start over-analyzing the talks – is there an equation, or an Avogadro’s number to giving a perfect talk? A mentor of mine once told me – 2 minutes ME, 2 minutes YOU, 2 minutes US. The ME is to pull you in, to make you relate to my story. The YOU is to show that you face the same problem/dream/passion as I do. And the US is what we are going to do about our shared problem/dream/passion. In my TEDtalks, I look for this pattern, and pick-up on the jokes, the surveys, and the party-tricks that keep an audience engaged. But every time I think about applying them to my context, they feel cheesy, forced, and like a time-sink.
Hour 47 screeches to a halt, and I still have nothing. From my cabin window, I have watched Turkey’s landscape exhale as the slowest and oldest train in Turkey, the Dogu Express rolled past its dramatic transitions. I went from Kars, through Erzurum and Erzincan, Sivas, Coruh, Ankara, Kayseri, Eskisehir, Bilecek, Adapazari, and finally Istanbul. When I unfurled from my compartment and exited the train, the busy life of Istanbul brushed against my shoulders, and I dropped my head feeling overwhelmed.
It wasn’t until I stood up in front of my 200 person Turkish WIN audience that I realized the trick to giving a good speech, or at least the trick I was going to bank on, honesty.
I am building a business around a love for honey, but more than that, I am pursuing an idea that is the culmination of my life history. Growing up on a farm in Colorado, living with a father who had cancer and a passion to travel to Turkey with his young family, unknowingly dreaming about Turkey since that first trip, spending every summer above 12,000 feet in the company of tundra flowers, building cross-country trails in California/Oregon/Washington, working with agricultural innovators in Japan, traveling to Kars on a Fulbright scholarship to study migration, spending the subsequent two years thinking about rural job creation, working at Ashoka and learning about social entrepreneurship, and finally leaving everything to move to Kars and explore the potential behind an idea.
Balyolu is about connections, connections are facilitated by stories. The first story – even if it’s an incomplete one, full of awkward hand gestures, mis-wording, rambling, and imperfect delivery – is mine.
While I do much better facing Kangal dogs than I do public speaking, I share with you the video: http://turkishwin.com/public/videos.aspx?cid=2&vid=19