Behinds the Scenes at TEDxPortland with Speaker Karen Gaffney header image

Behinds the Scenes at TEDxPortland with Speaker Karen Gaffney

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My role as speaker coach and the moment I’ll remember forever


Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I snuck behind the heavy red velvet curtain, weaved my way down the hallway past the green room and entered the blackness of stage wing left. 




There she sat amidst the darkness, ropes, curtains, monitors, and headsets:  Karen Gaffney, a 35 year old swimmer athlete and motivational speaker (who happens to have Down Syndrome). I could see her mouth moving slowly, her hands gesturing in rhythm, as she was going through her talk one last time before walking into the spotlight before three thousand people and thousands more watching online with the LiveStream.


Karen and I were introduced a few months prior. She was asked to speak at TEDxPortland (thanks to Stephen Marc Beaudoin’s recommendation), one of the fastest growing well-produced TEDx organizations in the country (if not the world, but I may be slightly biased). I was tasked to be her speaker coach to help with content and delivery preparation.


You’d be surprised what goes into a 14 minute talk.


By my estimate, for every 1 minute of content there was 5 hours (at the very least) of prep behind it between Karen, her mother, myself, core team members David Rae, Stephen Marc Beaudoin and Sam Aaron Baker who provided additional direction and feedback, and Peter Adels who created Karen’s visuals . It takes a village and we all knew it was going to be worth it.


Because how often do you get a platform like a TED stage to inspire thousands?

 IMG_8539(David Rae -Chief Curator & Producer, Barb and Karen Gaffney, myself)


First step was nailing down content which proved to be the most intense part of the process for us. We started with this question: What do you want the audience to think or feel differently once you walk off that stage? This helped us flush out her one idea worth spreading.


Now I’m not a cook (ask my husband) but I imagine our process was a lot like developing a new recipe. Take a first stab and taste. Go back. Take out a portion. Edit another. Try again. Fine-tune, rearrange, reword and try again. Until it’s just right.


Unfortunately when we finally had a copy that felt authentic and just right, there were only 2 weeks left until the big day. It didn’t leave Karen much time to memorize the talk, a requirement of TED, but Karen is a rock star and memorized 14 minutes of content in one weekend.


Which created a new challenge: How do you make a scripted talk sound unscripted and conversational? 




We spent hours in a room with a video camera working out the delivery. I would videotape Karen practice a few minutes, we’d review, make adjustments and continue on. Her mother Barb was instrumental in the entire process but specifically in knowing how to push Karen to reach her greatest potential. It was a team effort. We worked on gestures, posture, eye contact, annunciations and pauses.


Don’t underestimate the mechanics of delivery! It can be the difference between good and amazing.


And that’s what Karen was; simply amazing. Not just when it mattered but throughout the entire process.


Including Friday May 29th when she walked on the Keller Auditorium stage for the first time for rehearsal. Despite stage techs scurrying around, an empty auditorium, slide techs finding the rhythm with her visuals, and standing in the bright spotlight, Karen delivered her talk flawlessly. That’s when the adrenaline start pumping in my veins. The anticipation was electric and I was filled with jealousy. I was jealous of the people that would walk in tomorrow, sit in those chairs, and be wowed by Karen’s profound message for the first time.


On Saturday May 30th  she did just that.

Karen Gaffney wowed everyone.




The second she walked out on stage approaching that iconic red circular TED rug, I ran out of the stage wing, back down the hallway and slid through the curtain into the auditorium to watch the magic happen. Several times during her talk I buried my head in hands. The joy was almost unbearable.


It was too good.


Too meaningful. Too moving. Too awesome to see all her hard work totally paying off. Fourteen minutes of boldness, humor, passion and conviction.


The moment the last word left her lips, the auditorium jumped to their feet in a standing ovation; tears streaming down hundreds of faces. I bolted back down the hall to welcome her off stage and whisper affirmations in her ear as a sound tech took off her microphone. Instantly my phone was buzzing; texts from my husband and friends in absolute awe of Karen Gaffney.


Being a part of something as pure as TEDx was humbling and inspiring. Working alongside brilliant dreamers and doers that make TEDxPortland happen was inspiring. Learning about Down Syndrome and new medical research was inspiring.


But the most inspiring moment for me in this whole process was watching the audience totally embrace Karen and her message that all lives matter.


Now that’s an idea worth spreading.

Watch it here.