George Takei knows how to tell a great story. In this case, a true story of his life. The famed Star Trek actor, activist, and social media star was in town recently to give a remarkable talk as part of a very special TEDxKyoto event. I was invited to watch the rehearsal just before the live event, so I arrived early and grabbed a front row seat. George did not give a speech in the traditional sense. There was no lectern, no notes, no teleprompter. George obviously was reciting the speech from memory—his live version was exactly the same as in the rehearsal—but the speech did not seem memorized. That is, when I was listening I was not aware that he was giving a speech or a prepared talk, I was just lost in the narrative flow of his story.
George begins his talk right away with a kind of prelude that touches on a few themes that will actually be touched on in his talk. "I'm a veteran of the Starship Enterprise," George begins with a smile. "I soared through the galaxy driving a huge starship with a crew made up of people from all over this world—many different races, many different cultures, many different heritages. All working together. And our mission was to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one had gone before."
The audience got a kick out of his Star Trek references, but this little prelude transitioned well to his story which begins for real at about the one-minute mark. "I am the grandson of immigrants from Japan who came to American boldly going to a strange new world," he begins. Watch the talk below.
George uses a visual language by describing events with contrasts, juxtapositions, and irony. For example:
"I could see the the barbed wire fence and sentry tower outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words 'with liberty and Justice for all.'"
What's your story?
We always hear that this is the era of telling your story. "The world needs to hear your story," our friends keep telling us. But this raises the question—a question I hear perhaps more than any other: How can I tell my story and not bore the audience? The answer is actually quite simple. Your story is really their story. Often we find ourselves in a situation where the audience members have diverse backgrounds and specialties. In this case "Your story is really their story" means that your contents (events, experiences, lessons, and how you arrange them — the plot in other words) must illuminate universal themes such as justice and fairness, over coming great odds, sacrifice & reward, a person's struggles with societal pressures, and dozens of others. All the universal themes, of course, involve a goal and obstacles and conflicts that must be dealt with and that lead to a change. While the theme or themes must be something that the audience can relate to, the specific details of your talk do not need to be something your audience has ever experienced personally. The audience is hearing your contents for the first time, but the themes that your contents illustrates are familiar and therefore easy to grasp. In the case of George's talk, most people who listen are not themselves Japanese-Americans who experienced internment, but all can sympathize with his experiences and can empathize with the hardships and the struggles, and in the end be inspired by the lessons he learned and shared with his audience.
George Takei on the center stage at TEDxKyoto earlier this month.
It was an honor to meet George back stage in Kyoto after his wonderful talk. Pictured here with George and his husband Brad on my right, and US diplomat Patrick Linehan and his husband Emerson on my left.
A similar but different must-see presentation by George
I really like the way they put this interview with George together by mixing in images from his past and historic images to give a visual amplification to his narrative. This video is from a new series, according to their website, "that shares LGBT celebrities' personal stories of struggle and success." But like all good stories, his story is really our story. The "plot" if you will are the facts of his life—internment as a child, discrimination, hiding his true self, etc.—but the themes appeal to all because they are universal: over coming the odds, struggling with fears and doubts, finally breaking on through, and so on. In other words, you do not need to be LGBT or Japanese-American to relate very well to the struggles George is talking about.
George Takei's talk is nicely agumented with the insertion of vintage visuals.
Thanks to TEDxKyoto for hosting the event and for the photos above. More photos from the event available here.
Related talk: Patrick Linehan's "Embracing Different" TEDxKyoto presentation.