INTERVIEW WITH ZARA HUSEYNOVA

How to prepare for a big conference. Zara Huseynova talks about feedback, drafts and preparation for TEDx

Zara Huseynova

Zara Huseynova is a serial entrepreneur from Azerbaijan, who is on the Forbes list 30 under 30. She founded ALZA and Milana boutiques, an educational platform for women WoWoman and co-working space W_Space. She was 18 when she opened ALZA with the budget of 200$, which she later developed into a chain of boutiques in Azerbaijan without outward investment. She was a speaker at such major events like TEDx in Germany, Latitude 59 in Estonia, Startup Weekend in Ukraine and many others.
On February 29th, 2020, the TEDx conference took place in Lviv. The main topic of TEDxLviv was philosophical concept ZEITGEIST, a spirit of the age. We talked to Zara Huseynova, who was the speaker at the conference. She told us about her preparation for significant performances and how she got the idea to dance on the stage.

TEDx conference (x stands for "an independently organized event") has been held since 2009 according to the TED mission "ideas worth spreading". The TEDx goal is to allow local communities to encourage communication and spread ideas all over the world.

— Zara, you have already performed twice at TEDx. How do people usually become speakers at such conferences?
— I got invited by one of the main conference organizers. Traditionally, networking helps to get an invitation to speak at such events. That is how I got into TEDx in Kiel, Germany. Organizers look for speakers among the people they know or through connections in their network. I'm also often asked to recommend someone as a speaker, for instance, a social entrepreneur.
— What is the difference between TEDx and a regular conference?
— TEDx organizers require a lot of preparation, starting three-four months before the event. Regular conferences are not that intense. You can prepare in 2 days if you want to. At TEDx they clarify with you first if you have time for this kind of preparation. If the answer is yes then let's go.
Zara's speech at One Young World Summit got a standing ovation
— Have you been professionally trained for public speaking?
I truly understood the importance of professional preparation after I got a standing ovation for this speech.
— Not professionally. My first experience was in AIESEC - international student organization. Later I learned by practicing. Schools and universities started to invite me for small speeches when I was 21-22 y.o.

The next level for me was the preparation for One Young World Summit. Among the speakers of the conference were the co-founder of Twitter, CEO of Deloitte UK and blogger MamaBee. It was just a 5-minute performance, but the preparation was even bigger than for TEDx. I worked with a few professionals. In the audience were sitting a former president of Ireland, few Nobel laureates, Akon, Naomi Campbell, Queen of Netherlands, and 2000 other people. I truly understood the importance of professional preparation after I got a standing ovation for this speech.
— What was the main idea of your performance at TEDxLviv? Why this one?
— The main idea was to inspire people to choose a different pace of life in different periods. Recently, I started choosing my own pace more consciously. I decline opportunities, assess my resources, prioritize. I feel so much better if I live in a harmony with myself, my resources, wishes and life events. I wanted to share this idea with other people. I often see my friends being burned out, they blame themselves for doing not enough or too much. I wanted to talk about this.
Zara inspires TEDxLviv to choose different paces in life
— Sometimes, the most difficult part is the start. How did you start the preparation for TEDx?
Decide on the the final message you want to deliver and stick to it.
— The most difficult part is writing the first paragraph. I was beating around the bush and at some point my head cleared out. I was waiting for that kind of moment. Without even getting out of a bed, I took a laptop, and wrote the first draft of the text. Everyone of us has our own place of power or flow state. It is important to know how to get there and to switch it on when needed.

When you do not know how to start, I recommend highlighting the main idea and the value of the performance. Often when you start speech writing, you change it, get feedback from people. At some point, it is easy to forget what was the main message you wanted to deliver.
— There are many approaches to structuring a performance. Which methods and techniques did you use while working on it?
— TEDx originally proposes the structure. You need to explain the idea through the introduction, the main part, and the conclusion. In my case, I was asked to tell about my experience. That's why I connected it with my personal story.

My 10-years experience with dancing was a perfect fit to connect the story. Everything in the performance was associated with rhythm, paces, and dance. It was great to put it all together. I didn't have such a powerful connection with the dance until the final versions.
The highlight of the performance was dancing on the stage
— Why did you decide to dance at the stage during your performance?
— In my speech I am saying that life is like a dance, there are dynamic, fast dances and slow, sensual ones. At one of the rehearsals organizers asked if I can dance while I'm saying it. Or enter and leave the stage with the dance. I liked the idea.

Technically, it could be implemented. When we started rehearsals in November I was on the third month of pregnancy. As I was a ballroom dancer I needed a partner. Thanks to the TEDx team, we carried out this idea. At the final rehearsal, I've already had a partner and the next day we were dancing. It was awesome!
— You already did TEDx in Kiel, Germany. What did you learn from that experience and what have you done differently this time?
— In Kiel was my first speech that I knew from the beginning till end. It was because I needed to talk for a certain period of time and there was no room for improvisation. (at TEDx format it's necessary to present an idea during 18 minutes - note by Reprezent).

I met people who were repeating with someone their speech 20-30 times. In Lviv, all I needed was to repeat my speech 4 times. I am not the person who can repeat the same thing over and over again, everyone needs their own approach. It's important to find your style not only in the performance, but also in preparation.
Zara talks about fears at TEDxKielUni
— What are your thoughts on feedback? How much do you care about opinions of others?
— I need feedback. It is an essential part of work on the performance. At every rehearsal at TEDxLviv, organizers asked clarifying questions and we were allowed to answer only yes or no. Sometimes, it helped to understand if I am still on the track.

At a certain point, there was too much feedback. I took everything and tried to implement it in my speech. Then I understood that my performance is going in the wrong direction. So many men, so many minds. It is like a book, when reading the same one at a different time you can perceive it differently. The same with performances. No matter how impartial we are trying to be any opinion is subjective.
— How much time did you spend preparing?
— It took me 30 hours in total. This includes 6 drafts of the speech. Each draft took from one hour to three. I also had around 5 rehearsals.

Separately, I had a 3-hour meeting with you when we formulated the connection with dancing. With Reprezent team everything is easy. It feels like meeting with friends but you are actually doing an important work.
— If your audience remembered one or a few phrases from your TEDx talk, which ones would they be?
— Probably, the ending. It was basically the Instagram status I wrote several months before. «We need both slow and fast dances in life. Switch them, change the rhythms, creating our own dance. Choosing one pace today. Choosing another tomorrow. Choose with whom to go and where. And let everyone dance. In their own rhythm».
— Because Reprezent is mostly working with presentation design, we are interested in your opinion. Which role does the presentation play in the performances?
— The presentation can strengthen your message. There are performances where visualization makes 50% or even 80% of the impression. In the Instagram era, everyone can make a photo of the presentation and share it, then many more people will see your message, not just the audience

The main ideas in my performance were on the slides, but the presentation was just an additional component. I want to study the visualization better in the future. I believe that it is a powerful tool. It's great that such teams like yours know how to do this well.
— You look confident on the stage. How do you reduce the anxiety or are you nervous at all?
Everyone should have have their own tricks for dealing with stress. It helps me to breathe and think that the stage will support me.
— It all just looks that way (smiling). Particularly, this performance was quite emotional for me. I have not been dancing on the big stage for a long time, it was my first speech in English, and I was also pregnant.

There are some tricks that help, for instance, the breathing. When everything in your chest is uptight before the performance, I am trying to breathe. If I have a chance, I take 2 sips of strong coffee. Coffee does not have an influence on me physically but switches on emotionally.

There are also attitudes that you can adopt. Once I came up with an idea that the stage supports me. The confidence that on the stage I will perform even greater than during the rehearsal helps me.

The reaction from the audience is also important. I was lucky before, all the audiences were friendly to me during my performances. When people applause several times when you are on stage, it inspires you. You're like: "Great, let's do more!"
— What can you recommend to people that will perform on the big stage for the first time?
1
Performing at the big stage is a unique experience. Most probably, it is the first one, but not the last one. Try to enjoy it.
2
Decide on the main message you want to deliver. Often you want to talk about everything and do it in just 10 minutes. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
3
Listen to yourself and your feelings. It is important to understand how your body works under stress. Find out what helps you or frightens you in front of a big stage.
4
Involve professionals. I was trying to formulate the idea of the speech in many ways. But only at that meeting we had with Reprezent I got a clear understanding of what I should do. I really appreciate it. Nobody will write your speech for you but you can find someone that will bring it on another level.
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