I was invited to give a TED talk – Here’s what happened

An incredible opportunity appeared in my inbox in August 2023. I got invited to give a TED talk in Cape May, New Jersey. The only problem? It was in two months, and they needed a quick response. That’s how I ended up giving a TED talk, two weeks after defending my PhD!

While in Iceland, I received an interesting email

In the early days of August, an unexpected email landed in my inbox. The email was inviting me to deliver a TEDx talk in New Jersey scheduled for October 2023. This invitation arrived from a personal email address, which triggered my skepticism, as my inbox is often full of spam emails. You might not know this, but once you start publishing in academic journals, your inbox gets flooded with emails from predatory journals and conferences.

I thought this email was another attempt to get me to register for a predatory conference. On top of that, my impostor syndrome resurfaced, convincing me that being invited to give a TED talk was an impossible notion. My schedule was already bustling. I was working in Iceland with the Icelandic Orca Project, where I had so many responsibilities I barely had time to sit down and breathe, let alone entertain a suspicious email. So I ignored it for 3 weeks.

One of the playful juveniles I encountered in Iceland — Credit: A. Remili / The Icelandic Orca Project

After three weeks, my curiosity kicked in, and I responded that I was potentially interested, knowing I probably missed the call. Another email came back saying they had a participant cancel their talk and wanted me to do it. Still unsure about the invitation, I decided to check with my friends in Iceland. Their response was clear – saying ‘no’ would be crazy! With that in mind, I knew I had to dig deeper to figure things out.

The interview and initial speech

I then got contacted by another person from the TEDxCape May organizing committee for an interview in late August. This person was a three-time TED speaker, so that reassured me a bit. When I discussed a potential idea worth sharing (a.k.a. my research), they encouraged me to go for it and accept their invitation. They also warned me that if I were to give a good talk, I would have to dedicate at least 20 hours a week to the task. I would first have to write a script, then learn it by heart, and then learn how to deliver it impactfully. At that point, I had submitted my PhD thesis and was preparing my defense.

After days of reflection, and discussing the opportunity with my partner, my labmates, and my family, I decided to accept the invitation. It was a month before the talk. I poured roughly 25 hours into crafting the initial draft of my 12-minute speech. It was then reviewed and revised many times following feedback from friends and the organizing committee. Preparing for my defense as well as writing a speech for a TED talk turned out to be a real rollercoaster. My anxiety was on a constant high throughout September. Looking back, I’m not even sure how I pulled it off – it was a month filled with a whole lot of nerves.

Defense DONE, next step TED

I wrapped up my PhD defense on September 29th, 2023. It was an intense experience that came with heaps of compliments from my jury. It was a stressful event, no doubt, the culmination of 4 and a half years full of crazy ups and downs, tons of effort, and countless sleepless nights spent on research.

In an ideal scenario, a new doctor will take a well-deserved break for a couple of weeks. However, the very next day after my defense, I jumped right into preparing for the TED talk! Over the next two weeks, I worked tirelessly on rehearsing and perfecting the delivery. Friends generously offered their time, coming over to provide coaching, and Tom, my coach from the TEDxCape May committee played a significant role in shaping the talk.

I drove to Cape May on October 12th to stay at a beautiful seaside resort while finalizing my rehearsals for the big event. I also went to meet the whole organizing committee and the amazing other speakers. They were all extremely kind and inspiring.

The big day

I barely ate the day of the event, I was so nervous and anxious. My slot was right before the last talk of the day. The anticipation was intense, but I found pleasure in absorbing the talks of the other participants. I got to learn about psychology, finances, grief…

When it was finally my turn, they were still fixing up my hair. As soon as I stepped onto the stage, the mic decided to get tangled in my hair! This meant I had to be extra cautious not to move my head too much while speaking to prevent some static in the room. But aside from that, the talk went as I planned and rehearsed it. To my delight, I even noticed a few gasps and sighs from the audience during those impactful moments I aimed for. It seemed like the response I was hoping to evoke was achieved. So I’m counting it as a job well done!

Public speaking is stressful, but I am proud and grateful to have gone through this experience — Credit: TEDxCapeMay

So what was the talk about?

In my TED talk, I shared my journey that started in the French Alps but took an unexpected turn towards a profound passion for whales. It all began at the age of 3 or 4, captivated by the film “Free Willy.” Fast forward to my master’s program, where I experienced a shocking marine mammal autopsy. It revealed the devastating impact of persistent organic pollutants, or “forever chemicals.”

This discovery led me to dedicate nearly five years of my life to studying killer whales in the North Atlantic, unveiling alarming contaminant levels. My fieldwork experiences, including encounters with playful killer whale calves in Iceland, highlighted the intelligence and social nature of these creatures. I emphasized the crucial role whales play in ocean ecosystems and the urgent need to address contamination issues to ensure their well-being.

The talk concluded with a call to action, urging political leaders and individuals to take concrete steps to protect these extraordinary beings for the sake of our oceans and our planet.

Anais Remlil TED talk
Killer whales (also called orcas) ingest contaminated food that threatens their health – Credit: TEDxCapeMay

After the talk…

After the conference ended, I got to engage with many audience members and chat about whales. A couple of hours later, my nerves settled, allowing me to savor one final evening in Cape May before making my way back to Montreal. After these two events, I crashed and burned out until early January. Those weeks were tough, and I felt pretty awful. However, despite the challenges, reflecting on it, I’d still go through it all again—for the whales.

I would like to thank the amazing team from TEDxCapeMay, as well as Tom, my TED coach, Walter who edited the video, and my partner Tristan who came to Cape May to support me! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me 🙂