By Brenna Cisler
The first annual SNCtalks event, modeled after the popular TEDTalk series, premiered the evening of Friday, March 4th and was a huge success. Nine speakers with St. Norbert College backgrounds ranging from students, to faculty, to alumni, came together on this night to share their journeys, passions, and stories surrounding this year’s theme: Own Your Impact. Owning your impact looks different to everyone. It could mean unleashing your creativity; it could mean asking better questions for more meaningful answers; it could mean simply recognizing the impact that you are capable of having during your time here on this earth. Whatever owning your impact means to you, the audience of this event was surely inspired by these remarkable speakers and their meaningful stories.
Honors student Peader McGrath ‘22 was one such speaker and kicked off the night with his talk entitled, Owning Your Impact on a Cosmic Scale. He describes the overview of his speech as, “The analogy is that, on the cosmic timeline, your life comes out to be about 15 seconds. Hearing that, you’re supposed to feel uncomfortable. You feel like that’s really insignificant and that you’re really insignificant. But then, if you take a step back and think how long 15 seconds can be, on a human impact scale, then, really, there’s a lot that you can do. 15 seconds is a lot of time to make someone’s day – or ruin someone’s day. It’s powerful, and that was the jist of what it was along with moments from my life to help support that claim.”
Choosing a topic in which one is confident and well versed in enough to talk about in front of a crowd for 5-10 minutes can be a daunting feat. Recounting how he chose his topic, McGrath says, “Being a physics student, I spend a lot of time studying the universe and thinking about how big the universe is and how small we are, so the question of how to own your impact has always been troubling to me. I generally am a pretty existential person and I think about that a lot: what is an impact on a universal scale? That’s a question that I’ve always wondered and I was curious one day as I was thinking about where to go with this idea. The universe is about 14 billion years old, and 80 years (the average human lifespan) divided by 14 billion years, was a really small number: 15 seconds. I was expecting maybe a day, or even a few hours, but then it came out to just 15 seconds and I thought, ‘that’s crazy!’ Every 15 seconds, the equivalent of your life is passing on the universe’s timeline. That’s a crazy idea, so then I thought ‘what takes 15 seconds that is instantly relatable to everyone?’ because one of the first things you want to do is get that attention grabber – that’s how you want to start off your talk – and we thought of tying your shoes, because everyone ties their shoes.”
Choosing a topic to talk about is one challenging feat, but actually preparing the entire talk is another thing. Discussing what the hardest part of preparing for a talk like this was, McGrath explains, “I would definitely say the memorization. No one in the audience knows if you mess up, but you know, in the moment, that you messed up. Every time I did the talk in rehearsal, and even on the day of, it was a little bit different. There were little phrases that didn’t come out the way I wrote them in the script. A week before the event I realized that there were two sentences that I just blipped from my memory and were totally gone until I looked back at the script. The memorization was definitely the most difficult and, if you took the total number of hours I spent preparing, I would say a third of them were spent in the last three weeks. It started in October, and the drafting and writing phase I did in my free time, working at my own pace. I would say, the second week in February, when we were finally in Walter theater, however, those were the weeks and the hours where I spent a lot of time memorizing. Just repetition, repetition, repetition.”
While preparing a talk of this magnitude has its challenges, it also comes with many rewards. McGrath says that his “favorite part of the whole experience was getting to see the other eight speakers prepare. Being on the selection committee, I saw their one minute audition videos, and getting to see them grow and go through that process and really put together eight incredible talks – that was super exciting! The most rewarding thing for me was the confidence that I gained from the entire experience. If you had asked me a year ago if I would be able to put together a 6 1/2 minute speech, 100% memorized, no notes, essentially auto-generating slides behind me in front of a live audience – that’s a really tall task and it was really challenging to get through it, but having done it and getting to look back on it, I’m really grateful for that experience and this part of my life that I got to do that I never thought I would get to do.”
The months leading up to an event like this must be nerve-racking on their own, but one can only imagine the nerves that one would feel on the day of the event. Recalling the night and day leading up to the evening event, McGrath describes, “The night before, we had a dress rehearsal of the whole thing. I did good, but I flopped, essentially. It was going great; I was about 80% of the way through my speech and I was thinking ‘oh my gosh this is going great,’ but then I lost focus and I forgot what was supposed to come next and I had to pause for 45 seconds and I thought ‘I can’t do that on the night of.’ So I was really nervous. I was really disappointed with how the dress rehearsal went. I barely slept the night before because I was so nervous that I was going to make a mistake or something the day of. I was on very little sleep and panicking, but I just kept repeating the mantra, ‘I know it. I know I know it. I’ve practiced it a hundred times. I know it. I know I know it.’ I kept saying that over and over in my head throughout my day. I was listening to Bob Marley the whole day to calm down since that’s relaxing music for me. Getting ready, I was repeatedly practicing the speech in my head, especially the part where I had forgotten the night before, way more that I needed to because, like I said, I knew it and I knew I knew it. I think the most important thing was just to relax. I got there, I practiced a few times and I was really nervous. This is by far the largest audience I’ve ever had, especially with it being recorded and on the internet forever. I knew from the dress rehearsal that Kara was the last person to speak before I went on. Then I went on and it just sort of happened. A lot of the other speakers said they felt this – it was like a blackout moment – I have no distinct memories of being on the stage. I don’t remember talking. I remember seeing some people in the audience and whatnot. The beginning of my talk itself is weird: the lights come on and I’m tying my shoes and that’s really weird for people, so people didn’t know how to receive it and I was thinking, ‘uh-oh,’ but once I started talking, I was fine. Like I said, once I got into it, it just sort of happened, and then all of a sudden, I was offstage.”
Since public speaking is many people’s biggest fear, McGrath shared his advice on how to overcome that fear by pulling from what he learned through this experience: “One piece of advice that I would have is just give it a try. Not many people like public speaking, it is a lot of people’s biggest fear, even more than death. I think just give it a try. Most people are capable of it, especially in some setting like a TED talk or an SNCtalk, because, you get help from the coach, but the reason you were picked is because you have this topic – the hardest part of a TED talk or SNCtalk is what do you want to talk about and, by the point where we started meeting, even by mid-October, we already had our idea. The hardest part is your idea, but once you have it, it’s yours. You can sort of do exactly what you want with it and I think, more specifically, the biggest piece of advice for public speaking is, when you’re on the stage, doing your speech or in any setting, you know what you’re saying better than everyone that you’re talking to, and if you are aware of that, it takes a lot of the nerves out. Obviously you’re still in front of people and it’s scary, but no one in the audience, other than Carol, knows what I’m trying to say. That’s why it’s fine if I mess up a line – nobody knows. Knowing that I think made it a lot easier.”
Although the speakers play such a large role in an event like this, they are not the only ones who made SNCtalks happen. Honors Student Breena Hansen ‘22 played a large role in the formation of this event and the behind the scenes work throughout the process. On how she aided in the SNCtalks process, Hansen remarks, “I was the one who actually kind of started the whole process. I was in a zoom call in January 2021 with Carol Bruess and I brought up the idea of doing a TedTalk style event here at SNC beause SNC is so centered around community and I thought it would be kind of the perfect place to do something like this. To my surprise, she actually said that in the past, pre-covid, people were kind of throwing around the idea, even brainstorming some ideas, and I just knew that it had to happen. I started working closely with her on a bunch of zoom calls since that January 2021 date. Then we got Alaina Morales on our director team and from there we hosted brain-storming sessions all last spring. Then in summer, we kind of started putting our teams together, and from there it’s history. They all kind of worked together to make it such a great event!”
Putting together an event like this takes a lot. Hansen recalls that she did “basically everything behind the scenes,” she laughs. “Carol was working really closely with the speakers and just bringing her excitement around campus and then I was basically doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, like organizing certain meetings. I worked really closely with the event planning team so I was sending emails, going to meetings, making sure everything was going to line up perfectly, and then I was also stuffing the goodie bags, making paddles, all those little things. I attended when they were practicing and gave feedback. I had a storage room in my house full of SNCtalks stuff. The hardest part was, we kind of had the outline of what a TED Talk is, but other than that, we had nothing, we had no prior event to work off of. Everyone was just going at it with nothing to work from and, with that, came a lot of hiccups.”
Working hard at something that you are passionate about comes with lots of benefits as well. Recounting what she took away from this inspiring experience, Hansen explains, “I’m so happy for the speakers. I sorted all those tags for each speaker so I read every single one of them. All of the positive words that came from the audience just made everything so worth it and then we gave those to the speakers. I’m so excited to have them read them because they truly impacted people’s lives that night. I’m just happy I could help make that happen. And one of the speakers, Daniel Webster, they’re working on getting his record expunged because of the talk. He said that SNCtalks and the standing ovation piece was one of the best moments of his life and just to have that happen from this small idea that I had a year and a half ago is just cool to see.”
Congratulations to Peader McGrath, Breena Hansen, and everyone else who made this event such a wonderful and inspiring experience for all! We are proud of Peader for the courage that it took to give a talk at this inaugural event and are proud of Breena for working so hard to make her amazing idea come to fruition!
You can find all of the speaker’s talks here and if you are interested in applying to be a speaker, helping out in some way, or would like to nominate someone else for next year’s event, you can do so here!