I think it was Stephen King who said, “the only criteria for being able to call yourself a writer is to have written.”

Well, then, I’m a writer. It even says so on my LinkedIn profile. And using that same logic, I can also proudly announce that I am an accountant, a baseball player, a landscape architect, and an accomplished public speaker.

Last week, I gave a TED talk. It wasn’t really a TED talk; it was a TEDx talk. Only it wasn’t really a TEDx talk; it was a TEDxSamfordU talk. But I gave a TED talk, so there.

I was contacted by the student organizers from #TEDxSamfordU a little over a month ago about returning to my alma mater and being a part of their event. I am a longtime TED fan and have been anxious to attend an event for several years. Ever since watching Sir Ken Robinson’s now famous talk entitled, “Do schools kill creativity?” back in 2006, I have been fascinated with the concept of TED. So, honored, humbled, and a little bit confused, I agreed to be a part of the event and began working on my talk.

I’ve probably watched 200 of the now thousands of 18-minute presentations over the years, and none of them have been as silly or simple or downright ridiculous as what I was asked to discuss. But who says no to being a TED speaker?

So I got to work piecing together a storyline I was comfortable with and began to fill my 18 minutes with insights on influence, advertising, storytelling, making genuine connections, and paper towels — because my invitation stemmed from the unexpected and accidental “social media sensation” (their words, not mine) that has occurred from me posting pictures of the Napkin Notes I put in my kids’ lunch boxes every day.

Anyway, when I arrived on campus the night of the event, I was notified that I would be speaking first. There would be six talks in all, and I was the opening act. As the room filled with students carrying backpacks and laptops — one guy, I swear, was wearing pajamas, but that is neither here nor there — my nervousness and anxiety turned to confidence. “That guy is wearing pajama pants,” I thought. “I’ve got this.”

Just before I was introduced, one of the event directors announced that we would be watching a video of a TED talk to start things off — in case there were some attendees who might not be familiar with the TED concept. The video they showed was from a gentleman named Tom Thom, a beatboxer from Brisbane, Australia. When I saw the beatboxer approach the stage, I became even more confident. He was a beatboxer; not an inventor or author or scientist discussing “what really happens to the human brain when we laugh.” This guy literally spits into a microphone — which is almost as silly as a guy who writes messages on napkins to his kids.

The next 11:39 were among the most fascinating I have ever seen. The things that man can do with his voice and his lips and his breath to create sounds is nothing short of miraculous. He could sound like an entire rhythm section, a horn section, and a stringed orchestra at the same time. I have no idea what the overarching message of his TED talk was, but it didn’t matter what he was trying to say, because he didn’t have to say anything.

“And now, let’s welcome to the TEDx stage, Billy Ivey.”

Crap. 

The first thing I said when I reached the microphone was, “This is completely unfair. Not only do I have to speak first, I have to follow the human sound machine. Please lower your expectations.”

The audience mercifully chuckled and then spent the next 19 minutes listening to me tell my story. About paper towels.

I spoke from the heart, said what was on my mind, and then gracefully left the stage to applause. Frankly, leaving the stage is the only thing I remember about my talk. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline that has masked my memory, or if I actually blacked out for a bit, but I honestly don’t remember what I said. 

But I can tell you this: The other speakers that night were fascinating.

There was a female sports broadcaster sharing about overcoming fears and the blessings that can come from “kicking fear in the face.” There was a Samford professor who told a story about literally fighting a bear. A high school student elegantly told her family’s heart-wrenching story about fleeing Colombia a decade ago. A Samford University Fellow shared about her vision for helping “the least of these” and told of her efforts to rally others to serve the people of Haiti. An accomplished author and public speaker challenged the group to become better leaders and to seize every opportunity in life to be a light to others.

And I, of course, talked about paper towels.