Kids say the smartest things: Youngest TEDx speaker Maddie Waters talks the talk

Fourteen-year-old Maddie Waters delivered a speech at the Paramount's open mic night in September—one that got the attention of this fall's TEDx steering committee. Photo: Martyn Kyle Fourteen-year-old Maddie Waters delivered a speech at the Paramount’s open mic night in September—one that got the attention of this fall’s TEDx steering committee. Photo: Martyn Kyle

Maddie Waters has something to say. But rather than hold forth in a classroom or the school cafeteria, the Western Albemarle High School freshman is taking her message to a bigger stage and a larger audience as a TEDx speaker at the Paramount Theater on Friday, November 13.

The 14-year-old, who will be among heady company that includes author John Grisham, organic farmer Joel Salatin and astronomer Anne Verbiscer, says she is nervous—“There’s the distinct possibility that I’ll pass out,” she says—but stage fright is a small price to pay for sharing her message about the importance of not judging a book by its cover. Or as Waters puts it, “how people perceive themselves within society’s parameters and how people feel they are allowed to see other people based on appearance and the assumptions they make.”

She gave a version of this talk in September at The Jefferson Theater’s open mic night, and, while she wasn’t voted the audience favorite that evening, Waters did impress the TEDx steering committee enough to earn an invite to speak at this year’s Paramount event, which will ask attendees to consider “What If…,” in hopes of getting them to think about how different the world would be if we suspended judgment.

“So many people see so many situations as things that don’t apply to them, or that they shouldn’t be responsible for, when really they are,” Waters says. “Since I can’t [tell this] to the entire world, at least I can say it to the Charlottesville audience, and TEDx gives me that opportunity.”

When not fine-tuning her speech, Waters spends time reading, writing, painting and listening to music. She’s also in Western’s robotics, fine arts and creative writing clubs, as well as a member of the school’s Environmental Sciences Academy, and she likes “to spend as much time as I can with friends, but I’m bogged down a lot with homework, and a lot of the time I’m too tired or too busy to go out.”

Ask Waters what she learned from preparing her talk, and she mentions stage presence and brings up a recent storytelling conference that was taught by children’s author Carmen Deedy, who’s also speaking at TEDx Charlottesville. “Carmen did a section in the beginning about the best possible way to stand and how to conduct yourself to feel more confident, or to accept your audience, which helped me a lot,” Waters says, adding that she also figured out how to compress a large topic into a short amount of time and “really get my point across to the audience.”

Mostly, though, she says it’s “an incredible experience for me—but passing out is still a possible issue.”

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