How to Land a TED Talk: Tips from a TEDx Organizer
Have you thought about giving a TED Talk? It’s the perfect place to use your Toastmasters skills. Imagine stepping out onto the stage and standing on the famous “TED dot” under the bright lights, about to share your idea. Now’s not the time to think, I wish I were better prepared.
It’s not just the people in the audience watching; it’s the world as well. The TED website (ted.com) is currently ranked in the top 500 most visited websites in the United States and in the top 800 in the world.
Thousands of people have been where you are now. And if they can give a rocking TED Talk, you certainly can. But why do it, and how do you get, prepare and deliver a TED Talk?
It was 31 years ago when architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman saw a growing convergence in technology, entertainment and design, and as a result hosted a conference featuring innovations in those fields. Hence the acronym: TED. Wurman essentially wanted to throw the world’s best dinner party and invite some of the most amazing thought leaders on the planet to fuel the conversation, to share “ideas worth spreading,” TED’s slogan.
Eventually, TED became an annual event, and the list of presenters broadened to include scientists, philosophers, musicians, business leaders and many others. Then in 2001, media entrepreneur Chris Anderson acquired TED through his nonprofit Sapling Foundation. In June 2006, the first six TED Talks were posted online—and shared globally. Within three months, views had topped more than one million. TED Talks became so popular that in 2007, TED’s website was relaunched around them. Today, TED covers almost all topics in more than 100 languages, and a huge collection of TED Talks is available for free viewing online.
With TED’s meteoric rise in popularity, demand for live, localized TED events increased too. In 2009, TEDx—a series of individually organized, live events in locations all over the world—was born.
Some have described TEDx as the minor leagues. And that’s not a bad analogy because—at least in baseball—the minor leagues is where the majors look to get their talent. For those who want to play in the big leagues, in this case TED, the best way (for most) is to start in the minors, or TEDx. There they can get noticed, and their odds of being invited to give a major TED Talk at a TED conference or TEDGlobal are greatly increased. In addition to TEDx, TED has an array of other events. For example, there is TEDMED, which hosts talks and speakers from the health and medical industry. And then there is TEDYouth, geared towards students. In TEDSalon events, which are held on a more regular basis, organizers choose and play TED Talks and have live, open discussions about them. And TEDActive is a less-formal conference that runs in conjunction with the flagship TED event.
Many famous people have given a TED Talk, including Bill Gates, Mike Rowe, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, Bono, Stephen Hawking, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and several Nobel Prize winners. Ironically though, none of these “heavyweight” TED Talks are in the Top 10 most viewed. Two of those Top 10s were TEDx Talks, given by people who weren’t famous at all—at least before their talks. Almost anyone can give a TED Talk at any level and it could go viral.
So, at whatever level you deliver your speech, it means you, too, can spread your idea.
How to Get Selected
Who is qualified to give a TED Talk? Anyone with a great idea. The reason so many people enjoy these talks is because of the ideas, not the celebrity of the speakers. Ideas are the stars.
So if you want to give a TED Talk, come up with a breakthrough idea—one that has the potential to change the world.
As an organizer and speaking coach for TEDxPortland, I get emails from people who want to speak but don’t understand the order of importance: It’s ideas first. Everything else comes after. If your idea is ordinary, unoriginal or half-baked, or you have no enthusiasm for it, you won’t be accepted. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s also important to know the key differences between a Toastmasters speech and a TED Talk. The first one is time limits.
As Toastmasters, we’re used to giving five- to seven-minute speeches. TED’s format is 18 minutes or less—you have more time to get your idea across in a powerful way but not time enough to bore your audience. (See the sidebar for a list of key differences between a Toastmasters speech and a TED Talk.)
Know What Your Local TED Wants
The TEDx section of the TED website warns that its events are not a platform for professional speakers. It’s for those who either do remarkable things or have big ideas that might not be recognized any other way. If you are chosen, you will most likely be assigned a speaking coach—one who will work with you to ensure that you adhere to the conversational, TED style of presenting—even if you’re a polished speaker. Most TED events have them, but some smaller TEDx events don’t.
Use this information to your advantage. When you submit your proposal, also indicate that you understand the TED platform and that you are willing to work with a coaching team and accept feedback. This will increase your chances of being chosen.
Choose the Right Event
Not all TED events are equal. Do your research. The best place to check for upcoming events and information is at ted.com/tedx/events. Find out how long the event you select has been running and how many attendees its license allows. Consider the event’s theme, venue, stage design, production quality and support team. Check out the event’s past speakers and the quality of its speaker videos. I know of speakers who gave a TEDx Talk only to be embarrassed by the video’s quality.
Even though TEDx events are supposed to adhere to the strict guidelines of TED, some fall short. Make sure you know what you’re signing up for. Also know that you won’t be paid for your talk. Depending on the size and budget of the event, you may not even be reimbursed for travel expenses. That’s why a lot of TEDx events choose local speakers, or at least those who will pay their own way. When you’ve been selected, you’ll sign a release form that allows TED to freely distribute your talk under the Creative Commons License. That means once you give your talk, it will be up on the TED website for a very long time, so prepare carefully.
Prepare Your Talk
When I coach speakers, I tell them to split their content into three parts of what I call the “One Storytelling Model.” One part is a universal theme, another is the emotional shift and the third is the intended outcome.
The idea you present should have universal appeal. When you deliver it, and support it with evidence, your idea should have an emotional impact on your audience. And finally, inspire your listeners to act on the idea—it should have an impact on their lives.
Before the event, give your talk a trial run at your Toastmasters club. Record it and transcribe it word for word, exactly as you said it. It may be painful, but it’s a revealing exercise. When I was transcribing my talk, I had the urge to transcribe the words I meant to say but didn’t. Reading what I actually said helped me modify my talk by choosing every word carefully.
This doesn’t mean you should memorize your entire speech, however. In fact, if that’s what you do, it will come across as flat and inauthentic. If you know the subject thoroughly, you can deliver it in a conversational manner. That will keep it fresh, and keep people’s eyes on you.
Finally, imagine the stage. Your staging area is limited. More than likely you’ll be standing on the TED dot, or on something similar, so adjust your gestures and movements to fit those limitations.
When Your Moment Approaches
One of the things I do with the speakers I coach is to have them stop physically rehearsing their speech a few days before their talk, and start preparing mentally. I once coached the 91-year-old WWII veteran Frank Moore. He had a hard time preparing for his talk and wanted to quit twice—the second time just a few days before the event. Once he got into the mindset of sharing his idea with the world, and how it was less about him and more about his message, he eased up and delivered a talk that got him a double-standing ovation. In fact, his was the third trending topic on Twitter that day.
Being prepared is about managing details. For instance, plan what you’re going to wear. The subject and nature of your talk should be supported by an appropriate outfit. TEDx organizers will have a dry run a day or two before the event. That is when you get to check the lights, the stage area and the monitors in front of you, to avoid surprises on the big day.Once you are prepared to walk out and stand on that dot onstage, get your mindset right. Focus on the audience and your idea—you’re the bridge between the two. If you believe in your idea, and deliver it with passion and clarity, it may just change the world. Tell yourself that as you’re introduced, and walk out on that stage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2015 issue of the Toastmaster magazine.