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You want to give a TED Talk? How to get started.

Updated: Oct 13, 2018

If there was one catalyzing event that propelled my personal growth last year, it was delivering a TEDx talk. I used TED talks all the time for my public speaking students; the idea of using what I teach to challenge myself speak at a TED event had burrowed its way into my head and wouldn’t let go. I felt like applying was a long shot, but I knew speaking would stretch me in two ways:

  1. In the professional sense of growing my speaking, writing, and networking abilities

  2. In the personal sense of putting myself on a stage among smart and powerful people and making myself believe that I am one of them

It was work, but finishing that TEDx talk was oh-so-satisfying. Both my professional and personal goals came true on a grander scale than I’d predicted. I received tremendous support when I shared the personal victory on Instagram with this post:

The feedback was a beautiful testimony of what I know to be true about how women show up to support their sisters’ careers, goals, dreams, and ambitions. The best part about sharing my own achievement was receiving your messages asking how you could give a TED talk, too. YES TO THAT! The questions inspired me to write this post with a few basic tips and starting points (based only on my own experience). I’m just scratching the surface to help you get started, but if you’d like more information on writing, delivering, and designing the speech, email me so I can give personalized coaching and feedback. Let’s start with the basics:

Step 1: Generate and package your topic idea

The TEDx application I filled out required that I pitch my talk title and short description. So before I could even apply, I had to make sure I had an idea for a talk and a catchy lens to view it through. Arguably, this was one of the hardest parts. I knew my topic would make or break my pitch, but I had no idea what was qualified to talk about.

When I assign a speech in my classes, most of my students’ questions are about choosing a topic. I can’t think of anything interesting, they commiserate. I advise them to start with what they think is interesting. Yes, your speech is for your audience, but if you choose something simply because you think it will be interesting to them, you won’t be able to sell it. Or, you’ll feel unqualified to talk about it. I arrived at the topic of side hustles because I have one, many of my friends have one, and I think their stories are interesting. When I crowd-sourced the idea, people responded with wanting to tell me about their own side hustle or becoming curious about what a side hustle was. It felt like the topic could generate energy with an audience.

I had a topic, but I still needed to package it. I had to narrow the concept of side hustles so that I could look at it deeply through one lens for 3-18 minutes (TED talk length). I chose the lens of Millennial women because DUH! It’s what I could relate to most. The title I pitched: Millennial Women are Dominating the #sidehustle. Here’s why it matters.

Step 2: Apply

The TEDx event I applied to was hosted by the university where I teach; finding it was easy. There are multiple TEDx events happening every single day across the world including in every US state. To find the next one year you and apply to speak at it, use this link:

My application asked the following questions (and I looked at them before applying):

  • Proposed Presentation Title

  • Brief description of potential talk topic (2-3 sentences)

  • 60-90 second video introduction

  • Brief description of background/experience/credentials (not a resume)

  • Is there any additional information you’d like us to know?

My answers were concise and personal because that’s what the application asked for. They wanted me to pitch my idea in less than a paragraph, and they wanted to know me, not my resume. This makes sense because if you’ve ever watched a TED talk (I’ve watched hundreds), concise and personal is exactly the genre. TED talks are short, interesting, applicable, and highly personal. They are heavy on story and light on bullet points. Applications should be the same. My video was exactly 90 seconds because I’m a teacher and I really appreciate people who can follow directions.

Step 3: Write and rehearse it

The TEDx director I worked with gave my the great advice: give yourself a content deadline. It’s a deadline to stop writing and designing and spend the rest of your time practicing. I loved and followed this advice, and now I give it to my students because after writing the speech, here’s what came next:

I rehearsed it out loud more than 60 times before delivering it on stage.

Most of the rehearsals were for my husband. Some were for Lucy in the car, until she shouting, “No no no no!” from her carseat. In my empty classroom after my students left, I’d set my slides up on the projector screen and film myself with my laptop over and over again until I became more comfortable saying the speech out loud and watching myself on film. It’s just what I have to do to be confident in a speech–the more I say it and know it, the more I can say it comfortably, confidently, and with a conversant, human tone. It sounds crazy, but it cut my anxiety ten-fold because I knew that speech enough that it became flexible. It was like an old childhood story I’d told 100 times to 100 people in 100 ways. I wouldn’t forget my lines or get stuck on a word because I became flexible at navigating how to get from one point to the next.

Here are some practice tips I used:

  • Practice from memory, not from the manuscript. It forces you to not read your speech, but think it through from the very first run. After making it to the end (and probably stumbling and forgetting a lot) look at the manuscript and read what you missed. Then put it away and do it again. It hurts, but you’ll learn it faster than you will if you passively read it in your head over and over again without struggling with it.

  • Practice in front of humans. Do not do this for the very first time when you’re standing in front of 500 of them. It won’t go well. If you don’t have humans, use your laptop and film yourself and look at what the other humans will see.

  • Ask the humans questions. What parts do you remember the most? What was your favorite part? What questions do you still have at the end? Most people don’t know how to give feedback or feel uncomfortable critiquing you. If you ask them the right questions though, you’ll really understand the parts of your speech that land best on an audience. 

  • Decide when you’re going to stop asking for feedback. The night before the speech, your friend’s constructive criticism will do more harm than good. You won’t have time to change or re-learn the speech, and if you’re like me you’ll stress far too much about it.

Step 4: TED-ify your speech:

Your audience shouldn’t just hear your speech, they should feel it and see it. TED talks include personal stories, dynamic characters, beautiful images or descriptions, and new ways to view ordinary concepts. They often spell out what the audience can take away or apply, which gives the audience something meaningful to remember. Here are a few of my favorite examples of great TED talks:

If you’ve stuck around for the end of this post and you’re still thinking

I don’t have anything to say…

There’s no reason for people to listen to me…

Why on earth would I put myself through that voluntarily?

Just stop yourself right there.

That is exactly how I felt before I applied for my talk. I had serious imposter syndrome the day of the speech. I’d convinced myself that I’d tricked the TED team into choosing my application and I was not supposed to be there. It felt like every single person who spoke before and after me had more experience, a better story, and a stronger presence.

It isn’t the first time I’d felt that way. I’ve also “tricked” two universities into letting me teach their classes. I’ve attended countless faculty meetings while thinking every single person here has more experience, a better story, and stronger presence. Familiar, huh? It’s funny how we keep convincing ourselves that we don’t belong somewhere even after we’ve been invited.

I got through the talk by focusing on two positive truths.

  1. I was prepared

  2. I was invited

That’s it. It got me through.

The day transformed me. It didn’t just convince the audience that I was supposed to be there, it convinced me. Talk about growth. I encourage everyone to put themself into a wildly uncomfortablesituation and then prepare to crush it in order to receive the ultimate growth satisfaction. It hurts so good.

Do I like watching my TED video? Zero percent. But am I proud of it? One hundred percent. Here is a link to the talk that I’ve never been brave enough to watch through beginning to end.


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