I wanted to pass on a few tips that I was given when I was preparing for my recent TED talk, after being honored with the TED Prize back in October 2012. It was 51% the most exhilarating professional experience of my life, 49% the scariest professional experience of my life.
Also, before you think my title is too ambitious, you should note that TED and the TEDx community is constantly adding new videos hourly. I’m not kidding! And since many of the reader of our blog are incredibly inspiring in their own right, it’s only a matter of time until someone will ask you to speak at TED/x.
Step 1: Watch the best TED talks on TED.com
This might be the single best thing to do before you start any preparation. These videos will give you a sense for the tone, style and format for the most successful and memorable talks by TED speakers. My favorite and their number one viewed video (at 16M views!) is the talk by Sir Ken Robinson. He exemplifies all the tenets I learnt from watching the top 20 talks:
- A great TED talk is a distillation of what you’ve learnt to date from all your previous life experiences, presented through the lens of your work
- A great TED talk isn’t simply a presentation of your business, your latest project or the people you represent. For the love of god, please DO NOT SELL!
- A great TED talk is based on a unique, personal insight or discovery about the world that you’ve come to understand, that can be made into generalizable knowledge
- A great TED talk isn’t just a platform to spout your own opinion
- A great TED talk is humble, even vulnerable at times
- A great TED talk isn’t boastful
- A great TED talk is storytelling at it’s best—unexpected, concrete, relatable
- A great TED talk isn’t just a presentation—it’s part conversation, part performance
Step 2: Watch the TED talk parodies
It’s a great service that the Onion has done to hopefully save future TED speakers, but I gotta say, I had no idea how helpful this step would prove to be. From the takeaways I mentioned above, one can really start to ratchet up the pressure to make your talk awesome. But on the road towards awesome, there’s a serious risk of taking yourself and your talk way too seriously with lots of faux-profundity, riddle with cringeworthy pauses and clumsy rhetoric.
Watch these parodies and then review with great self awareness. How self-important are you coming across? Make sure you have peers that are willing to call you out on your hubris—this might well prove to the hardest part as it’s hard to find people that will give you honest, objective feedback, especially if you’re kind-of-a-big-deal these days, as many TED speakers are. Seek these people out.
Step 3: Practice
The last time I felt as nervous before an event, was over 20 years ago when I was sitting my GCSE exams in high school (equivalent to the SATs). Memorizing my talk felt like I was cramming in a years worth of physics lessons in a day. It can appear that the best speakers are merely speaking off the top of their heads. They speak with such conviction and confidence that it’s hard to imagine that it was anything but said in the moment. But just like any good stand-up comic knows, making it look like you’re telling you a joke for the first time takes practicing it hundreds of times in advance. It appears seamless. And the only way I know to fake this level of seamlessness, was to practice saying the whole 18 minute talk, again and again and again. I must have practices it 50 times over, right up to the very last minute, standing on the wings of the stage before going on stage. There’s definitely moments in the beginning of my talk where my mind is remembering the next sentence just milliseconds before I say it—18 minutes is a surprisingly long time to speak when it’s from memory!
For all my sage advice, the proof is in pudding, so let me present my TED talk at the TEDxDePaulU event held at the beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art in April. Please let me know your thoughts on the tips above as well as how I well I did with my talk. I would appreciate the feedback!