How to give a TED Talk

Here’s what you need to know if you get the rare opportunity to give a TED Talk

Photograph by WeWork

TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) is a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading ideas. It started more than 30 years ago as a conference focused on those three main industries—technology, entertainment, and design—but has since grown to cover a larger variety of topics in more than 100 languages. Independent TEDx events take place across the globe to help speakers share ideas in their own communities. Leaders of TED welcome people from any culture and discipline who are seeking to better understand the world. TED participants should believe in the power of ideas to change lives, attitudes, and the world.

Why are TED Talks important?

TED talks are different from the typical motivational speeches or presentations given at conferences and events. You might hear from a handful of professional entertainers or politicians, but the majority of people speaking aren’t professionals in this regard. They are professionals in their own worlds, with experiences that are interesting enough to share. Past speakers include writers, entrepreneurs, academics, and more.

If you’ve been chosen as a TED speaker at one of the events around the world, consider yourself lucky. You’ll have the opportunity to speak to a number of leaders across many industries, as well as extend your reach to anyone who views video footage of your talk. Most people chosen to speak at these events aren’t professional speakers. Instead, they are technologists, researchers, and others who focus their time on doing interesting work. Organizers of the events start looking for speakers months in advance.

How to submit yourself for a TED Talk

The organization recently opened a talent search initiative that allows people to submit videos and apply to become TED speakers. With this addition, more people working in various industries can take part in these forward-thinking motivational events.

If you’re chosen, you’ll have to submit a copy of the script or outline of your talk about two months before the conference. One of the conference programmers and team members will review your ideas, help you hone them down, and find ways to incorporate anecdotal stories or situations that will make the talk more appealing.

How to rehearse for your TED Talk

The next step is participating in a rehearsal via videoconference. The conference programming team will watch your talk and give you feedback on the clarity and structure of your ideas, along with pacing the speed at which you speak.

After your video chat rehearsal, it’s important to practice as much as you possibly can. Enlist the help of friends and family who will listen to your talk and give honest feedback for improvement. It’s best to speak to non-experts in the field, since those with a lot of experience won’t have the same feedback as someone hearing about your topic for the first time. Remember that the audience at the TED conference or event will include people from many industries, not just yours, so you need to create a talk that appeals to anyone listening.

Continue practicing in front of a mirror to watch for nervous habits or behaviors that you might have when speaking in public. Use a stopwatch to get your talk down to the specific time limit. For many people, public speaking is a major fear. Practicing your talk can help reduce your fear, since you’ll have a better idea of what you want to say.

What to expect before your TED Talk

When the conference date approaches, speakers will arrive a day or two early to do a dry run on the stage. Event managers will set up the countdown timers and seats so speakers can get a real feel for what it will be like to give the actual TED talk. The only difference will be the people sitting in the seats.

As you prepare your TED talk, keep a few things in mind. The audience tends to respond better to speakers who keep it real and use stories in their talks. Avoid copying the structure or style of past TED speakers, since that can make your talk feel more contrived. This is your talk, so you can do it your way. Tell stories in ways that fit naturally with the theme and content, as well as the overall outline. Think about things people will enjoy hearing instead of things you want to cover.

Ready to become a TED speaker?

TED talks came out of a need for better and more engaging presentations and speeches. If you’re giving a TED talk, you will have a dedicated speaker team to work with you well in advance of the event. The purpose of the speaking team is to help presenters give talks that will succeed on this stage. According to the TED organization, “TED is the place to give the talk of your life.”

If you’d like to apply to become a TED speaker, you can use the submission form on the TED website. Other people can nominate you as well, although representatives from the organization say that multiple nominations aren’t necessary to become a speaker. It’s interesting to note that sponsors of events and conferences are guaranteed speaking slots. This keeps the content fresh and engaging instead of allowing people to buy their way into the event.

How long your TED Talk should be

TED has a strict 18-minute time limit for all talks. Many speakers request extended time slots, but TED will never grant an extension. In fact, every speaker at a TED event will have a running clock visible from the stage. When your 18-minute window ends, your talk is over. It’s critical to compile the most compelling ideas into the length of time provided and practice as much as possible to avoid going over and having to cut your talk off.

The time limit also helps speakers trim the fluff, such as digressions, introductions, and waffling conclusions. When you speak to an audience of 60 people, even one minute of discussion around a topic that doesn’t support your main idea wastes an hour of their time. Sharpen your points and cut parts that don’t matter as much to the group.

What to expect during the event

TED events only include speakers; there are no breakout sessions, keynote speakers, or talk tracks. In some cases, there have been a few debates, but the layout tends to stick to a specific format.

If you’re selected as a TED speaker, the organization will cover your travel costs and accommodations. You will also receive a full conference pass to all five days of the event. You can take advantage of the pass by listening to other speakers, connecting with attendees, and networking. Conference speakers also receive access to pre-conference training and coaching, a one-year membership in the TED Book Club, a web archive of the conference, networking events, and a gift bag. TED also puts together a professional video series that includes top talks from the conferences. Your talk could be part of that series.

What makes a good TED Talk?

There is no formula for an engaging and appealing TED talk. You can start the preparation for your opportunity by watching videos of other speakers, but resist the temptation to copy what they have done in their talks. There are three common elements among top TED talks:

  1. An idea that other people want to hear about
  2. Stories, jokes, and other anecdotes that support that idea
  3. A connection between the speaker and members of the audience

All TED talks should explain concepts or arguments that start from what the audience might understand. There will certainly be audience members with varying levels of understanding about your topic, but go in with a simple concept that you can expand upon throughout your talk.

Avoid over-rehearsed talks that can feel scripted and dull. Think about some of the greatest speeches or talks you’ve ever heard, and incorporate concepts from those into your speaking style. The ability to read the room and improvise will go a long way when giving a TED talk. Remember that the talk isn’t about you or showing what you know. Instead, the purpose of giving a TED talk is to share what you’ve learned instead of how you or your company has succeeded.

It’s also important to remember that a TED talk is not the time to give a sales pitch. The organization exists to change the way people think about and view specific concepts and ideas. Trying to sell yourself or your product will come across as boastful instead of motivational or meaningful.

When you use the tools and set aside plenty of time to prepare, you can deliver a TED talk that will impact those who hear it. Thousands of people will apply and be nominated to give TED talks, but only a handful speak at each event or conference. If you’re in this group, make sure to realize what a great opportunity it is, and plan accordingly.

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