Recently, a Twitter follower asked me how I go about structuring a TEDx talk. Soon after, an Instagram follower asked as well. And then… a third person pinged me and asked the same thing. I took it as a sign, and decided to put together a step by step look of my speech preparation. I ended up with 30 steps, so prepare yourself!
I’ve read just about every article on how to give a good TED Talk, and I’ve watched every TED talk about giving a TED Talk. I’ve been involved with numerous TEDx productions, including TEDxUNLV, TEDxLA, and TEDxUCIrvine, and I’ve also helped coach a number of people who have given TEDx talks, including Brian MacMahon and Daniel Midson-Short.
Being on stage, as well as having experience backstage has given me a first-hand look into the process of creation, tweaking, fine-tuning, rehearsing, and everything else that goes into preparing for the big TEDx performance.
If you’ve always wanted to speak on the TEDx stage but don’t know how, I’ve outlined my tips and tricks in three Inc. articles that include insights and what to do before, during and after the application process.
If you have an idea worth spreading, and want to share it on the TEDx stage, it’s time that you start to work on your talk.
This is a long article packed with information. Think of it as more of a handbook, resource or ebook. You are likely to get excited, start reading, then get fatigued and need a break, or two, or three. I wrote this with the intent that it can act as a step by step guide during your speech preparation and practice. You will need to invest time into each step, so think of this as a map or reference guide.
Here is an inside look at the processes I go through when developing speeches specifically for the TEDx stage. Feel free to copy or modify to fit your style and strengths.
1. Figure out what you’re really good at.
The TEDx stage is a place for you to showcase your unique expertise based on your real-world experience. Brainstorm things that you are good at, what excites you, and what you do everyday. When reflecting on your skills and strengths, search for the unique perspectives that you have formulated in your years of life experience.
2. Write it out.
After step one, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the options — make sure you write them all down! For every talk I’m interested in, I write or type out an exhaustive list of different topics I excel in that I could also speak about.
For example, I love speaking about strategic communication. My first TEDx talk, How to Not Get Chased By A Bear, dug into our own internal communication about stress. My second TEDx project was called The City of Speakers, and focused on how a community communicates. My TEDx talk at UCIrvine was about social media communication…you get the gist.
The topic of communication has a number of subsets, and I search within this topic to brainstorm talk ideas. Start with a broad topic, then get specific, then get even more specific. TED talks are not about generalities — they are about sharing a unique perspective or idea that will help people learn about something new, or look at something old with a new set of eyes. Avoid those general topics, and dig into the details to find the best talk topics!
3. Respect the theme.
A majority of TEDx events revolve around an individual theme — “extreme,” “innovation,” “friendship,” “happiness,” or a number of other topics that the organizers use as the thread to weave the various talks together. If you are developing a talk-concept or proposal for a particular event, look for a theme, then make sure that you talk’s focus is tied in with this theme. Organizers definitely look for topics that tie in to their chosen theme.
4. Watch TED and TEDx talks on your topic.
Don’t create a speech in a vacuum. There are thousands of talks already given and it likely that your topic has been covered in one way, shape, or form. Search the TED and TEDx YouTube pages using various keywords to describe your topic and take the time to watch them. Notice how many views the videos have. If there’s a talk similar to yours and it has a million views, this is great news. Pay attention to the talk’s elements that made it great and memorable. On the contrary, if you see a talk that has very low views and is on your topic, watch it and analyze what they could have done better or what went wrong.
5. Narrow it down to three and create titles.
Once I’ve narrowed down my topics to the top three (based on my experiences and its relevance to a particular theme), I create a title for each speech topic. I then reach out to five friends, colleagues, or other speakers whom I respect, and pitch them each of my three topics. During these conversations, I’ve had a number of people pose questions which I found quite valuable. Including others in the early stages of selecting your talk can help you uncover answers to questions like:
- Am I really good at what I’m talking about?
- Do I have real-world experience with the topic that I’m speaking about?
- Does the topic have a single message to deliver to the audience?
- Will this topic speak to a large audience?
- Will this topic resonate with a very small group?
6. Have A Clear Takeaway.
The audience needs to get a specific takeaway from your talk. You can think of this takeaway the same way you think of the points of a road trip you might take. In other words, take the audience on a journey and know where they are in terms of attitudes and beliefs when they enter the auditorium, and where you want them to land when the speech ends.
I am often surprised by how few speakers consider the reason they are stepping in front of an audience when creating their speech. As you write and develop your concept, ask yourself: “What is the destination?” Then organize the speech so that the audience will arrive there.
7. Make a decision and build an outline.
Decide on your individual topic, then build the outline. An outline is exactly what it sounds like — a bullet point list with sub-bullets on topics that establish the skeleton frame of your talk. Things you should focus on in this outline:
- Make sure that there is a clear beginning, middle, and end of your talk
- Include no more than three key points
- Use storytelling to connect the dots of your talk, leading the audience on a journey
- Your outline should eventually be chopped down to be able to fit on a Post-it Note (See step 17).
8. Do your research.
Even if you’re a pro at your topic, it’s always a good idea to stay fresh. In the process of developing my TED Talks, I often immerse myself in literature, videos, articles, and relevant information regarding my topic. It’s amazing how doing this can provide you with small fine-tuning ideas, statistics, and information to include in your talk.
Remember that people want to learn, and the more you learn, the more you can teach people through your speech. I encourage people, no matter what type of speech they’re giving, to research their topic in creative ways to give them as much ammunition as possible to deliver the most powerful message possible.
9. Keep it to 3.
There’s a lot to be said about the number three. Do not flood your audience with too many topics during your talk — instead, focus on developing no more than three main subtopics that all reinforce the one main thing you are trying to establish. You want the audience to not be overwhelmed, but understand the main takeaway.
It is better to dive deeply into one topic, than to try and cram as much information as possible about a large topic in a short amount of time. Remember that your audience has not only a short attention span, but… wait what was I talking about?
There’s a reason for having three bears, three wise men, and three blind mice – not two or four. The number 3 creates a nice structure and I always keep this in mind as I’m building out the initial outline of my talk.
10. Use the Active Voice
When crafting my speeches, I take note to choose verbs that convey action. In the active voice, the subject comes before the verb: “The bear ate the fish.” In this sentence, the bear is performing the action. In the passive voice, the subject comes after the verb, creating a longer, less concise sentence. “The fish was eaten by the bear.” The active voice uses fewer words and is easier to follow. If your talk is easier to follow, it will be easier to bring your audience with you along the journey you are sharing.
11. Build a body language list.
Body language is one of the most powerful tools you can use on stage. I believe it’s underutilized when it comes to TEDx talks. Before I get too deep into developing my actual talk, I make a comprehensive list of possible body movements that can be used on stage to reinforce elements of the outline that I have created.
Using body language in your talk helps your audience understand what you are trying to say. During what point could you make a physical gesture with your body to reinforce a part of your talk? In my TEDxUNLV talk, I was telling a story about a bear, so I made myself look like a bear.
If you evaluate and brainstorm body language possibilities before you dive too deep and your speech it gives you a great foundation to refer to when actually building out the core elements into their longer lengths.
12. Block it out:
The word “blocking” is an old theater term describing when directors would use small wooden blocks to determine where they wanted their actors to be on stage and at what time. The term has remained, and the concept is still as important today as it was thousands of years ago. I love to have an idea of where I will be on the stage during different parts of my speech. Using the physical space of the stage can help me to reinforce the impact of what I’m saying.
For example, standing in the middle of the stage (or the iconic red circular TED carpet) creates a feeling of neutrality and is a good place to talk about general concepts in your speech. Shifting to the right or the left of the stage can help you isolate individual points you are making. Moving towards the front of the stage and closer to the audience can reinforce powerful sections of your speech or emphasize more personal messages. With these tips in mind, start “blocking” out your moves based on your speech elements as soon as you can.
If you look at powerful speakers, they are very calculated with where they are on stage, but it does not look forced — they’ve planned these steps, and have learned to utilize them to support their speech.
13. Talk it out.
Personally, I’m a big fan of talking before writing my talks. In fact, I am transcribing the initial draft of this article on my Samsung into Google Docs. This first draft allows me to free flow with my words based on the outline that I’ve established. You would be amazed at how much information you are able to share without putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Find a quiet and comfortable environment, have your outline and your notes ready, then talk through your notes by improving and building upon the elements that you’ve outlined. Here are the various ways which I record and transcribe initial drafts of my talks:
- Using my phone’s voice recognition function and speaking into an email or memo app
- On a desktop, I open up Google Docs, then go to Tools and select the voice recognition “Voice Typing” function. Then, I turn on the microphone and watch Google transcribe my words as I talk them out loud.
- Using an audio recording device or cellphone, I hit record and capture my verbal talk through. Then I send it to a transcription service (like rev.com) for a cost of $1 a minute
- I record myself on my phone, then play it back at slow speeds, transcribing it myself
14. Whiteboard it out.
At a certain point during the development of your talk, you’re going to have lots of ideas and you’ll be eliminating the unnecessary sections, while stringing everything else together. For this part of the process, I love using whiteboards. The longer the Whiteboard, the better — in fact if you can use a wall that is painted in “whiteboard paint,” even better. The below picture is my TEDxUCIrvine talk drawn out on a massive white board wall.
Take your core elements of your talk and write them horizontally across the whiteboard. Then use a scale of a graph with the x-axis being the time of your speech, and the y-axis being the energy and intensity of the talk. Graphing the energy vs. time of your speech is a great way to visualize how your talk will flow.
15. Don’t memorize.
Don’t memorize. Instead, prepare and improvise. A big mistake a lot of people make is trying to memorize their speech word-for-word. As you develop your talk things will change but you should lock up the core structure at this point. Again, I do not suggest memorizing your talk. When you memorize things, people can tell that they are memorized — your talk comes across rehearsed and stiff.
You also increase the chances of messing yourself up on stage. If you memorize your talk, then accidentally miss one sentence or one word during your performance, you might not remember the next line, leaving you staring blankly at the audience. Once you have your core concept and outline locked in, you want to be able to give the talk so that it is slightly different each time. This allows you the ability to use improvisation based on audience engagement.
16. The Post-it note test.
Once your speech is locked in, try my Post-it note test. Take a regular size Post-It note and quickly outline the main sections of your talk. It should all fit on one Post-It note — if it doesn’t, see if you can combine subsections to make it more simple. Remember the rule of three and focus on the main points you will be transitioning through to produce a fluid and natural speech that entertains and informs. Make sure to carry the Post-it note in my pocket for quick reference as you prepare for a full run through of the talk.
17. Record yourself.
Getting feedback from other people is great, but seeing yourself give your talk before you give it is crucial. Using a simple camcorder (or your phone), make sure you physically watch yourself give your talk on video. You might notice little tendencies or nervous movements you’re making. You might realize that certain hand gestures aren’t working like you thought. Or worse yet, you may be doing the same hand gesture repeatedly.
I always record myself when I give practice talks and usually find small things I might not have noticed unless I was seeing it myself. Watching yourself give a speech on video is a frightening thing, but be encouraged because by watching yourself and tweaking your speech accordingly, your talk will keep improving. It’s also fun to look back at old versions and see how far the final product has come since then.
18. How to say it: Show, don’t tell.
Professional speakers exploit the power of stories to hold the audience’s attention by appealing to their emotions. The compelling part of any story is how people deal with conflict. Start your speech with a conflict, then intensify the human interest element by adding descriptions of time, place and emotions. Specificity is key! “I woke up and went to work,” is not as effective as, “One cold Wednesday morning in December, I shivered as I stepped into the shower to get ready for my last day in the office.”
Research has shown that, in longer presentations, audiences need to be re-engaged every 10 minutes with a story. People learn through metaphors and stories that are deep and rich with meaning. Stories can help be creative tools to highlight a speech’s main message — speaking through product demos, personal anecdotes and customer testimonials is much more captivating than stating facts. You have the advantage of what you already know, so leverage stories to make your message more memorable.
19. Listen to the voice in your head.
A trick I utilize is listening to the voice in my own head. I find a place that is quiet, with no distractions, then get comfortable and read the speech to myself in my head. When I read it, I am focused on listening to my own voice in my head. I notice the rhythms and tones that come naturally when I deliver the material in my head. I note how it sounds, and what words I naturally put emphasis on. This is how I want it to sound when I give my talk out loud.
20. Let someone else read it out loud.
Sometimes you are simply too close to a speech that you are creating and need to hear it read out loud by someone else. When you listen to someone else go through your material, pay attention to the way they inherently deliver certain words and phrases, using certain tones. It’s a good idea to ask them to read it to themselves one time, so that they are somewhat familiar with the content. Then ask them to read it out loud — you’ll be surprised how much you pick up from hearing your words spoken by someone else.
21. Practicing in your car.
One rehearsal strategy that has worked wonders for me is recording my speech on my phone and playing it back while I’m stuck in traffic. I find this a great use of time and enjoy how much it helps me to learn the information in the speech by hearing it in my own voice over my car speakers, instead of listening to the radio.
I like to listen to the speech recording a couple times, then give the talk out loud while I’m driving by myself. I do caution you to make sure your attention is still focused on the road at all times. Do not look at notes or your phone when you try this method. Just relax and listen to yourself speaking as though it was a song on the radio.
22. Practicing as a conversation.
At a certain point you will be ready to give your talk as a run-through. The challenge here is finding the appropriate space to give a full-fledged rehearsal to individuals for feedback. Once I’m confident with my main structure elements and transitions, I will practice giving the talk in a conversation. This is a trick that I stumbled upon by trying to get feedback from people, but not being able to find a private space where I could give a formal presentation.
Over coffee at Starbucks, or walking with someone can be the perfect grounds for practicing your talk as a story. The idea is to practice your speech as an informal talk with somebody, in a normal voice. Tell it like you are telling a story. At first they may think you’re describing your talk but they will soon realize that you’re actually giving your talk. If talking through your speech resonates with the person you are talking to, it is a likely that the same speech will be brilliant on stage. Some of the best feedback I receive is based on this concept of talking out the speech to a friend.
23. Give your speech to an audience.
It is extremely beneficial to the development of your TEDx talk to get feedback from a large group of people. I typically have my first run through at my Toastmasters group. Getting initial feedback from a group of peers is another great way to find the nuggets of your speech that are working and it will help you to eliminate the unnecessary. It’s important that you’re open to feedback during this process and that you’re flexible with your speech as you build it out. Keep making revisions based off of all the feedback you receive, then perform your talk again to make sure the feedback you incorporated helps improve the speech.
24. Forgive your slip-ups:
Everyone has lapses onstage, fumbles words, loses their place in their speech, or makes mistakes. Understand that this will happen to you while you practice and rehearse, and when it does, learn from what happened and get back up on stage as soon as you can. When it comes to improving your public speaking skills, look forward, not back.
Don’t allow yourself to use slip-ups as excuses to give up, especially during the early stages of your speech development. Keep practicing no matter how you feel about the previous time, because each time you get up on stage you will get better.
25. Don’t forget that things change.
Sometimes when you’re writing your talk, you include jokes or humor that you think will get a laugh. But when you get on the stage in front of hundreds of people, what is funny to the audience might change. In a recent TEDx talk for UC Irvine, I had planned on a few jokes but had no idea that the audience would laugh hardest at the first line of my talk. If I wasn’t prepared for this, it might have thrown me off, but I’ve learned to always be ready for the audience’s reaction to be different than my expectations — just in case.
This allows you to speak and be in the moment on stage. You can use audience interactions to your advantage by reacting to them as they happen. You don’t want your talk to come across as one-sided to the audience. If you find that an audience is more reactive than you expected, make sure to slow down and allow time and pauses for the audience to react.
26. Market and promote your talk.
Remember to build excitement up for the talk! Sometimes we get so caught up in rehearsing that we forget to promote ourselves. From an event perspective, don’t always rely on your TEDx event organizers to do all the marketing and publicity for you. The more you supplement their efforts and reach out to your own contacts to promote the show, the more everyone will benefit from the entire experience. I typically come up with a marketing plan well before my talk. I include tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram posts and pre-written mentions in social media, then compile everything into a Google Doc, which I then share with my friends and family.
This way, they can easily share information about the event. I never want to come across as too self-centered, so I always make sure to promote the other speakers and the entire event, just as much as I promote myself. This type of “Pay-It-Forward” marketing will not go unnoticed, and helps to build a relationship with others speaking at the same event.
27. Know your colors.
Whether in front of a crowd of hundreds of people, or speaking to just a few people, don’t underestimate the importance of what your colors are saying about you.
There are seven personal brand styles, and it is important that you understand the look or combination of looks that you want to portray in the world, especially when speaking. The looks are as follows: Sporty, Traditional, Elegant, Romantic, Sexy, Creative and Dramatic. Find out which ones you like, then shop and dress accordingly.
The color process is based on skin tone, natural hair color and eye color. The key to the colors is to make you physically look your best and:
- Bring people into your communication zone – your face
- Ensure the color does not distract from “YOU” or take over – which drains your color
- Ensure that you do not become “invisible”
Whatever you do, respect the color palette. Understand that not all colors are equal. Some colors compliment you, and others do not. The sooner you know which colors are which, the better you can build your wardrobe.
If you have no idea what your colors are, give yourself the gift of a color consultation to discover your look and your colors. There are many resources online as well as professionals who can help you through the process. If you want to check out my color consultant, her name is Kay Hunter. Tell her I said hi!
28. Figure out what you’re going to wear.
Now that you know your colors, do you know what you will be wearing for your talk? You should. This step is oftentimes overlooked by novice speakers. I believe it is very important to know exactly what you’re going to wear — from your shoes, to your socks, to your shirt, you should decide this well before it’s time to take the stage. The last thing you want to do is search for an outfit the night before your talk, only to find that the shirt you thought you wanted to wear is at the dry cleaners. Plan your outfit and give yourself one less thing to worry about before the big show.
29. Prepare for Pictures.
Sometimes TEDx organizers have professional photographers, sometimes they don’t. This is why it’s important to empower your guests with permission to take photos of you on stage. TEDx is a great piece of credibility for your speaker portfolio, and the more pictures you can have from an event, the better chances are you’ll get one or two that you really like.
If you’ve ever had people take pictures of you on stage during a talk, you will notice that it is very difficult to get a good picture where your mouth is not at a funny angle. Many speaking photos make me look like I have a monkey mouth or catch me at an awkward position.
I will oftentimes give my phone to a friend who has come to see my talk and ask them to take as many pictures and short videos as they see fit. This gets me great content to share on social media after my talk. Post TEDx events, there’s at least a month or two of radio silence until your video goes live. Having ammunition of pictures and videos from the event will keep your talk fresh in the minds of your followers and build anticipation for your video when it is finally released.
30. Don’t stop your momentum.
During the process of writing a talk, practicing your talk, and giving the talk, your brain is on hyperactivity — use this to your advantage. When I am developing a talk I’m proud of, I will piggyback off of this creative momentum to sketch out new ideas and new concepts for future talks. I encourage people for just about any speech, especially one that’s on a TEDx stage, to think about how to re-purpose the speech content into an article or blog. Maybe it will inspire a series of videos as follow-up. Maybe take elements and build them into social media posts.
When you put in the time and effort into a developing and practicing your TEDx talk, it will be something that you are incredibly proud of. The applause will fade away, and you’ll still feel amazing. But don’t get too relaxed! Once you talk is complete, it is time to start thinking about your next one. Start again at step one and go through the whole process over again.
Taking the TEDx stage has been amazing for my personal brand. If you have ever thought about wanting to give a TEDx talk, you should go for it. You now have everything you need craft one that is nothing less than epic.
All you have to do is follow the steps above and put in the work. Remember, the best way to become a better speaker is to speak more.
So keep on speaking!
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