Recently, I made my debut in the magical playground of TEDx talks. The 16 minutes I spent on stage were the culmination of more than six months of preparation and many lessons learned in the process.
My talk at TEDx WestoverHills, Slay the dragons of bad communication, was keyed to the event theme of “Better Together.” I was honored to share the stage with five other thought leaders at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center in Texas.
The preparation process was arduous. And, though I’ve done live network television and am an experienced public speaker, my moment on the round red carpet made the butterflies in my stomach go wild.
Here are some highlights of what I learned organized in line with the seven-step principles for TED talks as outlined in the TEDx Speaker Guide. For each step I provide my own observations and takeaways.
Step 1. Get familiar with the form.
You can’t watch too many TED talks, and you can’t assume they’re all the same. The 18-minutes average length is optimal to keep an audience’s attention. Aside from that, the talks are as varied as the presenters. Already an avid viewer, I tripled my consumption of talks looking for tips on structure, delivery, and audience engagement.
Lesson learned: Watching TED talks should be a regular practice for anyone who wants to improve their presentation literacy and ability to convey meaningful ideas clearly and concisely.
Step 2. Develop an idea.
The idea doesn’t have to be new; it must be compelling in a way that leaves the audience better for having listened to you. It should draw from your expertise and passions and include accurate supporting information. My idea was that the figurative “dragons” are metaphors for the real and imagined factors that hold us back from the clear, authentic, and heartfelt communication that builds whole and vibrant communities. These include fear, poor speech habits and the false belief that we have nothing of value to say.
The “secret weapon” against the dragons is my BLISS formula: five actions that will help unleash the powerful communicator that resides in everyone. These are breathing, love, imagination, service and smiling.
Lesson learned: The big idea is the core message, the one thing that you want the audience to remember.
Step 3. Write an outline and script.
The goal is to explain the big idea clearly and with conviction and get to the point early. For my talk, I worked on a strong opening, supporting facts, illustrative stories, and a call to action. The outline grew into a script that evolved through dozens of iterations with the help of friends and mentors in the professional public speaking community. Reading and practicing the script out loud revealed where cuts were necessary. The editing continued practically until the day before the event.
Lesson learned: Less is more. A good TEDx talk can be shorter than 18 minutes and still very effective.
Step 4. Create slides.
Though they are not necessary nor required, slides can serve as signposts to guide the flow for the speaker and audience. Well-designed slides can make abstract ideas visual. The most important rule is to keep them simple and uncluttered. My talk had 30 slides with concept images and minimalist typography on only two of them. Thanks to my Canva subscription, the images were all high resolution and looked sharp on the giant screen.
Lesson learned: Insert black slides at intervals where you want the audience’s full attention on you, not shared with the image on the screen.
Step 5. Rehearse
Rehearse until you sound like you’re having a conversation, not giving a speech. TED recommends that you rehearse until you’re completely comfortable in front of large and small groups of people, peers, friends, and strangers. I found recording myself on video and audio helpful, too. I practiced the sequence of ideas using the chunking and breadcrumbs technique versus the exact words on the page, which can be a telltale sign of memorization.
With each recorded practice session, I refined my timing, intonation, and body movements. Though TEDx speakers are asked to stand in the center of a round red carpet about six feet in diameter, there’s room to gesture and shift body weight slightly to emphasize a point.
Lesson learned: Rehearse with a slide clicker to advance your slides and ensure smooth transitions.
Step 6. Give your talk.
This is the moment to trust that all the time and preparation you have invested will result in an exceptional talk. Enjoy every second in the spotlight. Even if the lights prevent you from making eye contact with but a few in the audience, know that they’re on your side rooting for your success.
Lesson learned: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Nervous anticipation begets dry mouth which can be picked up by the microphone.
Step 7. Savor the glory.
The applause of the audience is just part of the success of your talk. The conversations that follow during intermission and after the show are the icing on the cake. Praise and comments from audience members affirmed that my big idea had resonated.
Lesson learned: Once it’s over don’t ruminate on what you could have done better. Look forward to doing it even better the next time.
The success principles for TED talks can be applied to practically any opportunity that requires creating and delivering memorable messages that move people in some way. Doing a TEDx talk has enhanced my ability to coach my public speaking clients towards more impactful and confident communication that connects with the intended audience.
At the end of the day, a TEDx, a keynote, presentation, pitch, media interview or any other public speaking represents a journey that speaker and audience take together. And what makes that possible is the power of your ideas and the skill and confidence to share them with the world.