I recently gave my first TEDx talk. This is a breakdown of how I did it.
I’ll explain how TEDx works, how to make an informed decision on whether to do it, and the whole process right up to delivering the talk. This is about the specifics of TEDx, so I won’t go into much detail on the general principles of good public speaking, which you can learn elsewhere.
TED vs. TEDx
TED started out as a high end, closed-door conference featuring talks from world experts. Eventually, the organisers decided to publish the talks online, and it became a global brand. The brand extended further with the creation of TEDx.
TEDx events are local and independently organised, but with strict rules to preserve the TED brand and audience experience. There are various types of TEDx events, with different emphases.
Although the bar to speak at TED itself is much higher, TEDx is still part of the TED brand and enjoys a high profile as a result.
Do You Have an Idea Worth Sharing?
TED/TEDx is all about “ideas worth sharing”, which means ideas that are in the audience’s interest and which they will remember and talk about.
As is made clear in their Speaker Guide, an idea worth sharing is not a story or a list of facts. It’s like a cut diamond: crystal clear, refined, and memorable.
The process begins with defining your idea and figuring out whether it’s worth sharing. If it’s a collection of travel anecdotes or a rambling monologue about your startup, that’s not good enough.
A good idea might prompt your audience to look at something differently or take a step towards personal growth or improved performance. Just bear in mind that some topics are off-limits (more about that below).
Here are some examples of great talks, starting with a very simple one: your idea does not need to be earth-shatteringly profound — it just needs to be clear and worth sharing.
Joe Smith: How to use a paper towel.
Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action.
Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability
TED is a big global brand and, again — if you have an idea worth sharing — doing a TEDx talk can be a real boost to your speaking credentials. However, there are some things to bear in mind. First of all, you need to decide if it’s right for you.
Why You Should Do a TEDx Talk
The TED format is optimized for the audience, but also for speakers. Here are some great reasons to choose TEDx as the venue for your talk.
- TEDx is for your audience, first and foremost. If you serve your audience well, it will serve you well, too. If you usually speak for business purposes, the increased audience focus of TEDx will help you to empathise with all of your audiences in the future: at the end of the day, people pay attention because they think it’s in their interest, no matter where or who they are.
- The format, while quite strict, means you have to keep tightly focused on delivering your one strong idea. This is useful in lots of areas of life and communication in general.
- As long as you stick to the rules, you have plenty of room for creativity.
- It requires a lot of planning and practice to do it to the expected standard. If you can pull that off it, is very rewarding for all concerned.
- You can’t use prompt cards or notes. That means, one way or the other, you have to memorise your talk, which is a useful skill to develop. I used the “Memory Palace” technique — more on this later.
- It’s hard to get in. I applied once before, got to the shortlist, but didn’t quite make the final selection. I tried again and learned a lot in the process.
- You will meet some fascinating people!
Why You Shouldn’t Do a TEDx Talk
Doing a TEDx talk requires more commitment than many other public speaking opportunities. It is not for everyone.
Even as an experienced speaker, doing a TEDx properly is no joke. It requires a lot of research, writing and re-writing of scripts, preparation of slides and other materials (if you use them — more on this later), and rehearsals. The lead time from acceptance to delivering the talk can be over two months and some organisers require that you take coaching and perform a dress rehearsal at the venue.
Audiences have learned to expect a certain “wow’’ factor at these events, so you need to put in the hours to prepare and deliver it. I would say that even an experienced professional is looking at at least 40–80 hours of preparation, and it may require quite a lot of adjustment from your norm: for rookies, it’s a much bigger commitment to hit the required standard.
If you’re not up for that kind of commitment, doing the talk will backfire, so don’t do it. Wait until you are ready to do it properly.
The difference between speakers who’ve prepared rigorously and those who haven’t is blindingly and embarrassingly obvious. Don’t fall into the second category.
Remember that the video of your efforts will be up on YouTube for the whole world to see, amplified by the TEDx brand. That is a double-edged sword!
There is a risk of coming across as “smug” under the spotlight. The best way to avoid this is to keep the talk absolutely laser-focused on the benefits to your audience, not on yourself. Obviously, you need to draw upon your own experience, but connect the dots with something bigger, even if your own story is really remarkable.
Ask yourself why anyone in a general audience should give a f*** about what you are saying, and if you can’t come up with a believable answer, go back to the drawing board! If you have lived a life of service or have a personal story that is exceptionally powerful, that might make the cut. War photographer James Nachtwey’s powerful TED talk is essentially about his life, but his life has been dedicated to telling other people’s stories, and TED gave him a prize for doing so! Don’t let your story get in the way of the bigger point you’re making.
James Nachtwey: My photographs bear witness
Your topic might be better suited to a conference. If it is a very niche interest, requires a lot of background knowledge, is politically sensitive or very high brow, find an alternative platform that’s more suited to that kind of content.
Finally, you just might not like the style or format of TEDx: many people don’t, and that’s fine.
Still interested? Then it’s time for some rules.
The First Rule of TEDx
The first rule of TEDx is: don’t talk about yourself too much.
This is my own formulation of the first TEDx content guideline, which prohibits pitching, selling, and personal branding.
If you want to use TEDx as a platform to pitch yourself or your business — don’t. There are plenty of other forums for that. Obviously you need to be an expert on your topic and draw on your own expertise and experience, but if you stroke your own ego or push your own agenda too much, it will backfire.
TEDx is not a soapbox
TEDx is not a soapbox. Political platforming, religious or spiritual proselytizing, and talks about drug-induced epiphanies (or combinations of these themes!) are not allowed, so steer clear of these. And finally, don’t “misuse language about quantum physics” — in case you were tempted to do that- apparently, quite a lot of people do!
You can see the organisers’ content guidelines in full here.
The organisers’ perspective
It’s well worth having a look at the rules the organisers have to follow themselves. It will give you a helpful perspective on their constraints and how you can best work with them.
Criticisms of TEDx to Be Aware Of
TED and TEDx have taken some flak for being too “lightweight”, and I believe this criticism is partially justified. It’s important to understand that TED and TEDx are supposed to be easy to digest, without being trivial, inane or irrelevant. That’s sometimes a difficult balance to strike.
TEDx guidelines stipulate that speakers should be experts in their fields: you will be vetted, and claims you make in your proposed talk will be fact-checked, especially if they contain science or stats. This is presumably a partial response to critiques such as this one, that early TED talks were sometimes platforms for spurious claims.
There’s definitely a place for beginner’s guides and bite-size ideas worth sharing, and that’s the realm occupied by TED and TEDx. If you want to present a deeply nuanced argument, find another forum, such as a conference, keynote, or panel discussion (as I do).
At the same time, you need to avoid the pitfall of over-extrapolating from a single insight. The fact something is true in one very special set of circumstances doesn’t make it a generally applicable.
For example, you might find that waking up at 5 a.m. every day works wonders for your productivity. I find that it does. But to make that an idea worth sharing, you’d need to present a compelling argument for why that would work for other people, whose circumstances might be very different from yours.
It, therefore, helps to “battle test” your idea — ideally through a lot of personal experience and expertise — before going on stage and presenting it to the world.
If there are holes in your idea (and even if there aren’t!), you will come under fire. So be prepared!
The Application Process
To speak at one of these events, you need to apply with a suggested topic, which should tie in with the theme of the event.
The first time I tried, I made it to the shortlist, but not to the final selection. So I applied again and this time, I got in.
To apply, go to the TEDx events page, pick an event you want to attend, and send in your speaker application.
The application form will ask you a few basic questions. In my case, they were:
- Tell us about yourself
- Tell us about your proposed talk
- Have you given this talk before?
- Tell us about your experience of public speaking
- Is there anything else you’d like to tell us when we are reviewing your application?
It’s informative to read up on the organiser guidelines for selecting speakers.
The process looks simple, but put some thought into it and look at it from the organiser’s perspective. Be as honest and authentic as you can, but make sure you understand what you’re applying for before you start filling in the blanks.
Why I Failed the First Time
I believe my first application to speak at TEDx was rejected because it was on a theme, rather than a single unifying idea.
I wanted to talk about how technology can help people affected by conflict recover meaning in their lives through education. That’s certainly a topic worth talking about, in which I have the expertise, and which I’ve spoken about many times at conferences. But to do it justice requires a fair amount of background knowledge and a lot of scene-setting.
The best TED and TEDx talks catapult a general audience of non-specialists into the world of the idea very quickly, and leave them with one solid takeaway—and perhaps something they can apply in their lives and be motivated to share. My proposed talk would probably not have done that and I think that’s why TEDx was not the right forum for it.
How I Got in the Second Time
My second application to TEDx was successful. I proposed and delivered a talk that was tightly focused on the role fear plays in decision making, with one simple technique I use to blast past fear and unlock new and interesting opportunities. I presented the idea via recent experiences I’d had in the Middle East.
I was absolutely certain that the idea and the mode of delivery of the idea was unique, memorable, and worth sharing, and the principles were battle-tested in my own life so I could speak with authenticity.
I spent the whole talk building and progressively illustrating the idea with plenty of examples, and even utilised some audience participation at one point to really cement the idea in their minds. I’m confident that anyone who was in the audience would be able to tell you what I was talking about.
Here’s my talk:
Tom Hayton, Fear and Coding in Gaza
Write the script
Once you’re accepted, you need to start writing a script. Some of you might be thinking, “if I write a script, I won’t sound natural”, but you are not writing a script so that you can recite it verbatim. You’re writing to give yourself a structure to refine and bring to life.
There is a performative aspect to TED and TEDx. This has its pros and cons, but “theatre’’ is part of the universe of TED. Your talk is not a “presentation”; it’s more like oratory.
If you churn through a bunch of slides, drily commenting on each one, you’re in the wrong place. Go back to the office, conference hall, or lecture theater.
TEDx talks have a hard limit of 18 minutes. To know how long your talk will take, you need to have it clearly mapped out. A script will allow you to further refine and crystalise your idea over multiple drafts.
Write like you talk. This is because you will be speaking! You can make your script even more “talky” in the next phase: revision.
To make the talk more authentic, attention-grabbing and memorable, use a story to set the context. There’s a good example here:
Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight
First-person stories are particularly powerful. I used the story of my recent trip to Gaza — a place that few outsiders have visited — to draw the audience in and as a springboard for my idea. Just remember that a story is not an idea! I have seen some TEDx talks that are just stories, or where the idea gets buried under a series of personal anecdotes or, even worse, where the talk is just a platform for saying, “hey, look at me and this cool thing I did”. I don’t recommend that!
2. Revise the script
Edit the s*** out of it.
Read it aloud. Writing and speaking are not the same things. If any sentence sounds like something you wouldn’t actually say, edit it.
“No mean feat” becomes “not easy”
“Facilitate” becomes “support” or “help”
“Malicious actors” becomes “bad guys”
And so on.
If your script sounds too scripted, you will come across as overly rehearsed and lack credibility, which is not good.
During the edit, you might realise that instead of an “idea worth sharing,” you’re actually sharing a whole family of ideas. This is very tempting if you love your subject, but you must put one idea first. Everything else should support that idea. There’s a great video on ideas here:
Chris Anderson: TED’s secret to great public speaking
Cut out all unnecessary detail and, if necessary, chuck out the whole script and start again from scratch. I did, and the talk was much better as a result.
There’s more on suitable ideas for TEDx here.
3. Learn the script
Don’t learn it word for word, though.
The best talks strike a fine balance between “conversational” and “performative,” and they come from a place of authenticity.
So the key is not to recite your talk robotically but to make it come from a place deep within you — like it’s part of who you are.
The other reason not to do this is that rote memorisation is very hard and our memories generally perform really badly under brute force and under a spotlight.
So how do you remember your talk?
The trick is to leverage a system in the brain that works very well, which is the part that deals with spatial awareness and navigation. This is the foundation of the so-called “Memory Palace’’ technique. Here’s a brilliant illustration of how to do it:
Joshua Foer: Feats of memory anyone can do
I learned my talk by breaking each paragraph down into core concepts, which I then wrote in a list.
I then tied those concepts together in a silly story that took place in a location I know really well. I then walked through the location in my mind, and the story unfolded, triggering my memories of the different parts of my script.
Using this technique, it took just a few hours to memorise a 14.5-minute talk. Not bad! But even so, I kept practising to get even better. Once it’s memorised, keep practising and practising.
During the actual performance, it flowed: it didn’t require any “brute memory” at all.
A quick run-through isn’t going to cut it. You need to perform your talk so many times that it becomes part of you.
Make sure you time your talk and that it’s well under the 18-minute mark every time you do it.
As you rehearse, you will be doing repeated walks through your memory palace. You will probably find that you miss a few details the first few times. Don’t worry: just take a few mental steps back, paint the scene in more vivid or ridiculous detail in your mind’s eye, and go again.
I would recommend practising in a similar environment to the one you will perform in at least once, if possible — and practice standing on the spot. I usually like to walk around a bit during my talks, but you can’t do this at TEDx, because it makes life very difficult for the camera crew if you pace back and forth like a caged tiger.
Some TEDx organisers will require you to do a dress rehearsal. Treat it like it’s the real thing.
I also practised my talk in the shower and on the walk to the venue. It all counts.
There are few hard-and-fast rules about slides for TEDx, apart from fairly obvious stuff about using high-quality images, copyright, and decent design. Some people use slides. Some don’t.
It is said that “a picture paints a thousand words,” but this is not always a good thing. Remember that you are trying to convey one strong idea, and a blizzard of images can send your audience off in a million directions. If the images are of poor quality or confusing, this will reflect very badly on you and your audience will switch off.
Slides can enhance a point, but they can also distract from the voice of the speaker. They can also be a “crutch”: the speaker limping from one slide to the next, and if anything goes wrong with the slides, the talk loses its rhythm and may fall to bits.
So I would recommend preparing your talk with no slides at all.
I used one slide for my talk: it contained a single photo that encapsulated my core idea.
Your slides are not your talk. Your talk is your talk. So prepare the talk first, and if absolutely necessary to illustrate your point, prepare slides. But use them sparingly.
There are many resources on how to use your voice, much of which applies to all public speaking, including TEDx.
Here’s a very good talk on how to speak so that people want to listen, including some techniques for warming up your voice:
Julian Treasure: How to speak so that people want to listen
Now some TEDx-specific pointers on voice:
- I think it’s a good idea to try to come across as conversational as possible. The best way to do this is to practice a lot, and if you find yourself stumbling over words, or if it sounds like something you wouldn’t normally say, rephrase it! TEDx events are local events, so it’s important that you come across as approachable and friendly and speaking to the audience on their level.
- Make good use of “chunking”: break your talk down into manageable pieces, so that your audience has time to understand what you’ve said, put it in context, and get ready for the next bit. This will also keep you calm and confident and stop your mouth from running away from your brain. For example:
“[Break your talk down]….[into manageable pieces]…[so your audience]… [has time]…[to understand]… [what you’ve said]…”
This is way better than:
“So like, you kinda break your talk down into kinda little pieces, little bits, so your, er, the audience has time to understand what you’ve, er, said, what you’ve just said and umm…”
- You may well be speaking to an international audience, so bear in mind that their level of English might well be lower than yours. Go at a moderate pace.
Welcome to the Community
TEDx talks can be a great way to lift your profile as a speaker, but remember that you are a guest at the event, which is for the community.
Your job is to deliver an idea worth sharing to the best of your ability. If you really focus on that, speak from the heart, and invest the time in serving the community, it’s very worthwhile.
This article was originally published in Better Humans.