Telling the Talk: Reflecting on TEDx

So, you’re asked to give a TEDx talk and you think: wow, me? Yes, I’ll do it. Humbled and excited you wonder vaguely what you’ll talk about. But, whatever, there’s time. How long could it take to prepare a fifteen-minute speech? Odds are, if you’ve been asked to do a talk, you’ve done some public speaking. How different could this be? Okay, there’s a camera. Big deal. It’ll be posted online, with a potentially global audience? So what? All stuff to worry about later. I just need to get through today.
And then, seemingly, it’s the next day (it was three months later) and the organizers are asking for an outline and most of what you have is incoherent rambling in the direction of a rant that, now that you’re looking critically, sounds like something a guy in a bathrobe on a busy street corner might shout at strangers.
Whatever, it’s just an outline, right? Send something mildly coherent, hit the snooze bar. It’s all good. Nobody watches the TEDx videos anyway. It’s not like you’re being flown to Vancouver for the big one.
The original outline. Yikes.
But it’s too late to be that chill. Seeing your notes border on illegible, feeling the heat of the big day now two months out: you get the first pang of nervousness. You start to dig in and make more time to write.
That’s the first problem. You can’t write a TED talk. You have to coax it into existence.
Lesson 1: TED writing is not speech writing.
I’d written for public speaking before. I delivered a school-wide address to mark the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I’ve written and performed two original wedding ceremonies; written and coached numerous graduation speeches; and done plenty of small acts of public speaking with prepared notes.
In this kind of writing–where you can read off the page–ideas are organized for impact. Anyone who has taken a class in rhetoric knows there are structures you can employ to make simple ideas more powerful. This was my automatic mode when I started drafting. That’s why my first “final” draft was almost 9,000 words. It said everything I wanted, in precisely the way I wanted it to be read.
Which meant it was far too intricate to memorize and too alliterative to deliver effectively.
Which meant I had to un-write the damn thing.
TED is this unique situation where you get to talk about something that deeply matters to you, which sounds informal. But it is an organized presentation of ideas. No matter how fluent you are, you still can’t go up there and just talk. It’s like this: if you were asked to tell a room full of strangers about your job, you’d probably get across the basics. But if you were asked to walk that room through the nuances and dramas of your daily work, detailed to the point that the audience understood as closely as possible what it was like to be you but persuasive enough so this person felt your position in this world was vital, well, then that’d be your TED talk. It’s hard to be detailed, persuasive, and memorable about a topic whose familiarity you take for granted. Writers, especially non-fiction writers, know this.
It took a lot of intricate paring to get the talk to retain agency without feeling like a memorized list of bullets. And this is to say nothing of the attrition of the moment. The talk ultimately came to about 12 minutes in both rehearsals and live performance time, but during the performance, from sheer adrenalized forgetfulness, I skipped several smaller sections.
So, if you’re a writer preparing for a TED talk, don’t write it out. Sweet talk it. Or snake charm it. Just don’t be alliterative.
That’s part one: the writing.
Part two nearly broke me. I like writing and I usually like sharing what I’ve written (basic writer’s urge). But once I realized how this was not really writing, I was way out of my comfort zone.
Those easily written-off fears about cameras and a wide digital audience? Yeah, they gain momentum as you get closer to the day.
For all the public speaking I’ve done, I had never memorized and articulated something so long and detailed. I almost always got to read from a page or a slideshow.
So I started researching tips for TED talks. Turns out, there’s something of a niche industry for this. Apparently enough people give TED talks (or at least aspire to give TED-like talks in various settings) that there are books and blog posts (like this one) aplenty.
Seeing so many resources out there, I felt like I was okay. This doesn’t mean I dived right into those resources. It means seeing the plethora of information comforted me and in a fit of over-confidence, I posted to social media that I was doing a TEDx talk.
So much support! So much more pressure! You fool!
On Facebook, a good friend recommended Carmine Gallo’s book Talk Like Ted. This particular friend is a very handsome and old friend who meant well, but that book almost made me quit. In Talk Like TED, Gallo does a case study of several incredibly popular TED talks to analyze their underlying structures. It’s good, practical stuff. If you’re a CEO or a frequent public speaker, definitely read this book.
But it made me feel like I was way, way out of my element. When I read that Amanda Palmer (AMANDA F*CKING PALMER) took four months to write her talk, and that she’d practiced it on a variety of live stages before going to Vancouver, I closed the book. I had two weeks. This was not helping.
The same friend who unwittingly brought me to the brink via Gallo also saved me. He randomly texted me a link to Tim Urban’s blog post “Doing a TED Talk: The Full Story.” Now, this was my speed.
Urban was thorough and honest and really broke things down. If you’re asked to do a TED talk or any kind of formal public speaking, read this man’s post. Urban got me seriously dialed in, and for the remaining two weeks if I wasn’t fully confident, I at least had a plan.
The plan was to try and memorize the speech. Memorize it, as Urban says, as well as you know the Happy Birthday song.
I’m not going to split hairs here, but that song is a lot shorter than 11 minutes. And it’s not exactly loaded with humanity-inspiring ideas or, in my case, things your mom might be surprised to learn about you. And it was pretty easy to memorize.
But I was determined to get the material down cold. The organizers had asked me to do this talk, and I had excitedly agreed to it. This was an incredible opportunity and my students and friends were happy for me and eager to hear what I had to say. I couldn’t let anyone down.
So, the Sunday before the talk, I took the shortest version of that long speech and chopped it into sections. On Monday I put the sections into Google Slides and printed them out like note cards. I laid them out in chunks on tables in my classroom and paced down the line, reciting and referring as needed.
Every night until the talk, I sat on the couch and read and re-read those note cards. When I had the cadences and accents right, I recorded it on my phone. I listened to that recording before bed and then on the ways to and from work. At night, I’d edit here and there, too, altering a word or a phrase but mostly just reading, reciting, reading, reciting. I asked a co-worker who has a theater background for tips, and she suggested reciting from memory until you screwed up. Then, repeat the messed-up line three times and start all the way over until you get past that line. Like a cumulative memory bank.
(Do you hear the Rocky theme song?)
By the day of rehearsal, two days out, I was eager to get on stage and see how it felt.
Rehearsal stage. The TED folks left out an “H,” which was perfect. 
Rehearsal felt good. I was happy with the talk’s content and length. But, with less than 48-hours before show time, I’d still needed my notes to get through. And that spooked me.
Why couldn’t I get it down? How had this not sunk in yet?
For the next 48-hours, I listened to and re-read and spoke the material continuously. During any free time I had, I was listening to the talk.
The night before, I undulated between confidence and despair. One reading would be perfect, the next would be spotty. Because I struggled to get it down cold, and because it was the last minute, I tried scrapping the script and free-styling from what I knew. Again, one rehearsal would be great, the next disastrous.
It was only out of sheer exhaustion that I slept at all the night before.
I have never been afraid of public speaking. This is not to say I don’t get dry-mouthed or knock-kneed in front of large crowds. I’ve known, and been stifled by, anxiety throughout my life. But I’d never felt that hideous surge before any public speaking. Like magic, no matter what was on the line or who was in the audience, just before the event, a kind of calm would overtake me. Although my leg muscles would grip, I could keep an even voice and a quiet mind; I could always just focus on the words on the page, on what was right in front of me.
Too bad for that on stage were only bright lights and vague faces. There was no page to anchor me.
And I was scheduled to speak last. I was (and am) so honored to have been asked to close the day’s presentations. But I wish I had read the 11 Tips for Right Before You Go On Stage from the TED blog first, because I sat in that green room (which was so cool) and listened to the other speakers. While I waited, I rehearsed and I tried to be very, very still. Apparently, I should have done jumping jacks or something.
I did all the amping-up I was capable of, and still, when they called my name, some courage fell away.
I know, I know: Come on, guy, I’m reading this because I might give a talk one day, too. I know, I’m being a downer.
But you might like this next part (part three?)
Truthfully, I was so excited to do this talk that I started to think beyond the event. In the planning of the talk I had so many ideas that even the 9,000-words I pared down were just the tip of the iceberg. As I went through the rehearsing and the memorizing, I was still curious about what I could do with all those ideas. They were (are) all related to the basic premise of my final talk. When would I get to them? What could I do with them? It felt like there was so much more to say than this 11-minute monologue would allow.
I also felt like this could generate an audience for these ideas, and that notion slowly began to pressurize my preparation for the talk. I don’t think I’m the only person who has considered this. Tim Urban says you don’t turn down a TED talk, and there’s a reason for that.
Giving a TED talk is a chance to share some of your truth on a stage that comparatively few folks get to grace. I’m ambitious, and this time my ambition distracted me. It created an energy that I fed in the wrong direction; it was energy I could have put towards refining my talk, invigorating and streamlining my preparation, and ultimately helping to tell a more distinctive and cohesive story.
But if that’s the worst thing that came from all of this (excepting that little slip-up in the beginning of the talk), then I am still a very lucky and grateful man.
This whole process has been transformative. Working on this project taught me a lot about my own writing–namely, that I should read everything to my wife 6,000 times before I consider it finished. Because of this talk, I’ve tapped into a well-spring of ideas that have inspired me to keep writing and thinking and talking and reading about what it means to be a human and a storyteller and a teacher. I’m pumped and grateful and I sincerely hope I get to try it all again very soon.
If you’re reading this as prospective TEDx speaker, here are my final simple suggestions for a good talk:
  1. Start writing now. The talk isn’t for six months? Start today. You barely have enough time.
  2. Rehearse every draft. Take every iteration of the talk seriously. This will help you stay with the process and weed out–or cultivate–side trips as needed.
  3. Take a day off. During the weeks before the talk, take some time to reflect on what you’re about to do. Enjoy the process of putting this thing together.
  4. Ask for an audience of anyone. The more people you can read this to the better. If you feel like it’ll be weird or something to have a one- or two-person audience, then you’re going to hate having one hundred people staring at you.
  5. Read these things (even the Gallo book, which is insightful despite triggering my neuroses):
    1. TED Coach Gives 11 Tips for Right Before You Go On Stage
    2. Tim Urban’s “Doing a TED Talk: the Full Story”
    3. Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo (NOTE: This book scared the hell out of me. He gives solid advice, but if you are not a CEO or are giving a TEDx talk–as opposed to a TED talk which has less consequence–this book might just shake you up. I had to put it down. Message me if you want my copy. It still scares me.)


If you’re interested, here’s the full talk.



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