So, You Want To Give A TED Talk: Part 2

After years of FOMO-fueled anticipation, my dream of giving a TED Talk had finally come true - but the universe doesn’t deliver on your schedule! Shortly after my application was accepted, I was scheduled to go on a 3-week trip, returning home just before my date with destiny!

Fortunately, TED is based in New York City, so logistics were far easier than they might have been. Shortly after I was invited to speak, I went in to meet with the TED team at their office to prepare my speech and shoot. The moment I sat down, one thought prevailed: these people are extremely good at what they do. Every level of the TED team is incredibly passionate, experienced, and skilled. They’re laser focused on two things: (i) maintaining the high quality of the content they produce, and (ii) making sure each speaker can do the best work possible. 

That means that you get great support. An in-house TED fellow helped me write my speech based on a completed draft of my book.  It was amazing. She took pages and pages of content and helped me to structure it into a succinct narrative. This was unfamiliar territory: in my many previous talks around the world, I’ve usually been able to speak off the cuff on familiar, well-practiced topics, and tailor my voice to the intimate audience before me. My focus is generally to be interesting and pithy, and let my garrulous nature see me through. Put simply, I like to improvise. My humble goal (and I only say this half-jokingly) is to be the Miles Davis of business speakers 🙂 

A TED Talk is different: your message must be concise and expressed in a globally accessible way; you need to combine facts with a story, and in my case, advice. The TED team helped me hash out my material into a coherent script. It was a totally new experience. They also offered me a teleprompter, but encouraged me to have the presentation nearly memorized. The goal was to sound natural and know the material very deeply but at the same time, to sound spontaneous rather than scripted. 

When I got back from my trip, I had two weeks to get myself in shape, in all senses of the word.  Ever the obsessive compulsive over-achiever, I practiced my speech upwards of 30 times in the few days before my shoot. I also ran to burn of the massive plates of meat and rice that I had consumed every day in Central Asia. 

Then, on the big day, I got up early,  meditated, and walked to their offices a mile from my apartment.   When recording time came, the second thoughts and anxiety fell away. This is very much my nature- I’m as susceptible to apprehension as anyone else, but when race day comes, I just run. We had booked a full day to get the production just right, but the TED team had given me such amazing support that we nailed it in just three run-throughs, taking only two hours. It was a clean, energizing experience: it crystallized all the hard work, ideas, and years of patience.

I was feeling triumphant and my reward awaited me. I biked up to the Flatiron Building where I treated myself with my favorite comfort food: a ham and cheese sandwich from Maison Kayser, a bag of chips, and a Coke. 

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Now that my TED Talk is done, and out in the world, what do I want aspiring TED Talkers to learn from my experience? For me, the hardest part of the journey was waiting to be called upon- not pestering, not feeling entitled to be selected, and holding out with my big idea until the right moment came. It also called upon me to rise to a very singular occasion: it was a long time coming, an opportunity that, if turned down, would likely not circle back on me- when the stars aligned, I had to be ready for the moment when it came. 

In summary, my advice to anyone hoping for a TED Talk is the following:

  • TED is democratic. Keep applying. Be persistent. You’ll be considered every time you come up in the stack.

  • Consider a local venue. I know this contradicts my decision to turn down local TEDx appearances, but if you’re starting out as a speaker, cutting your teeth on a regional stage can give you the exposure you need. Bear in mind that the variability of outcomes is greater, but there’s more opportunity.

  • When you’re starting out speaking, small is OK. This is a corollary to my earlier point: every time you speak, you develop your craft, no matter how big your audience. If you have the time, don’t focus on the size of the check or the audience- take the opportunity to practice.

  • To craft a winning TED Talk, try to combine an expert  topic with a very personal narrative. Neither of these points alone in a speech will rise to the value that TED demands: you can’t just tell a story about yourself, and you can’t just give a lecture about a topic. You have to combine head and heart- a personal element with valuable information.

I hope my experiences have shed some light on the magic and mystery that is TED, and I hope you loved my first TED Talk!

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