How to prepare and deliver a TEDx talk

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Public Speaking  |  Case Studies  |  Personal branding

Last month I delivered my TEDx talk The Need to Explore.

Since that time, many people have asked about TEDx talks – how do you book one and how to prepare one. So this is a long post with all sorts of ideas for how to do your own TEDx talk.

TEDx are independently organized TED events that give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. Chances are a TEDx will be organized near you.

I learned about TEDx UMass Amherst as it was in the early planning stages from Kareem Agha, at the time a senior at UMass Amherst, who I met at a conference in Boston. Kareem is the co-founder of TEDx UMass Amherst and I quickly agreed to do a talk because it was nearby and I had been thinking about doing a talk on a new subject for a while.


The only reason to give a speech is to change the world

My friend and speaker coach Nick Morgan (who if you read on you'll learn I worked with on this talk) says: "The only reason to give a speech is to change the world" which is rather daunting if you think about it but is an incredibly motivating concept. There are no shortcuts to preparing and delivering a TEDx talk.

There is another reason to give a TEDx talk however and that is to get the resulting video. As content, the video of a TEDx talk has many uses and for many people and organizations, the video lives on for years as great content that is shared on social networks and ranks in the search engines.

Preparing the talk

I knew early on that I wanted to do a talk about the intersection of communications and exploration and I wanted to tie it to the Apollo lunar program. But that was about all I had to begin with. I decided that I wouldn’t use any of my existing material -- so the content would be 100% new.

The first thing I did was check out the guidelines published by TED. Here are the TED Speaker Commandments, which I had in the back of my mind as I prepared.

1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick.
2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before.
3. Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and thy Passion.
4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story.
5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy.
6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt Thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
7. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desperate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
8. Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
9. Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee.

Then I read a book called How To Deliver A TED Talk: Secrets Of The World's Most Inspiring Presentations by Jeremey Donovan, which was very helpful. Amanda Palmer's blog post The Epic TED Blog, part one: It Takes a Village to Write a TED Talk also motivated me. Because there was so much to think about based on the advice of Jeremey and Amanda I knew this would take a lot of time.

I watched a bunch of TED talks. Here are some of my favorites.
Amanda Palmer: The art of asking
Hans Rosling: The magic washing machine
Seth Godin: Stop Stealing Dreams

I sketched out a basic talk and then found some images that might work with it. Then it was time to practice and revise. My main worry at this stage was to deliver a talk that would clock in at under 15 minutes. I'm used to delivering keynotes that are typically an hour, so the shorter timeframe was a challenge.

Here are some of the things I focused on in the early preparation:

- Tell some personal stories.
- Be vulnerable.
- Use humor.
- Understand exactly what I want people to walk away with.
- Develop a catch phrase.
- Have an opening, body, and conclusion.
- Make the body as three parts.
- Have specific calls to action for the audience at the end.
- Have fun!

Revision, revision, revision!

I booked time with Nick Morgan, my speaker coach, to rehearse my talk. But even before I went to see Nick, I delivered the talk to my wife and daughter. Ugh. The first draft was terrible! But actually delivering the talk in front of an "audience" is so different than just saying it in your head. I did my first revision based on the feedback from my family.

It was time for Nick to watch me deliver the talk the first time. Because I have a "happy feet" tendency (in a way that can be distracting to the audience, I move around the stage a lot to burn off nervous energy), we worked on where I stand and how I control my body. That was a big help because then I could focus on the words.

At this stage, the talk was about exploration. My closing line at this point was: "We need to explore. When humans are exploring we’re at our best. When we're exploring we do new things." My focus was that we needed to get NASA back into the human exploration business.

Then I delivered the talk to four willing audiences to refine the ideas. I want to thank them for letting me subject them to pretty bad talk.

First up was the eMarketing course that Tom Catalini teaches at Bentley University. Tom blogged about it in his post A TED Talk in the Making. The students provided terrific feedback! I filmed the Bentley talk and shared the video with Nick and together we revised some more.

Now the talk was morphing into a bit more of a marketing talk. I was using the Apollo program and the current space exploration by private industry as a way to talk about marketing.

A few days later I shared the budding talk with the content marketing team at Raytheon. The memory module I show in the talk was built by Raytheon in the 1960s so it was fun to share with them. They provided some excellent feedback around the actual words I was using.

I revised once again and then delivered the talk in front of about 200 people who work at National Geographic in Washington DC. This was my first larger sized audience and it felt good to put the talk through its paces on a big stage. Although I wasn't able to get feedback from that version, I did get a video of it and watched it a bunch of times to look for ways to improve.

Another round of work with Nick followed. We focused on upping the energy level. Nick says: "Charisma is focused emotion" and I needed to add emotion!

At this stage I was about a week away from the TEDx event and I was still a little uncomfortable about the talk. I wasn't really sure why I was feeling it wasn't quite there but I new something was either wrong or missing. It just wasn't "clicking" in a way I am used to with my other talks. I was a bit worried actually.

A breakthrough

Fortunately, I had two more opportunities to deliver the talk live, both at the HubSpot offices (I am on the HubSpot advisory board). The first round was at a company "HubTalk" (company events where outside speakers present ideas to stimulate creativity) where about 75 or so people showed up. A few days later I presented to ToastSpot the HubSpot Toastmasters group.

The feedback at the two HubSpot sessions was amazing! I got so much valuable feedback that I had to film it so I would be able to remember it all. Certainly not shy, HubSpotters focused in on the parts of the talk that needed improvement and helped me to begin to see why I was so uncomfortable with the talk.

Brian Halligan, HubSpot co-founder and CEO said best what was worrying me at the time "The talk is about marketing and space. But those things don't go well together. It's not like peanut butter and chocolate." Brilliant stuff, Brian. But I only had a week to go!

Brian also presented at TEDx UMass Amherst. His awesome TEDx talk Inbound HR is about the HubSpot culture and how the things he has learned can be applied to all companies. The HubSpot culture certainly works because the company is the 8th fastest growing technology company in the United States. Watch Brian's talk. He makes it look easy. And he has a powerful idea.

As I was driving back to my office after presenting at HubSpot, I realized that I needed to change the fundamental approach of my talk. Instead of it being about marketing, I made it about the power that every single one of us has in our pockets: Our mobile phones.

I made a simple but powerful change. I added a new story at the end of the talk using photos of Cangandi, Panama using some valuable information from Nathan Gray and Lider Sucre from Earth Train on how villagers use their mobile phones.

My final line then became: "You have more power in your pocket than the entire Apollo moon program. What are you going to do with that power?"

I called Nick and we reviewed the changes. I was finally ready.

TEDx day

On the actual day of the talk I was very relaxed and had a great time. Kareem and his team of organizers did a fantastic job with the event and the tight organization meant that I could think about the talk and the audience and not the technology or the details. Thank you TEDx UMass Amherst team.

I hit all my marks and remembered everything I wanted to say. I didn't fumble or drop my Apollo artifacts that I used as props. People laughed at my jokes! The talk came in right at my target length of 13 minutes.

Had I not put in the work, I never would have had the breakthrough and learned what the speech was really about. Had I not delivered the talk in front of five willing audiences prior to TEDx, there is no way I would have been able to do a talk I was proud of. (Thank you to everyone who saw an early version - it was a huge help.)

A TEDx talk isn't easy. But the effort is worthwhile. There are no shortcuts.

After the video of my talk The Need to Explore was posted on YouTube, I called Nick one last time and he shared with me several things to improve on. In particular, I didn't pause enough. And while my energy level was high, I didn't vary that level. Next time! And there will be a next time because I'd like to deliver the talk again.

Having one person (Nick Morgan) be with me throughout the entire process was incredibly valuable. Thanks Nick.

It's your turn

If you've read this far, you're probably interested in doing your own TEDx talk. Great. It is rewarding and fun!