What you need to know about doing a TEDx

A couple of weeks ago I delivered a talk at TEDx Folkestone – a great event and something I feel lucky to have been part of.

As you can imagine there’s much more to the process than simply the talk itself, and so I thought I’d jot down my observations in case they prove useful for any aspiring Tedders in the future.

If you want to do a TEDx, here’s what you should know:

1 – Your talk should be an “idea”

Talks and conferences are ten-a-penny. So did you ever wonder what it was about TED that somehow managed to give it so much traction beyond all the others? I believe it is simply this: TED talks are ideas.

What I mean by this is that the talks aren’t simply “about” something. They (almost) all propose an original proposition, insight, or punchline that is the key point of the performance. A revelation more than simply a topic.

When you think about it, this principle applies to very few non-TED talks you come across. For the most part they simply impart information without a big idea at the heart of the matter. Here’s my life story. Here’s what my company does. Here’s how snails work. Such talks are pure information; they don’t invite you to see the world differently.

Think about the most viewed TED talk of all time, the quintessential “Do schools kill creativity?” by Sir Ken Robinson. That’s an “idea”. A talk about how to get children to be more creative wouldn’t be; it’d be instruction.

How do you know if your talk is an “idea”? Simple. Try and phrase it as “my idea is that…” and then fill in the rest. This tip was given to me by speaking coach Alex Merry, who advised me in the process. If you can present your talk like this then it’s Teddable. If you can’t then it’s not.

2 – These people are not normal

When I first got together with my fellow speakers, one thing hit me loud and clear. These people ain’t normal – in the best possible way of course.

Although none of them were professional speakers or celebrities, they shared the characteristics of 1) being extremely good talkers, and 2) being extremely passionate about their subjects.

This shouldn’t be surprising of course, as the TEDx process essentially “selects” for these attributes, but it is worth bearing in mind all the same. It makes you realise that it would be hard to deliver one of these talks “casually”, or “professionally”; the way you could get away with other talks. You need to have a bit of mania for your topic, as this will propel you through what is, ultimately, a pretty difficult process, and will also come through in your delivery.

Having an abstract ambition to “do a TED talk” will probably not get you there. Having something you’re desperate to talk about, and then choosing TED as the delivery medium – that’s much more plausible.

3 – It’s not a presentation

One of the most tricky things about the process is the distinction between a presentation and a performance. Most public speaking we typically do will fall into the presentation category; professional, academic, information heavy, and lacking in a narrative arc. TED talks need to be something closer to a performance; sculpted for entertainment, emotional, with a narrative ebb-and-flow; a “journey”, if you will.

This is why it’s basically not a runner to take the talk you give in your normal life, and simply go and deliver it on the TED stage. It’s extremely unlikely to be performative enough.

Even though we had all talked about our subjects regularly before, not a single one of the speakers in my group were able to deliver their “stock” talk – or even something close to it. We all had to start from scratch.

If this is the case for you, I wouldn’t recommend trying to simply adapt your normal patter. I’d take things back to the beginning and build something completely customised to the context.

4 – Rewrite it to learn it

This is a more personal learning, but one I found to be extremely useful.

As you’ve probably noticed, you have to learn a TED talk off by heart – no teleprompter, no flash cards, and very limited slides. This memorisation process was, as you can imagine, the single biggest source of stress for the speakers, and at the dress rehearsal stage almost nobody got through without a stumble.

However, I discovered a funny thing. If a piece of your talk was well written, logical, and had a good flow, you would be able to remember it almost immediately – only after a couple of read throughs. It basically remembered itself. If, however, a section was poorly written, you would have to go over it again and again and again in order to try and make it stick.

The lesson then? If something’s hard to memorise, don’t even try; just rewrite it. This is a sign that its a weak section of the talk, or doesn’t add anything substantial to the narrative.

5 – Participate

All TEDx events are different. TEDx Folkestone, as I understand it, is unusually participative, and really seeks to create a sense of community amongst the speakers and the team in the run up to the event. On the other hand apparently some events pretty much just select their speakers, leave them to their own devices, and expect them to turn up on the day.

Clearly the Folkestone model would be preferable for most people, as it leads to better talks and also provides a more meaningful experience to those involved. Assuming you join a process like this one, then naturally I would suggest getting as stuck in as you can. It will give you the opportunity to polish your script and performance, as well as – let’s face it – providing some competitive pressure to up your game when you see how everyone else is getting on.

You never acknowledge it out loud, but nobody wants to be the one with the crap talk right?

6 – Clickbait the hell out of it

Finally – and prematurely because my talk hasn’t been published yet – you need to think about the life the talk will have online. No matter the size of the crowd on the day, it will be almost meaningless in comparison to the crowd you can gather later on.

There are various strategies one can employ to give your talk the best chance of success in this arena, but one I’d highlight is thinking about the title of your talk. Chances are the “real” title (the one you use at the event) should be different from the one you employ online.

This is because of the sad effectiveness of clickbait, and YouTube’s fondness for keywords. For instance, consider that one of the most successful TEDx talks ever is Simon Sinek’s piece that is now commonly known as “Start with why”. That title accurately represents the content, and may well have been the true title on the day of delivery.

However, it isn’t the title that made the talk go viral. It’s far too ambiguous and subtle for that.

The title he used for the talk online was the far blunter, but more clickable “How great leaders inspire action”. Please note the SEO-friendly use of “how”, “leaders”, and “inspire”.

Is it as good a title as “Start with why” – I’d say not. But is it more more effective at putting bums in seats? Millions of views seem to say so.


So, the talk is now published, check it out:

What have I learned since it’s gone up online?

  • The main thing has been realising that each day TED chooses one TEDx video to feature, and push to its subscribers. An obvious point, but not one I realised before — and happily my video was that selected video on the day it was released. These videos tend to get 30k+ views, whilst most others only get a fraction of that, so I’m very happy to have been picked. Unfortunately in terms of tips there’s not much I can offer here as this is based on the quality of the talk — however I did put a lot of effort into making sure my talk was very polished in terms of presentation (check out the illustrations I use). I think this was probably a big help, and something I’d recommend.
  • As for promotion, I have supported the launch with the normal outreach to people I know, plus link building, Facebook ads, and Twitter ads. I haven’t done the full wrap up on these yet, so am not sure of the impact, but they were there primarily to make sure my “worst case” scenario wasn’t too bad (i.e. to ensure I didn’t end up with 250 views or something). As it is, my primary traffic driver has certainly been TED itself.
  • Next up comes the question of how I’m going to leverage this. That will be the next update, so watch this space…

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