How to prepare for a TED Talk

Crafting and delivering an effective Ted Talk

TED Talks present a unique opportunity to spread an important message. One of the reasons for this is the format: Give the talk of your life in 18 minutes or less.

Espcially for seasoned or professional public speakers, whether teachers, professors or other professions where engaging an audiense is part and parcel of the job, it is important to remember TED Talks are their own format, It's not a lecture, a toast or a keynote speech. and this page will start you on a few tips to craft your talk, to create the most impact.

Why speak at a TED or TEDx event?

  1. Speak at TED because you want to spread an important idea
  2. Speak at TED because you want to inspire people with your story
  3. Dream to speak at TED because you want to challenge yourself and see what you are truly capable of

Three tips for experienced and first time speakers giving their first TED Talk:

  1. TED Talks are a unique opportunity, do not just give a short lecture or keynote speech.
  2. TED audiences have very high expectations. Use them to go higher.
  3. TED Talks are a chance to share the most important stories of our lives.

Crafting a powerful story:

  1. Make it personal. Why do you care?
  2. Make sure to have a setup, conflict and resolution.
  3. Share something that takes courage.

You may say to your self "thats great Josh, but how do I start?". Here are some questions to guide you.

  1. Start with your greatest struggle, failure or achievement. What did it teach you?
  2. What is the one thing my story can teach people that hear it? - this is the ending of your story. Like a good parable, the lesson comes at the end.
  3. Who were you before the struggle, achievement or failure? - this is the beginning. It sets the context.
  4. What was the most tense moment in that experience? - this is the climax and middle of the story. It might come in the middle or further to the end of your talk, but everything else revolves around it. Make the audience feel the tension as much as you felt it and you will have a talk they never forget.

Talk Structure

In order to create this feeling of an important, inspiring talk, it helps to have the right structure. The most effective TED Talks have a strong narrative arc.

The basics of a good narrative arc are are encapsulated in the classic 3 Act Structure. Beginning, Middle, End. Setup, Conflict, Resolution. In Act 1, you set the scene. You meet your audience where they are. Tell them something they already know or introduce a character (yourself or somebody else). In Act 2, you create a conflict. Actually, you show the biggest conflict that exists in your story. Build it up and create a showdown. Finally in Act 3, you can resolve the conflict, deliver your most important message, or inspire the audience to take action.

The most important part in this structure is that it must have stakes. Something must be on the line. Something everyone in the room can care about. A narrative without stakes is not a TED Talk.

Effective preparation:

  1. Speak, don't write.
  2. Record practice sessions on video.
  3. Try multiple approaches and find what works best for you.
  4. Tell a story, with a setup, conflict and resolution.
  5. Repeat your most important message to make it memorable.
  6. Take a risk: share something you've never shared before. The audience will feel the courage.
  7. Keep it short. Avoid unnecessary fluff.
  8. Nourish your audience. Feed their souls or at least their curiosity.

Preparation

A TED Talk is short enough that we can script it out word for word and prepare it like a performance. For everyone other than experienced actors I think this is a mistake. I did a little bit of acting as a teenager and so I tried this approach for my first TED Talk. Even though I spent hundreds of hours preparing, I still did not have the talk memorised enough to truly relax on the stage. Instead I was terrified that I would forget some important line and then be completely lost. I went numb on stage and gave the talk a little robotically. I learned my lesson when I was invited to give another talk 3 years later. For my second TED Talk I created a broad structure and then practiced giving the talk off the cuff a few times. In total my practice amounted to less than 10 hours and resulted in a better talk, where I am much more at ease on stage.

All of the iterations of the talks were different. Since I was not following a script and the talk was more dynamic in this way it was able to grow and evolve over time. I didn't have the urge to do a major rewrite as I did several times with my first talk. The fact of the matter is, that unless you are a world-class playwright or screenwriter you won't be able to write fantastic spoken-word. That's why I tell my clients to skip writing a talk and go straight to giving it.

Get a webcam and record your talk from the very beginning. With a few bullet points for the structure and a timer (I suggest going for 10 minutes even if the organisers give you 18). Give the talk off the cuff immediately. Make a few notes about how it could be improved and what you want to keep, and then repeat the process. The recording creates stakes and doesn't need to be watched if you reflect immediately - Although it is useful when you come back to the practice a few days later to get a fresh look at it.

My favourite TED Talks for inspiration: