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How to Give a Great TED Talk

Published August 14, 2017 by Jothy Rosenberg

One of the great thrills of my life has been delivering a TED talk. If you’re interested in preparing a TED style presentation (or a real-time TED talk!), here are my tips on how to approach the process.

Topic

First, your topic. Obviously you need to know the topic cold. You have to be the expert. But passion has to come through loud and clear as well. As you get started, these are links to important TED talks to watch: the famous TED Playlist and the TED Founder’s Talk. Look for others on the TED website.

The Script

Tell stories to make your points. We humans are drawn to and have evolved to follow stories best.

Make sure your talk has a very clear structure. That’s important for you to easily be able to know where you are in your talk. Even more critically, it makes it easy for your audience to know where they are in your flow.

Really work hard on the beginning and the end. There is an adage that says people will only remember the first and last 30 seconds of your talk. Remember what Maya Angelou wrote: “people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

Write out your script before worrying about your visuals. Your voice track is the most important thing. Then, if you have visuals, build them to the script you have created. Begin to practice your script with the visuals and check time. Aim to have your talk come in under the 18 min TED talk limit. That room is for pauses, audience reactions, moments when you stop to recall what is next, and so forth.

Visuals

There are powerful and compelling TED talks without visuals. It completely depends on you and your topic. Having visuals that are interesting and impactful and that help the audience understand and follow your talk is great. They also happen to help you stay with your script because they add timing and structure that helps you during your speech. But don’t use visuals only as a crutch to aid in your memorization—visuals are never to be thought of as a substitute for thorough memorization.

Memorization and Practice

Once you have a stable script, it’s time to start memorizing. For me, this is the daunting part.

Start by reading it over and over. Out loud every third time. Have it in the cloud so you can access it on any of your devices, wherever you go. Record it and play that back on your daily commute.

Practice it in front of an audience, even early on when you are still reading and have very little memorized. Those early audiences—even family—will change your script, maybe significantly. Better now than later when you’d be changing what you’ve already memorized.

After some introductory memorization, start working from back to front. Yes, this is a frequently described technique that really works. It makes sure you know where you are. And as you go deeper and deeper into the memorization your ending will get stronger and stronger.

As it starts to stick, say it while going for a walk. Early on, memorization is easier if you close your eyes. But walking forces you to have your eyes open. It also forces you to look around so as not to trip. That sets you up for scanning the audience for a better stage presence.

Make only tiny word changes now to reflect how you naturally say it. You don’t want to change much at all as the talk date approaches, but if you keep saying a sentence in a way that differs from the script, change the script to match how it seems to flow from your mouth. Have a friend read your script as you recite it and point out even tiny variances. Re-record whenever there is such a change to ensure you’re listening to a 100% accurate version. Practice along with your recorded version. When I was commuting 45 min each way in my car, I was playing my talk on my car speakers and mimicking the recording with my voice.

As time goes on, the combination of hearing it multiple times per day, reading it a few times per day, and doing full practices with the visuals starts to make it stick.

Everyone said it would suddenly come. And while I was worried and frustrated at times, they were right and suddenly it started to get easier and easier. My topic is about how insecurity helps us succeed if it is tempered with confidence, and that construct really applied to my memorization.

Coaching and Rehearsals

Leading up to my TED talk there were four separate types of coaches provided by the organizers that us presenters interacted with.

A script coach worked just on the content, structure, storyline, clarity, and punchiness of the script. Next was a speech coach, who looked at pacing and energy of delivery, and pressed us on passion and our time constraints.

The day before the talk, the organizers like to change things up to reduce stress and add a few things that can help you to improve. They’re not changing the content of your talk but instead are focusing on how you look and feel. For this stage, they brought in a theater coach. This person worked on entries, exits, and posture, and gave advice on how to start off the talk and how to remove the initial stress (which can really affect the audience’s first impression).

Finally, a persuasion coach tries to give some hints at ways of saying things that can improve your ability to get the audience to believe and buy in to your point. (Of all the coaches, I was least helped by this one.)

The Talk

It is important to get the feel of the room and the stage in advance. Because it is being videoed, there is a well-defined area (usually a round red carpet) where you need to stay. It’s plenty large so it’s not constraining. Once there is a real audience filling the room and you go out to the red carpet to talk to them, everything is different. I was nervous as hell before I got out there but once I was there, my nerves melted away. The audience helps enormously. They really do provide energy. They want you to succeed and are behind you, even if you have a flub.

You may think you are going to forget your lines, but if you did the work and you have it memorized cold, it just flows. Memorization is a funny phenomenon. As you speak, the next sentence floats up in your mind and is there ready for you when you need it. Since you speak slowly relative to your mind’s speed, you can see this next sentence while speaking the current one. You are prepared for it and can pause, inflect, raise or lower your volume or pitch as best seems to deliver it in the best way possible. This counteracts what some say about memorization. Solid memorization allows you to sound completely natural.

The After

Remember to have a nice meal and a drink after the show! Other time-tested celebratory techniques are also recommended. And then go snooze a little. You deserve it.

 

The weekly CEO Column features Dover Founder & CEO Jothy Rosenberg’s thoughts on product, industry, community, leadership, and more. Center stage, every Monday. Be sure to subscribe to the Doverlog to never miss a beat, and continue to check in right here on our site!

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