What I learnt working with TEDx speakers?
For the last year I have had the opportunity to participate in the organization of the biggest TEDx event in Bulgaria – namely TEDxVitosha. During my work I had the privilege to work with amazing people coming from all around the world – leaders and professionals in numerous spheres of public life. I spent hours listening to their ideas, understanding their backgrounds and motivations, giving feedback and guiding them to give their best on the stage. Still influenced by the last event we organized at the end of June “Beyond the Obvious”, I came to realize that although there are not two people alike, there are a few characteristics that all TEDx speakers have in common.
I will share some insights and I hope they might be of help to anyone, dreaming to become a TEDx speaker or just interested in improving their public speaking skills.
But before that…
Back to basics
The secret ingredient is not so secret after all.
I would start as if I were preparing you for your TED talk. First we lay the foundation. What is an idea, actually? And before your mind gets crazy from all the resources in Google, or the indefinite vastness of this definition, allow me to offer you a simpler solution. Take the word of Mr. Chris Anderson, CEO and main curator of TED: “TED’s secret to great public speaking”. In just 7 minutes Chris explains the whole concept behind every great TED talk you have ever watched.
“An idea is a pattern of information that helps you understand and navigate the world.”
Ideas are important because they are the fabric of our human behavior, they are powerful, because they can change how we perceive the world in general. During your TED talk you have the opportunity to connect with the audience and implant the seed of your idea in their minds.
The slogan of TED is “ideas, worth spreading”. So it’s not only important to have a great idea, but also that it’s worth sharing. Does your idea benefit only you or your organization? If “yes”, then most probably it’s not an idea worth sharing. “…but if you believe your idea has the potential to brighten someone else’s day, or change their perspective for the better, or inspire someone to do things differently, then you have the core ingredient to a truly great talk, one that can be a gift to them and to all of us.”
I am often asked “How can I become a TED speaker?” I answer “Do you have an idea worth spreading?
Following all good practices cannot compensate for the lack of an idea worth spreading. So, start from the beginning.
Now, let’s assume you have a great idea worth spreading. What are the 5 challenges I foresee?
Great people are (usually) humble.
I add usually because there are always exceptions to the rule. These people have their charm as well, but let’s discuss them later. Following my own personal experience, I have come to believe that truly great people are not necessarily self-promoters, but are often quiet about their own triumphs.
Surrounded by entrepreneurs, investors and all kinds of smart and successful people, I understood that most often than not it’s not always the noisiest who has a real positive impact on the world. You can’t judge the book by its covers. In an environment, where founders are expected to hustle and do constant marketing, you can easily be caught up in the dangerous net of public image.
Great people don’t like talking about their greatness. They are self-conscious about their confidence but they just don’t feel comfortable talking about themselves. And often they forgot to include their own accomplishments in the first draft of their TED talk. “How much should I include? But now it’s all about me???” Some of the concerns I hear repeatedly. Although I agree that talking in “I” pronouns is usually a bad idea, when it comes to TED, think twice. Yes, there are numerous TED talks where the CV of the speaker is not included in any way, but unless your name is Bill Gates or Sir Ken Robinson, do share more about your achievements. And even names like Elizabeth Gilbert, the proclaimed world writer of “Eat, pray, love” starts with bits of her CV in her super famous TED talk “Your elusive creative genius”. Note though that her idea is not talking about her immense talent but rather sharing with all of us, how we can find our own genius.
First, sharing your expertise is important because it connects you with those listening. In this way, you are creating a bond – a bond through which people can trust you and listen to you.
Second, sharing the things you are proud of gives you agency that you are the right person to talk about the specific topic. All lives are equal and strong talks can come from anywhere, but there is always an extraordinary flavor in it coming from your experience. You are on the stage to share your story – have you dedicated your whole life to this particular mission? Have you learnt something special through your career? Have you achieved something despite the odds? And so on.
2. Less is more
When crafting your first drafts, pretty fast it would become obvious that behind the initial concept of your idea, there are numerous small ideas in the making. And you can get easily distracted. That is why it’s important to spend some time and dig deeper into what is your core idea. And starting from there to build your arguments and examples.
For example, during our last TEDx event I worked with Aleksandar Nikolov, one of the creators of “Last man’s gift” – a documentary media project promoting organ donation in Bulgaria. At first, we thought his talk should be concentrated on organ donation, after all his personal story is affected by this topic, but after several iterations we understood that his main idea is the power of documentary for positive social change. The organ donation is only the use case, his way of learning more about his thesis.
The more you practice though, the more confused you become on what to add/remove from the draft. It’s like swirling in a washing machine. Some things become obsolete, but others need add-ons. When this happens, and it’s normal, go back to your core idea and start building from there. Choose the examples which are the strongest, where there are contradictions, the ones which create drama. Remove all “nice to haves”, all parasite adjectives, all details that don’t add up. Make it as simple as possible, don’t overcomplicate things.
3. Practice makes perfect
Working with TEDx speakers I faced not only humble people, but also ones who are cocky, entitled. And that’s fine – the problem is that they think they are too good to practice. And it might become a bad joke. It might be easier for you – you are born on the stage or have experience, still you need to practice. Some speakers do not comprehend the amount of time and effort they need in preparing. And I am not saying these people will fail, I am saying their talk can be 5 times stronger if they do not underestimate the value of rehearsals. Do not forget – TED gives you access to millions of people via their youtube channel and website. You will be on the stage for only 15 minutes, but your video on Youtube will stay forever, so do your best to be proud of the end result. Bill Gates also rehearses his talks.
Discipline and following deadlines are not only important for you, but also to the whole TED team which is engaged in the overall organization of a huge event.
4. The bigger picture
Going back to the “worth spreading” part. Let’s take Ivaylo Lefterov and his amazing project “SVART” as an example. SVART is the first energy-positive, carbon-neutral, waste-free, off-grid hotel in the world. That’s great, but “So what?” (I always love asking this provocative question) So what – it’s an amazing project, BRAVO. Next one, please. SVART is an innovation by itself and Ivaylo’s team has created something out of this world, but TED is not about promoting great products, organizations or people – it’s about the bigger picture. What can other architects learn from SVART? How is it changing the whole construction industry? How is it making hotel design more sustainable? This is the idea worth exploring and the one eligible for the TEDx stage, meeting the “criteria”. Otherwise, the content will be considered as advertisement and will not be published on TED channels. (For the record, Ivaylo delivered an amazing talk on the “Future of travel”)
5. The umami element
If you want to have a good TED talk you must have a captivating beginning, clear thesis, and an ending to be remembered. I will stress on the last one. Endings are super powerful when they are surprising. You are leading the audience carefully and slowly, building up the tension to get to the final point – the “aha” moment, that twist in the plot, nobody has expected. For instance, in her TEDx talk Bilyana Kostov asks the question “Can you have it all?” but in the end she actually poses a different question, much more important and relevant.
The title of your talk is as important as the content itself. Some of the best practices recommend to include the main keywords and state the topic in a question. Do make a research on previous TED talks on the same topic to familiarize with what has been already used and try to stand out.
It’s all about storytelling.
Put yourself in the shoes of the viewer. Ask yourself what inspires you? What makes you rewatch your favorite movies over and over again, and listen to the same songs thousands of times? Rewatching the best TED talks – some recorded in the previous decade but still relevant to nowadays? What are the human drives that never go out of style?
In his talk Paul Rush reminded how art can help us remember that all of life is worth experiencing. In this talk he reminded us of the importance to care. I invite you to do the same when you prepare for a TED talk – why do YOU care? The audience is much more likely to care if you care.
Some great talks are personal. Others share valuable knowledge. Third, inspire us to be, to do. But they all either touch a sense, evoke an emotion, or transfer us through space and time and help us discover something new about us and the world.
It’s the richness of possibilities that can empower you to experiment, to challenge yourself, to seek beyond the obvious and find the story that makes your life special. It might be an idea worth sharing, who knows, but it is definitely one worth living.
The surprising golden egg of my TED work is that all those traits which make for a great TED speaker, actually help us be better people off stage.
Read more: 5 любими теми в TED