X Marks the Spot: Becoming a TEDx Speaker

It’s been a year since my TEDx experience so I thought I’d spill the beans on the process, the tools I found most effective and the emotional roller coaster. Get ready, you’re in for quite the ride.

You don’t have to be a speaker, or even have any prior speaking training, to deliver a TEDx talk. In fact, my TEDx talk was the first time I’d given a public speech on stage since third grade! What you do need, however, according to Chris Anderson, head of TED, is the ability to unlock empathy, stir excitement and promote a shared dream based on a new idea or a fresh take on an existing one. No pressure, right?

Fortunately, once you have an idea in mind, the rest can be learned. Lots of people have asked me how I did it, have commended me on my bravery and have expressed that they’d never be able to do it. If I can do it anyone can do it, so I’d like to share my journey in hopes that it will inspire yours. Even if becoming a TEDx speaker is not a goal of yours, public speaking skills are good to have. No matter who you are or what you do, empathy, creativity and the ability to influence others are three tools that will forever be useful. Bookmark this post, I assure you it will prove valuable for years to come.

I’m going to go through several of the questions I get asked on a regular basis. This is going to be a long one so feel free to jump right into the section that best resonates with you. Let’s start from the beginning:

What is TEDx?

TED is a global community for people who seek a deeper understanding of the world. The platform exists to help spread ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks which are typically required to be 18 minutes or less, 16 minutes being the sweet pot for online views (anything over is too long) and ~10 minutes being the sweet spot for companies to leverage it in their team meetings. 

A TEDx event is an independently organized conference which allows speakers on a local level to deliver TED-like talks with their community live and share their ideas globally through their recording. Each TEDx community runs their event slightly differently. Event-specific information explained in the following post is representative of the TEDxLaval chapter.

How do you get selected?

Unlike the official TED platform, where speakers must be nominated to be considered, TEDx speakers must submit their idea for consideration. As part of my submission process, I had to quickly and clearly be able to articulate my big idea in 2 minutes. Board members watched my video to evaluate my:

  • Storytelling skills and my ability to captivate an audience

  • Creativity and/or the proprietorship of my idea

  • Personality and authenticity

  • Ability to respect the allotted time

  • Ability to explain my topic, however complex, in a digestible way

Whether or not you’re required to submit a video, you usually have the option to, and I strongly recommend you do, it adds so much more vibrancy to your idea. If you have doubts about your ability to check any one of those boxes, it’s best you try and work on it before submitting your video because each of them are crucial to every step that follows.

How do you write a great talk?

Chris Anderson’s book, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, was instrumental in writing my talk. I’ve also heard that his Udemy course is pretty great and shares much of the same information. If you prefer to learn via audio/video rather than good old fashioned books, the course is a good alternative. Some of the key takeaways from his teachings which helped me a great deal are as follows:

  1. Start with identifying the question you want to answer, the problem you’re trying to solve or the experience you want to share.

  2. Don’t start with your language, thoughts and assumptions. Start with the language, thoughts and assumptions of your audience and build your idea in their mind.

  3. Flesh out each point with real examples, stories and/or facts.

  4. The flow of a great talk, although there are hundreds of ways to do it, generally has an intro, context, main concepts, practical applications and a conclusion.

  5. Start strong. This can be achieved by delivering a dose of drama, sparking curiosity, or showing a compelling slide, video or object. You want to tease your audience without giving it all away in the beginning.

  6. Get clear on your throughline. Chris Anderson explains a throughline as follows:

    “Since your goal is to construct something wondrous inside your listeners’ minds, you can think of the through-line as a strong cord or rope onto which you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building. This doesn’t mean every talk can only cover one topic, tell a single story, or just proceed in one direction without diversions. Not at all. It just means that all the pieces need to connect.” He explains this is greater detail in his book.

  7. End powerfully. Powerful endings come full circle and close the loop. This can be done by implying big possibility, nudging your audience to take action or making a personal commitment.

What did you do to practice?

I’ll preface this answer by saying before you begin to recite your talk, you must first believe in yourself, your idea and your mission.

Full disclosure, I believed in myself and my idea but my mission was a moving target. I wanted to say all things to all people… and that’s simply not possible. When you talk to everyone, you’re talking to no one. Because of this, I changed the direction, the flow and delivery at least a hundred times and was still making changes the week before the talk. This is not advised. Ideally, you want to have your content on lock down a month before the event, two weeks at the very least, and just work on getting comfortable with the content and your delivery.

I went through three exercises with every iteration, each one served as gut check. I’d ask myself:

  • What am I trying to build inside my listeners?

  • What is their key takeaway from the talk as it is right now?

  • To explain my talk to a complete stranger in 15 words or less.

The goal was to get consistency in my answers each time. I finally got crystal clear in the 7 days prior and was able to jump in with both feet. 

Even though my talk continuously evolved (again, not recommended), I would rehearse every moment I got. I recommend the following techniques as they were particularly helpful for me:

  • Get guidance from trusted and experienced professionals, it makes the world of difference, especially if you’re new to the stage.

  • Don’t memorize your talk, live it. If you get hung up on memorizing word for word, you’ll fall out of flow and when you lose your place, which you will, you’ll feel utterly disjointed and it will be hard to recover. Living your talk will allow you to pick up with grace.

    Fun fact: there are a few somewhat dramatic pauses in my talk, I try to play them off cool but those are my “Oh shit” moments where I didn’t know what words would come out next. With 7 days to practice the latest version of my talk, I didn’t have enough time to fully live it so I memorized most of it. If you rewatch it with this information in mind, you’ll see where I seem scripted and when I start to loosen up. It’s no surprise that my audience responded better to my realness than my script. Yours will too.

  • Practice in different rooms so you don't get too comfortable with one setting and risk getting thrown off during the live event

  • Practice with the TV/music on so you you train your brain to fight against the distractions

  • Practice in front of people you are comfortable with, we're often more hesitant in front of those who know us best

  • Practice in front of those you don't know well, not to get their feedback just to get comfortable with unfamiliar faces and their authentic reactions to your talk

  • Get a version recorded that you're proud of, even if you read your material, and listen to it between rehearsals. If you're an auditory learner this will be particularly effective.

Were you nervous on stage?

Each speaker only had 5 minutes to rehearse on the official stage before the audience piled in. I remember being backstage as the sound technician put my mic on. I was excited and in slight disbelief but I wouldn’t have described what I felt as nervous, until I walked onto the red carpet, delivered my first three lines and then NOTHING. I drew a complete blank and couldn’t recover. I started over, got to line 3 and got stuck again. I ended up jumping to other parts of the talk just to get familiar with stage and lighting but felt crushed. 

My coach assured me that I’d gotten the nerves out of my system and I’d be fine for the real deal. Well, I was fine but I still forgot 3 minutes of my talk. Three whole minutes. I didn’t even know what parts I forgot but I finished my talk and saw how much time was left on the timer and my heart sank.

Fortunately the parts I forgot were not critical and it flowed regardless. There are a couple of lessons to learn from my experience:

  1. Focus on living your talk instead of memorizing it, that way you can go back to parts you forgot in ways that feel seamless and organic.

  2. It’s hard to live your talk when you’re making changes at the eleventh hour, at a certain point you’ve got to stop making changes and master what you’ve got. This is way harder than it seems but it’s an absolute must. You’ll drive yourself crazy with all the things you “could” be saying. Remember, you don’t have to say it all in this one talk. Let this spark curiosity among your viewers and use this video to guide them to other talks and material that will get them familiar with all you have to offer.

  3. Say more with less. My talk still made total sense without the 3 minutes that escaped my mind. They were nice storytelling elements that, sure, may have made the talk more of a journey, but as it turns out they were not essential to my message. Question your material and always ask yourself if you could have an equal impact with less words. People don’t have time or patience for “fluff.”

What advice do you have for those thinking about doing a TEDx talk?

Some of the most reassuring guidance I was given is that vulnerability is something to be treasured, not hidden from. Vulnerability builds empathy, it strengthens trust and connects you to your audience in ways entertainment, humor or hard facts can’t. So whether that’s forgetting a line (or 3 minutes), needing to stop for water, nervously shaking your hands by your side or shedding a tear - it makes you human and your audience will appreciate your vulnerability far more than they would a “put on” performance.

What’s life after TEDx like?

The TEDx experience was unlike any other. It was the biggest, most exhilarating project I’ve ever worked on. It was all-consuming and I loved every minute of it. Five months of my life was dedicated to preparing and delivering my talk. Twenty weeks of writing, rehearsing in front of my dogs and anyone who would listen. One-hundred and forty days of listening to recordings of myself and rehearsing in every shower and on every commute.

And then it was over.

Of all the great coaching I got, nothing prepared me for the gaping hole I would feel in my life once the TEDx experience was done. More than one month went by before the talk was available online and there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel what I can only describe as phantom nerves. Each morning I’d wake up in a slight panic that I was one day closer to my talk, even though I was a day further away from it, and even though I did not wake up anxious in the days leading up to my talk - it was very strange. Overcoming that feeling required a lot of self-reflection and (attempted) meditation. I had to first understand the void before I could seek to fill it.

And then the talk was released online. 

54 people had watched it before I got the chance to… not exactly the viral sensation I was hoping for but they all got to experience it, to experience me, in a way I hadn’t yet. I’ve never felt more vulnerable. I went on to watch it a hundred times and beat myself up each time. I saw which parts I forgot and all the ways I could’ve done things differently. Then I saw just how much of my heart was poured into having an impact on my audience and I began to understand the void. The woman I was when I stepped on that red carpet was not the woman I was when I thanked my audience at the end. I’d pushed myself to a new limit, I accomplished a bucket list goal and every fibre of my being was moved from the energy in the room. It wasn’t emptiness I was feeling, it was the feeling of levelling up and stepping into unchartered territory; one that I was hungry to feel again. 

And then it hit me… I did a TEDx talk!

I wasn’t going to continue to level up by beating myself down. So, I let the judgement go and for the first time in almost 7 months, I celebrated. I took pride in what I’d accomplished, I sent personalized messages to everyone in my network and shared the link in hopes that it would help them or someone they knew. And wouldn’t you know it, it did.

I started getting messages from people all over the world, inviting me to speak internationally, telling me how they’re using my goal setting methodology and how the video is being used to motivate sales teams and girls in Africa alike. 

It has sparked a real passion for public speaking and desire for mastering my craft. It has also opened more doors than I could’ve possibly imagined. I’m now coaching this year’s speakers to help prepare them for one of the biggest moments of their lives and my hope is that this article helps you on your journey as well.

Keep bossing up,
SK