As a two-time TEDx speaker and huge fan of TED talks, I've come to learn a few things about what makes a TED talk great. If you are getting ready to give one and want to make it the best it can be, use the following checklist to ensure your speech is inspiring, memorable, and completely you.
1. Share a specific personal story
I use the word "specific" because your talk is short -- you only have 18 minutes. To try to pack in a series of stories that span over the course of 20-50 years means you can't provide a lot of detail or important turning points. Your speech will be vague and lack the emotional details that make personal stories interesting. Pinpoint a particular moment in your life - a day, an event, a season, or a string of events that tie into a bigger moment. Keep your story focused on the theme of your talk and make sure that thread is clearly woven into the story. Omit parts that don't move the story forward. Each moment is precious!
2. Use personal photos and/or beautifully designed slides
We've all sat through presentations with boring slides, text-heavy images, and generic photos. Your slides should be there to support your story and lessons, not serve as a crutch for you or a distraction from what you are saying! Use images sparingly and only use them if they add humor, information, context, or beauty to your speech. Be thoughtful about each slide and make sure it is really important that the audience sees each one. It's okay to have to two-three amazing slides instead of 15-20 boring ones.
3. Don't use the teleprompter or notes
Not everyone who gets on the TED stage is a professional speaker and that is what makes TED so diverse and interesting. However, using a teleprompter to deliver a TED speech is a crime! This is where you're going to get some tough love from me, k? As humans, we know when someone is giving a speech from the heart, and we know when someone is reading to us from a screen. It's a different experience. It's a different delivery. It's a disgrace. When it comes down to it, it's an 18-minute speech and you have 6+ months to write and memorize it. If you can't do that, you shouldn't give the speech. The audience will understand if you are not a perfect speaker. If you stumble, forget your words, or look nervous, that's okay and is still preferable to reading from a screen. Trust me on this.
4. Give the audience something to think about at the end
Telling your story is a great way to provide context, draw the audience in, inspire others, and introduce your subject. But, be sure that you are leaving them with something to think about that applies to their own life, too. One small call to action at the end will get them thinking about what they're doing, what they're not doing, what they'd like to change, and how they can think differently about their own circumstances. You could frame it as a challenge, an opportunity, or a suggestion for a happier/more productive/more meaningful or (fill in the blank) life. Keep it simple and make sure your talk builds up to it.
5. Begin with the end in mind
This tip is a quote from Stephen Covey, the famed author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He is absolutely right - this doesn't just apply to business ideas, beginning with the end in mind is the golden rule on stage as well. If you know where you want to take your audience, you can build a compelling argument, ask a poignant question, or use an interesting hook at the beginning to tie into your final point. Make sure you are leading your audience somewhere and let them know what to expect right off the bat. They will be eager to follow if you let them in on the goal.
6. Wear something simple and put together
This may seem like a simple tip, but it's an important element of public speaking. Have you ever seen someone get on stage wearing a brightly-colored suit, or an overwhelming striped dress? Clothing makes a big difference on stage not just for your own image, but also because your audience is looking at you for 18 straight minutes and your outfit could be hurting their eyes, distracting them from what you are saying, or actually taking away from the impact of your speech. To be as inspiring as possible, avoid bright colors, overly accessorized outfits, extra gear that could cover your face or make it hard to see you, and extra layers of clothing. From a technical standpoint, you also want to avoid anything that could rub up against the microphone and cause static. Keep your outfit simple, put together, and easy on the eyes. Your audience will appreciate it!
7. Ask lots of friends about your strengths and what stands out about you
If you don't do a lot of public speaking, you may be tempted to look at past TED talks to get an idea of what style you should use to give your talk. You may be looking at body language, use of the stage, speaking styles, and delivery methods. While doing your homework is an awesome way to start building a speech, sometimes too much of the wrong kind of homework can actually be a detriment! If you try to emulate others too much, you lose your unique style. You will come off inauthentic and it will be hard for your audience to follow your message. By asking friends what they see as your strengths and what stands out about YOU, you can start crafting a speech delivery method that matches who you are. For example, I know I am not a super dramatic speaker and I don't like to move around a lot. Instead of trying to dominate the stage with tons of movement and energy, I play up my strengths by staying still, using humor, and speaking from the heart. Develop your own style and don't worry if it looks like no one else's - that's actually a good thing.
8. Freak out before you get on stage
Being on a big stage with a large audience and realizing that your talk will be recorded and archived on the TED website for millions of people to see is a daunting thought. There's no disputing that. Instead of telling yourself not to be nervous and trying to push down any fear, anxiety, or worry of not being good enough, let those feelings out. As soon as you feel them coming (they came about a week before my last talk), give into them. Really feel them. Recognize where they are in your body. Breathe into them. Run as fast as you can from that place in your body. Let those feelings out. Cry. Write. Talk about what you are scared of. Take care of yourself for a few days leading up to the talk by giving your brain a break from heavy work, doing things that make you happy, and getting yourself into a positive state of mind before you get on stage. If you are nervous the day of the speech, just know that is normal and use that energy to fuel your enthusiasm. I always tell myself the fear is actually excitement to help others and by reassigning it, it helps me give a better speech.
Very few people get the opportunity to get on a TED stage. Rather than make the whole experience about your nervousness, fear of not being perfect, worry that no one will like it, and whether or not you will fall on the way to the stage, just remember that this is an exciting time and you did a lot of work to get here! Have fun with the experience and know that it is not the pinnacle of your life, it is another moment that makes you who you are. Own that.