5 steps to giving a perfect TED Talk

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If you’re pursuing a speaking career, you’ve likely seen or heard about TED Talks. But have you ever thought about giving one? TED Talks have become one of the most high-profile examples of public speaking gigs today. If you are excited to learn more about how to give a TED Talk or TEDx talk, let this be your guide! (Interested in other avenues for public speaking? We have a piece on how to best get started here.)

What is a TED Talk?

TED originated in the 1980s on the West Coast as a forum for learning about technological developments in particular in Silicon Valley. In the 1990s, the annual conference grew to a major event, spinning off independent events in major cities around the world under the TEDx banner in the 2000s.

According to TEDx Cambridge director Tamsen Webster, TED Talks are much more exclusive and invite-only, since speakers are invited from around the world. But TEDx Talks, the local, community-based independent forums for TED, are easier to access. If you speak at a TEDx, you’re recorded as a TEDx speaker, but your video may be promoted to the official TED website, ted.com and published on the TEDx official YouTube channel.

Some TEDx speakers, such as academic researcher Brené Brown, get invited to the “Big TED” stage after a breakout performance on the TEDx stage. In Brown’s case, her 2010 TEDx Houston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability”, became a top 5-viewed TED Talk online, and she followed it up with a TED Talk titled “Listening to Shame” in 2012. But, TEDx Cambridge director Tamsen Webster cautions, such cases are rare. Hear more from her interview with Grant Baldwin here (discussion of TEDx gigs begins around the 11:30 mark).

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How to give a TED Talk in 5 steps

Want to learn how to give a TED Talk? Read on for 5 steps to make it unforgettable:

1. Begin with the end in mind

Have you ever been left at the end of a speech wondering, “What was the point of this talk?” Don’t do that to your audience. When creating your talk, determine the destination that you want to take them to. Once you pick a point, then you can work backwards and reverse engineer how to get your audience to that place. (for more on finding your big idea, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast)

Answer “now what?” for the audience. Your audience is always asking two questions: so what and now what? So what means what does this have to do with me? Now what is what you want the audience to do as a result of your talk. Give them action steps to implement what you taught them. If they hear you speak but literally don’t do anything differently, what’s the point?

2. Hone your big idea

Professional speakers often have an extra barrier to cross when it comes to being selected even for a TEDx event. While not prohibited from participanting, they are generally discouraged unless they have a particularly original new idea. In Webster’s words, “We want to catch the rising star. We want the new idea before it’s out there. If you’ve already got the book talk, and you’re already making money with that talk, that’s probably not the talk that we want.”

What’s the type of idea that TED or TEDx organizers are typically looking for? According to Webster, it needs to have the three Is: Interesting, Important, and Individual. In other words, it needs to have a speaker 1) who is an authority on the topic (due to background, life experiences, research, etc.), 2) who can address an important unmet need in the world, and 3) be passionate to share about it.

One way to break down the big idea is looking at a problem, an idea and a change. Webster gives the example of an entrepreneur unsuccessfully chasing work-life balance. The problem they see is that they want less pressure in their non-work lives. The idea Webster proposes is that what entrepreurs actually need to achieve work-life balance are not external skills: “That’s adding more pressure on you’re on entrepreneur already.” The change could be choosing to accept internal skills and abilities and delegating more things to de-stress.

3. Write out your material and tell a story

Professional speakers don’t just make stuff up. They don’t write a few thoughts on a notecard and then shoot from the hip for an entire presentation. They take the time to write and carefully craft their material.

Humans relate to stories. We connect to stories. Funny stories. Sad stories. Inspirational stories. We love stories. So tell them. Lots of them. Stories will keep your audience engaged and are also easier for you to memorize. Read this super helpful post by my speaker pal Josh Sundquist for his tips on writing your speech, setting your fee, and booking your first gigs.

There’s nothing wrong with telling a 3rd person story or using some case study or example. Telling stories that you lived and experienced generally makes the story better for you and the audience. For the audience, they can often times find themselves in your story. For you as the speaker, it’s much easier (and more powerful) to tell a story that you lived versus one you read in a book.

4. Prepare the presentation

Oftentimes speakers want to have Powerpoint or Keynote slides to use as notes for their presentation. This is lazy. Don’t do this. Any slides you use should be an enhancement not a replacement of your talk. If you’re just going to stand up there and read off the screen, what does the audience need you for?

Use Powerpoint to show images that make a point. Some speakers will build their talk around their slides. Start with the talk FIRST and then determine if slides are needed or necessary. Slides are generally most effective for showing images or videos that can’t be conveyed in words. For example, if you were in some death-defying crash and that’s part of your talk, it’s one thing to tell that story, but it’s incredibly more powerful if you show pictures or video of it all.

Consider writing out your material. Professional speakers don’t just make stuff up. They don’t write a few thoughts on a notecard and then shoot from the hip for an entire presentation. They take the time to write and carefully craft their material. There is no right way to create a talk. You don’t need to memorize your talk like a script, but manuscripting can help you to think through the entire presentation and to know exactly how it all flows together. Some speakers prefer to have an outline with several bullet points and flesh it out from there. Every speaker is different. Find a process that works for you.

5. On stage, be an amplified version of you

The bigger the venue, the bigger you need to be on stage. The way you would communicate to a group of 10 people is very different than how you would need to communicate to a room of 10,000. Both should be an authentic version of you, but simply amplified to the setting. The bottom line is don’t try to be something you’re not on stage. Be you.

Keep it slow and steady. When you are talking really fast, it becomes difficult for the audience to follow. It’s hard to keep up and process. Plus the faster you talk, the harder it is to understand what you’re saying. So slow down and enunciate. Give the audience the chance to keep up with where you’re going.

Don’t be afraid of the silence. The silence to a speaker can feel deafening but it can be powerful. Silence shows confidence that you’re in control of the talk and the room and you’re continuing to guide them towards a common purpose. When you make a strong point, don’t rush to the next line. Stop and let it hang there. The silence is your friend.


All in all, though giving a TED and TEDx Talk isn’t going to drive revenue for anyone’s speaking business, it can provide a tremendous platform for reach in your area of expertise, and giving either one is a great feather in anyone’s cap.

If you found this piece helpful, we have a great podcast with Tamsen Webster digging even deeper into the world of TED–especially the ins and outs of the TEDx selection process! She tells us how she helps her speakers prepare for their TEDx talks, how you can get your foot in the door with your local TEDx and how to know if your idea is interesting enough to be considered for a TEDx talk. You can listen to this “inside look” at TED here. Want to read more about speaking tips? Take a look at our 100 tips for motivational speaking for any speaking engagement!

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While you mull all of that over, here are a few rapid fire FAQs about TED Talks. Happy speaking!

What does TED Talk stand for?

TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, the original topics of TED Talks when the organization launched in the mid-1980s.

How long is a TED Talk?

TED Talks are limited in length to 18 minutes or less.

How much do you get paid to give a TED Talk?

Although TED and TEDx Conference speakers do not get paid, presenters may receive travel and lodging costs for the conference they speak at.

Does TED have any tips for giving a TED Talk?

TED has many resources for aspiring speakers at ted.com. And some past TED speakers have given talks of their own on how to deliver a great TED Talk! See below for a video from TED Curator Chris Anderson, who shares his secret ingredient that all the best ones have in common, along with four ways to make it work for you.



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