How to Write a TED Talk: 4 Key Steps

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Giving a TED talk is an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to share your message with the world, but crafting the perfect talk can be challenging. In order to captivate your audience and present your idea in a compelling manner, you need to carefully plan every aspect of your presentation with creativity and a deep understanding of your message.

In this article, we’ll explain how to write a TED talk successfully, breaking down the major steps involved in every part of the process and providing helpful advice so your talk can be the best possible presentation of your idea worth sharing.

Step 1: Find Your Big Idea

The first and most important step in crafting compelling TED or TEDx talks is finding your big idea. If you’re wondering how to write a TED talk, you may already know what this idea is. But if not, here are some of the most important aspects of a successful TED topic:

A New Perspective

TED or TEDx talks are not like other public speaking keynotes; instead, TED is looking for speakers who want to share new ideas (or new takes on old ideas) with the world. They want to catch the next big idea before the world knows about it.

This is why, if you’re an aspiring or actual professional public speaker, your TED talk will need to be different to your normal talk. In fact, TED generally discourages public speakers simply because they want ideas that haven’t been covered before.

A good rule of thumb is that if you can find other speakers sharing the same message, it probably won’t make a good TED talk. Trying to think of something no one has thought of before can seem impossible, but you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. In fact, the most successful TED talks are usually fresh perspectives on popular topics.

A Concise Message

Another thing to keep in mind when developing your TED talk topic is that the structure is also very different to regular keynote talks. This is because of a particular defining feature of TED talks: brevity. TED places an absolute limit on length at 18 minutes, but this is a cap, not a goal. Most TED speakers will be old to aim for either 3, 6 or 9 minute talks.

For this reason, it’s important to make your topic as concise as possible. Don’t structure it around 3 points or 5 steps. Focus your talk on one single idea and build around that clear and concise message. Everything in your talk should be focused on that foundational premise.

An Idea Within Your Area of Expertise

Another important aspect of your idea is your relationship to it. TED is looking for speakers who are uniquely qualified to speak on the topic they propose for a talk. This may sound intimidating, especially if you don’t have any relevant educational qualification, but this doesn’t always mean having a PhD in a field.

It can just as easily be a unique perspective on your topic through personal experience. This kind of personal connection to an idea makes your talk resonate more effectively with your audience.

Something that You’re Passionate About

When choosing an idea to build a TED talk around, it’s important to select something you’re deeply passionate about. An audience can tell how passionate a speaker is about what they’re speaking on. Even if you have a fresh idea and a unique perspective on a subject, a lack of passion will make it difficult for an audience to resonate with what you’re saying. After all, why should they care more than you do?

Meeting an Unmet Need

A big part of giving a TED talk is attempting to meet an unmet need in the world. This can be related to large-scale social and cultural issues, but it can be as simple as helping people meet a goal or gain a valuable new perspective. If your area of expertise and passion is relatively niche, try to hone your idea into a more universal goal or need that people have.

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Step 2: Structure Your Talk Effectively

Developing your core idea is a good start, but you still need to develop it into a full TED talk. As you do this, there are a few key principles to keep in mind. Here are some of the ways to make sure your talk is structured effectively:

Begin With the End in Mind

Have you ever gotten to the end of speech and been left wondering, “What was the point of that?” You don’t want your audience to be left with that feeling. That’s why, before trying to build the peripheral aspects of your talk, you should have a concrete idea of the destination you want your audience to arrive at by the end of the talk. Then, throughout your preparation, you should always keep that destination in mind as you work backwards to get your audience to that point.

As Grant Baldwin explains in his book, The Successful Speaker, you should always deliver your talk with two crucial questions in mind: “So what?” and “Now what?” “So what?” asks why your audience should care about your topic and how it applies to them, and “Now what?” asks what actionable steps they should take as a result.

Tell a Story

The next important thing to do when developing a TED talk is to structure your talk around a story. Academic lectures tend to be very matter-of-fact, with the speaker telling the audience what the message is at the outset and then elaborating, but this method makes for an ineffective and boring TED talk.

Instead, try to develop your TED talk around a story. You want your talk to captivate your audience, and humans love stories. We relate to them on an intuitive and emotional level, making this speaking strategy incredibly effective.

Some speakers wondering how to write a TED talk may be intimidated by the fact that they don’t have any relevant personal anecdotes from their life which relate to their topic, but this doesn’t have to stop you from using a story to your advantage. First, make sure you’ve tried thinking outside the box. A story may not appear to have any relevance to your topic initially, but it’s often possible to tie seemingly irrelevant stories in.

However, if you still can’t think of any way to tie your own lived experience to your topic, it’s okay to use stories about others or a case study instead. These don’t have the same emotional impact as your own story, but it’s better than not telling a story at all.

Outline

An important step in building a successful TED talk is outlining your talk. This can help you structure your talk without getting stuck in the finer details of delivery. Writing a top-level outline of your talk can also help you have a better grasp of the flow of your talk, leading to a more coherent and purposeful delivery.

Because of the time limit, don’t make your outline too extensive or ambitious. Your top 3 headings should be the introduction, body and conclusion of your talk. Under those sections, write your top points, but don’t try to be too exhaustive yet. It’s best to grasp the overall structure of the talk before trying to memorize the rest of it.

Step 3: Build Out Your Talk

Write Out Your Material

Now that you have a basic idea of the overall structure, it’s time to fill in your outline with specifics. Because of the brief nature of TED talks, it’s important to plan every aspect of your presentation in detail.

This isn’t a situation where some notecards and improvisation skill will suffice. You’ll need to have an exhaustive understanding of your material from the opening line to the conclusion and everything in between.

That’s why it’s recommended that you write out your material, carefully crafting your lines, transitions, jokes and stories to resonate as well as possible with your audience. However, you absolutely should not expect to read off of a written script or teleprompter when delivering your talk.

Audience members can tell when you’re reading a talk instead of delivering it, and this almost always leads them to disengage. Instead, you should memorize the entirety of your talk to the point where you can deliver your talk without referencing any notes or prompts.

Craft a Compelling Opening

A big part of delivering a successful TED talk is grabbing the audience’s attention from the moment you take the stage. The opening lines of your talk should be a carefully planned hook to accomplish this goal. Depending on your topic, this can be done in several different ways.

Some common examples include making a statement that will surprise or shock the audience, asking a question that grabs their attention by making them think or opening with a profound quote. However you choose to open your talk, it should set up the remainder of your talk and provide an overarching question or or conflict that will be resolved by your conclusion.

Use Visual Aids Sparingly

Sometimes, a TED speaker will make the mistake of attempting to have their entire presentation on visual aids such as Keynote or PowerPoint slides. In reality, visual aids should be used sparingly, if at all. After all, if your audience can simply read everything you’re telling them on your slides, why do they even need you?

Instead, you should build your talk first and then determine if slides would enhance your TED talk or merely direct audience attention elsewhere. There are instances where slides can be useful, however. For example, if you’re telling a story about your life, a well-placed picture can help put the audience in your shoes.

Slides can also be useful when representing complex data that involves numbers and statistics. When these are shown visually, such as on a graph, audiences are more likely to understand how statistics support your idea.

Write a Conclusion that Resonates

As you write the conclusion for your TED talk, make sure it ties the speech together in a satisfying way. Succinctly restate your conclusion with a key takeaway, and resolve any questions or mysteries you left hanging earlier in the talk.

As always, keep the questions “So what?” and “Now what?” at the front of your mind. Make sure the audience has a clear understanding of how your topic applies to them, and deliver a key takeaway and actionable steps they can take as a result of what you tell them.

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Step 4: Enhance Your Presentation

Rehearse Your Talk

Rehearsing your TED talk will help you deliver your thoughts with confidence and effectiveness. As we’ve discussed, even the finest details of TED talks should be planned and practiced in advance. Start your rehearsal process by practicing to yourself, mostly paying attention to pacing and timing.

You should be able to give your entire presentation within the allotted time slot without rushing your delivery or dragging things out. If you can’t, you may need to either cut unnecessary material from your talk or add material to fill out the time.

Once you’ve rehearsed the talk by yourself several times and have a good feel for pacing, try giving the talk to friends and family members while asking for feedback. You should also ask if you have any noticeable verbal tics – words like “um” or “uh” that you use too often. Even some connecting phrases like “in fact” or “and then” can be distracting if used too much. It’s better to work these out in rehearsal before you take the TED stage.

By the end of the process, you should have rehearsed your talk dozens – if not hundreds – of times. You should have an intuitive and natural feel for the material, being able to effectively deliver transitions, stories and jokes in a way that feels natural. The more you practice the talk, the better your presentation will be.

Practice Your Stage Presence

While practicing the material itself is incredibly important, it’s not the only part of your TED talk you should rehearse. Body language is also a huge part of engaging your audience, and can immensely influence the way your audience perceives you. Watch other talks from TED events online and try to pick up on how the most successful of these speakers use body language to their advantage.

You should try to come off as relaxed, but passionate about your topic. Standing up straight with an open posture can make you appear confident, but approachable. Eye contact is also important to an effective stage presence. Practice making eye contact with different parts of your audience. This creates a connection and makes your talk feel more personal. You should avoid staring down at all costs. Instead, focus on the audience as if you were having a conversation with them.

During your early rehearsals, you should keep the focus on your material, but as you get a better grasp of that, increasingly focus on your posture, gestures and facial expressions. Incorporate movement into your practice sessions and video your rehearsal. This can be incredibly insightful, especially when you compare your movements to other TED talks.

Walking around the stage can help your talk come off as more dynamic and engaging, but you should be careful not to overdo it to the point of causing distraction. Body language should complement your speech, not overshadow it.

Conclusion

As you can see, crafting a successful TED talk is an involved process that goes beyond simply having a great idea. By following the steps we’ve outlined in this article, you can build a memorable and impactful talk that will leave a lasting impression on your audience.

As you pursue this process, keep your passion for your topic at the forefront. With careful preparation and a genuine desire to share your ideas, you can deliver a TED talk that not only captivates your audience but also contributes meaningfully to the wider world.

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