Q&A: Everything You Should Know About TED/TEDx (And How To Speak At One Of Their Events)

Table of Contents

Editor’s Note: This Q&A was adapted from Episode #112 of The Speaker Lab Podcast.


Grant Baldwin

What’s up, friends? Today I’m joined by my friend Tamsen Webster, who is a speaker, coach and a consultant, and a TED wizard. Tamsen, thanks for hanging out with us.

Let’s start by giving us an overview of what you do in the speaking world, the speaking that you do, the coaching that you do with speakers, and then your involvement with TED as well.

Tamsen Webster

Absolutely. So the easiest way to sum up everything I do, from a speaking standpoint and from a presentation strategy and coach standpoint, is that I help people find and talk about the power of their ideas. Each person has a really interesting idea buried in them somewhere, but a lot of times we just lack the words and lack the framework and lack the tools to be able to figure out how to get it out there most powerfully.

Tamsen’s Role Within the TED/TEDx Community

Grant Baldwin

I’m interested to hear also about your involvement with TED. What do you do with TED and TEDx and what does that look like?

Tamsen Webster

So my official title with TEDx is I am the executive producer of TEDx Cambridge. I liked TED wizard better, so I might adopt that.

TEDx Cambridge is a locally organized Ted Talk event, and TEDx Cambridge happens to be the oldest one in the country. The first license that was issued is older than my tenure there. I’ve been there for the last four years at TEDx Cambridge and my role is multifold, actually. I help the executive director make all the decisions on who speaks on the TEDx Cambridge stage, I oversee all the coaching for the speakers for what they’re doing, and I design the coaching process for those speakers.

And it’s pretty hands on at TEDx Cambridge because on any given event, we only have six speakers, so we make sure that they get lots of love from us and handholding. And so far, the results have been good. My direct record for getting videos promoted to TED.com is I’ve gotten officially, I’ve gotten three, but I can say under the radar that unofficially, there are two more coming. So 5 out of 38 speakers, which I’m excited about.

The Difference Between TED and TEDx

Grant Baldwin

That’s very cool. Very cool. So let’s start by kind of debunking the myth that TED and TEDx are the same thing. Can you explain some of the differences? Because here’s so many speakers that say, I gave a TED Talk and it’s like, well, you probably didn’t. So what are the differences there?

Tamsen Webster

Honestly, it’s pretty arcane and it’s probably just people who are involved with Ted and TEDx that are going to get upset a little bit if you misrepresent. But I do believe very strongly that there’s no shame in being A, a TEDx speaker, first and foremost, and B, I think you look more generous and more knowledgeable when you are able to say that difference.

So what is that difference? The generally accepted delineation distinction between the two is that a TED speaker is a speaker who was invited by TED itself, not a TEDx event, but TED based in New York, to speak at one of TED’s own conferences. Which means that as a speaker, you spoke at, we call it Big TED. Big TED in Vancouver, at TED Summit, at TED Global, TED Women, TED Med, TED Active, etc. Or you are a speaker who spoke at one of the corporations that has an arrangement with TED, like TED at IMB, TED at State Street, and others. Those are the only things that really classify you to be a “TED Speaker.”

Now, TEDx speakers are any speaker who spoke at a locally organized Ted event, which would be any, you know, TEDx Boston, TEDx Phoenix, TEDx Beacon Street, TEDx University, Nevada, Las Vegas, TEDx Toronto, Sydney, Nashville, all those other places. And so in my mind, if you speak at a TEDx, you’re a TEDx speaker. Now, where it gets confusing is that as a TEDx speaker, you can have your video promoted, as it’s called, to TED.com. In other words, when you speak at a TEDx event, depending on the level of the event, those talks are videoed and they get published to the Big TED YouTube channel. Big TED takes a look at some of those videos. And every year, only about 40 or 45 TEDx videos get promoted out of about 56,000 talks a year.

Grant Baldwin


Tamsen Webster

Yeah, so think about it this way. There are eight TEDx events a day on average. The average TEDx event has two to three sessions of speakers. A session typically has six speakers. So let’s say, even to be conservative, it’s eight events a day of, let’s say, 15 speakers, 365 days a year. And all of those videos are just churning out into the marketplace. And as I said, TED only reserves 40 to 45 slots because the rest of the slots are filled with the speakers that spoke at their own events. So it’s really hard to get your video promoted.

So it is possible that someone is a TEDx speaker who then had their video promoted to TED.com. And while that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the people who’ve had their talk promoted to TED.com have slightly more ability to say that. And the reason why I would say that is if you pay attention. Simon Sinek’s talk, for instance, was at TEDx Puget Sounds. It was a TEDx event, but everyone’s going to refer to Simon Sinek as a TED speaker. But of course, he’s now gone and spoken on the main TED stage.

Same thing is true with Brene Brown. She originally spoke at TEDx Houston, but she is a TED speaker. And this was true for Amy Cuddy, though this was prior to my years at TEDx Cambridge. Amy Cuddy originally gave that talk on the TEDx Cambridge stage. And when TED asked her to come and give that talk again on the TED stage, they asked us to take our original video down and they replaced it with her main TED Talk on the Big TED stage.

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TEDx Cambridge

Grant Baldwin

So you said that you bring in speakers for TEDx Cambridge events. Is that an annual event? Or do you do that multiple times a year?

Tamsen Webster

The previous three years that I’ve been the executive producer, we’ve done two events per year of six speakers each. We take a little bit of a different approach. We do it at the Boston Opera House — it’s this big, beautiful, gorgeous building that seats 2,600 people. So we’re actually also one of the largest TEDx events out there by attendance. So we’ve done two events per year this year. We’re flipping it up a little bit. Instead of two events, we’re doing one event in the fall. So we’re only doing one event with the big stage, and we’re replacing the earlier event in the spring with three salon style events. So two speakers each. Three of those.

Grant Baldwin

Okay, so in an average year, you’re helping put on an event or a couple of events that will have a total of around twelve speakers. So just for context sake, how many speakers would you have apply to get those twelve slots?

Tamsen Webster

Hundreds. Hundreds. This is one of the things that often confuses people when they say, well, how do I get a TEDx Talk? There’s no one simple answer, because every TEDx event treats it differently. So some events are invite only, straight up invite only. TEDx Portland, for instance, is only by invite. By and large, I would say that TEDx Cambridge is pretty much only by invite, though we do have a speaker nomination form on our website.

Some events are only through their speaker nomination forms, and so each event is different. But TEDx Cambridge is generally looking all the time to find people. And yes, I have people come to me and say, hey, what do you think about this idea? Is it a TEDx idea first of all, is it a TEDx Cambridge idea second of all? But most of the time the executive director and I joke that our version of ABC (Always Be Closing) is Always Be Curating.

So we are constantly on the hunt. And so, yeah, I always warn people when I start talking to them, I’m like, just so you know, I’m going to be listening for your TED  idea while you’re talking to me. And yeah, if I ever ask strangely probing questions of people I’ve just met, it’s usually because I’m trying to find the idea and I want to grab somebody before somebody else figures out that they’ve got a great idea to catch.

Grant Baldwin

It’s like catching a shooting star.

Tamsen Webster


How to Speak at a TEDx Event

Grant Baldwin

So because every TEDx event picks and chooses speakers differently, how would I, in my local event know how to get my foot in the door?

Tamsen Webster

Your best bet is to ask around. And the first thing I would say is if you know anyone who’s spoken at your local TEDx event, start with them. The speakers are going to be the ones that are going to give you the true skinny on the event. They’re going to tell you how the organizers actually choose. If you know them, they will probably be able to make an introduction to the organizers. I can tell you honestly, no matter what the approach is that any event takes, if you know the organizers, it’s always helpful. It doesn’t mean you’ve got a golden ticket straight to the stage. But it does mean that it’s a way to break through the noise of other people. So the first thing I would say is talk to anybody that you know that has spoken at an event near you. They’re going to know what the inside scoop is.

How to Get Involved with TED Without Connections

Grant Baldwin
Yeah. So if I don’t know anybody, are there any options? Like do most of the TEDx websites spell it out or do I just need to send an email and ask? What’s kind of the best approach from there?

Tamsen Webster

Most TEDx sites will tell you what their process is at some level. TEDx Wilmington for instance, right now is I think their application for speakers is still open. TEDx Detroit I know is open. TEDx UCLA was open recently. I don’t know if it still is unfortunately. And I know people would love this.

So a business idea for somebody? There is no centralized listing of TEDx events and what their deadlines are or where they’re speaking. And I know because I went onto this gated community of TEDx organizers and I asked them, okay fellow organizers, is there a list somewhere? And they’re like, no.

So it really is about researching where you want to go and finding out certain key things. A, what is their speaker selection process? Is it open? Is it invite only? How does it work?

The second thing is to determine whether or not they draw from only the local area or more broadly. Some TEDx’s are very regionally focused and that’s what they want. So I remember looking into TEDx Bozeman (Montana) one time for someone and TEDx Bozeman wants every speaker to have a strong Montana connection, if not a Bozeman connection. So you need to either say how you grew up in Montana or that you do business in Montana. So they’re not trying to pull from anywhere else.

TEDx Cambridge is a great idea. We don’t care. I mean we don’t pay anybody. No TEDx does. Many higher level TEDx events do try to get a travel sponsor so that if they are pulling people from out of town, they can at least cover airfare and potentially hotel, but that’s the thing to be researching. What’s the speaker selection process? Do they pull from broader than the local environment?

The third thing to try to find, if you can, what level license that particular event has. This is kind of pulling back the curtain of TED and something that a lot of people don’t talk about. There’s two different license levels for TEDx events. There’s a Level One license, which is the starter license. Those events are fewer than 100 people. They’re very tightly managed by TED, not in a curation standpoint, but those folks have to jump through a whole bunch of hoops to make sure that they uphold the TED brand. And you have to have gone through a couple Level One events before you can apply for the next level license. And the Level Two license is the license that for a lot of speakers who want to use TEDx as a way to move some kind of goal forward.

You want to look for those (Level Two) events because those are the events that have A, larger attendance, b, they’ve been around longer, so they’ve gotten the kinks of their processes worked out. C, they probably have a higher production value on the videos. So if your speaker is trying to look to do this, look at the quality of the videos that are coming out of the event that you’re going to. Because remember, I said that the probability of getting your video promoted at TED.com is very small. So don’t give a TEDx Talk thinking that that’s what’s going to happen.

Give a TEDx Talk so that you have that experience of doing it and so that you get a good video out of it, frankly, is what I would tell people. And so that means go look at the videos coming out of that event. Do they have a multi camera shoot? Is it well lit? How does the stage look? Because you can kind of tell just based on what’s going on behind somebody, whether or not that was a good TEDx event or not, and whether or not you as a speaker want to have that as your backdrop.

The Difference Between Level One and Level Two TED Events

Grant Baldwin

Yeah, it definitely seems like there’s going to be some TEDx events that seem more prestigious than others and are more high profile or well connected. It sounds like a lot of those are going to be what you describe as that Level Two. Is there any way to find that online for each event?

Tamsen Webster

There’s going to be some indicators. One is ticket price, so the Level Twos can charge more. The other is size of the event and whether or not also those events, you can sometimes tell. They’re never going to say, we’re a Level Two TEDx event, at least not that I’ve seen. You can kind of tell based on sometimes whether they have some of the additional events with them. So for instance, you can’t do a salon event unless you’re a Level Two event. So TEDx Wilmington for instance, they did a TEDx Wilmington Women. So that’s an indicator from the outside that this must be a Level Two event. You can also tell based on where they’re having the event and how many people can come because the size of the event from an attend standpoint is also an indicator of a Level Two event. So check out those things.

You can also go online and it’s open to anybody to see what the difference is between the Level One and Level Two license. And you can kind of use that as a checklist as you’re looking at an event and say, oh, this must be a Level Two because I see that they’re doing X, Y and Z. Generally you can assume that if the thing after the X is a city or a town that you’ve heard of, it’s probably level two. So your TEDx Toronto, your TEDx London, Paris, Sydney, Vienna, Kyoto, Tokyo, Cambridge, Boston, Houston, Portland. Those are going to be Level Two events.

Those events carry more clout because they’ve been around longer, frankly. Because remember, you have to have done a couple Level One events before you can even get the Level Two license. So that’s part of it as well. And if you just think about it, remember the old days of the web URL land grab? The same thing happened with TEDx licenses. So the big cities grabbed them first. And so if they’ve been effective stewards of their TEDx license, then a lot of times they have grown into a Level Two license and therefore are a better event, longer event. And frankly, the other hidden benefit of a Level Two event is because they’ve been around longer, you’ve got a higher probability that the Ted curatorial team knows to take a look at those events videos when they come through.

So if you’ve got a good reputation of good speakers coming through — this isn’t a promise, this is not saying I know anything about that. But you got to think that if after a while they start to notice know, good stuff comes from TEDx Portland, they’re going to notice when the TEDx Portland stuff comes through. They’re going to say, hey, should we just let’s take a look at what TEDx Portland did this year. Take a look at those speakers.

Why the Bar is High to Speaking at a TED Event

Tamsen Webster

I think if you want to do a TEDx event as part of your planning or your bucket list or whatever and frankly it seems like giving a TEDx talk is now people’s bucket list before the book because everyone’s like, it must be easier to do a 20 minutes talk. I mean, it probably takes you less time maybe, but I don’t know if it’s easier. Look at all those things, take it into account what you’re trying to do.

And last caveat I would say on that is I’m sorry to tell all of you aspiring and actual professional speakers that professional speakers have an extra barrier to cross when it comes to being selected for even a TEDx event. Professional speakers are not forbidden, but they are discouraged. Here’s what I tell people who do speak and speak professionally but still want to get of a TEDx talk. Make sure that what you are talking about is not something that is your normal keynote talk. So make sure that it needs to be a new idea. In other words, the TEDx organizer isn’t going to look at your stuff and you be like, hey, I’ve got like 72 talks out there you can see because we want something.

You said it earlier, we want to catch the rising star. We want the new idea before it’s out there. So if you’ve written books, that’s great. Talk to a TEDx organizer. When you’ve got a new one about to come out, that’s when we want to talk to you. If you’ve already got the book talk and you’re already talking about it and you’re already making money with that talk, that’s probably not the talk that we want. We want a talk that’s yours.

The other thing I would tell speakers generally about, if you’re a professional speaker or you do it on the side or whatever, the nature of the idea for TED, and TEDx has to be really sharp. And what I mean by that is a lot of very successful keynote speakers have a personal development message. I think that’s probably the better way to put it. They’re not business speakers, but that’s much more of a personal development message. A lot of times when I get people that say, well, my talk or my idea that’s kind of like Brene Brown and that I get that one. Unless you are Brene Brown or unless you do research like Brene Brown did and does, then it’s going to be hard to go forward with an idea like that. So that’s the thing that I would say is that for TEDx events, for TED, absolutely your domain of authority, meaning your education, your experience, your research, your innovation on a preexisting idea or a complete innovation of an idea, that bar is very high.

How to Stand Out and Get A TED Speaking Slot

Grant Baldwin

So if there are, let’s say, twelve slots a year that you’re looking to fill and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of speakers wanting to get in, what are you looking for? And how does a speaker stand out whether, again, whether they’re a veteran speaker and they’ve been doing this for a while and they have a new idea, or I just have this thing that I think will work and I’m hoping to just get on a TEDx stage. How do you stand out from hundreds and hundreds of potential other great speakers. I know you’re like an American Idol judge.

Tamsen Webster

It’s hard. So the one thing I can tell you personally, I can’t speak for all TEDx organizers, but one thing I can tell you is that and also given what I do with my paid job, is I hear a lot of ideas. So for me, it’s very much pattern recognition. Here’s what I mean. I get and hear so many ideas on a daily basis that it’s really easy for me to categorize. I’ve heard it, heard it, heard it. You don’t have a domain of authority. Not interesting enough. Okay? And then all of a sudden, I’d be like, wait, what? What was that one? That one’s interesting to me now. And I know that’s a hard thing to people respond to.

Grant Baldwin

They’re like, well, how do I know.

Tamsen Webster

If I’m following in the pattern of everybody else? Let me take a crack at trying to tell you what is interesting to me. A, for any organizer, any event, it’s going to be really personal to what those people are interested in in the moment. And I got to be honest, like, what’s the zeitgeist right now? So are people who can shed light on change really interesting right now? Are people who can shed light on political debates really interesting right now? If you have a broader non science topic, then think about how you can cast that idea through the lens of what’s happening in the world right now.

We as organizers always want to be topical because we need people to come to the event. So we’re always trying to look for what’s going to be there. I’m always interested in a huge amount of my curation. I mean, I read a crap ton. And so anybody who follows me on Facebook or on Twitter knows that it’s at least three links a day of something I’ve just found, because every morning usually for me is about an hour to an hour and a half worth of just seeing what’s out there.

And I’ll be honest, a lot of times if I’ll see something really interesting, a new study that’s come out or a new take on something that I haven’t seen before for TEDx Cambridge, one of the first things I’ll do is I’ll do a quick scan and see where are they? Like, are they from Boston? Are they from Cambridge? Are they from Massachusetts? Because that at least will be like, oh, maybe I can get them. For TEDx Cambridge. It doesn’t mean if somebody’s from someplace else that I wouldn’t talk about it. But oftentimes just reading helps me be aware of, here are new things that are coming out there.

So I would say for anybody, any speaker, and I don’t even care if this is TED, the more that you read, the more that you have an understanding of what other people are doing out there already, and you get a better sense of how. Can you find the gap between what people are talking about right now and what you talk about, or the gap between how people are talking about what you talk about? And where is that gap there? So be aware of what else is going on around you. What I’m looking for is new takes on old ideas, new ideas, things that tie into the culture or the times or certain things. There’s always going to be certain categories of topics that we’re going to want to have a mix in any kind of event. Given we’re in Boston and Cambridge, there’s a huge amount of biotech pharma, plus all the academic institutions, plus business schools. So what we’re usually looking for is things that draw from a lot of academic fields. So psychology topics are always popular. Always.

This is one of those places, though, unless you’ve done the research, it’s going to be hard for you to get in there unless you’ve done something really interesting on your own. So I was talking with a friend of mine the other day who has a sales topic, which typically would be a little bit of a hard push for TED, because we try to stay away from commercial anything that feels salesy. We don’t want anybody on stage where it feels like you’re going to be trying to sell something. When he was talking to me about his idea, I realized that the core of his idea was actually about something much more about human psychology. And so I suggest that he go after that primarily because in his work as a business person, he had fielded a study, a longitudinal study, that he’s continued to gather information for over like, ten years. So is he an academic researcher? No, but can he go back and say, look at all this work that I’ve done? Yes.

So it’s similar to how Nancy Duarte, when she did her secret structure of great talks, she went and looked like at a bajillion speeches. Is she a communications academic? No, but A, she’s Nancy Duarte, but B, she also did a crap ton of extra research to show that. So those are some of the things that will kind of attract my eye particularly. I’m always going to be interested in just something I haven’t heard before. So if one of the ways that you describe your stuff or your idea is, well, I’m like X, but you can’t say how you’re different from X, then I’d say keep pushing. I believe everybody has a TED quality idea. I do. I don’t know that everybody is willing to do the work to find theirs or to do the work that they need to do to get the attention of the levels of the TED events or the TEDx events that they might want.

How to Network with TED/TEDx Organizers

Grant Baldwin

It sounds like every TEDx event almost like, takes on the personality, a little bit, of the executive producers of so in some ways it’s a bit subjective that yes, there’s going to be some of these big picture ideas that are going to be pretty universal, that are good at just about any type of TEDx event. But it’s also going to be may depend, like you said, on the region, on the history, on the location, on what’s happening with the times, on culture, on any number of factors that may influence that particular event. And may make it totally different in terms of what the speakers that they have may make the speakers at one event great for that event, but not right for an event across town.

Tamsen Webster

Correct? Absolutely. And so we have a fairly friendly relationship. So the Boston Cambridge area is incredibly unusual because we have three level two events here. So it’s very promising for people who live here or willing to travel here because between TEDx Cambridge, TEDx Boston and TEDx Beacon Street, we have three level two events. It’s very common that if our slate at TEDx Cambridge is already full, I’ll say we’ll go take a look at TEDx Beacon Street because they do an amazing event. It’s a different style of event. They do like 84 speakers across two days, but they have a really good reputation. John Warner is just this amazing guy. He’s got a great relationship with the Ted folks. And so we can pass people that way. I will do that with other TEDx organizers. So there’s a few that I know that if somebody isn’t the right fit for whatever reason for my event, I may just give a heads up to somebody else and say, hey, you may want to take a look at I know you’re looking for this kind of speaker or TEDx Blank organizer. I saw this person you might be interested in and vice versa. I get tips from other organizers for people who they think would be good for our event.

What Makes a Great TED Talk

Grant Baldwin

Interesting. We’ve spent a lot of time covering TED, and one thing we haven’t even touched on is the big idea of what makes a great TED Talk. And in terms of you mentioned that everybody has that TED Talk inside of them and maybe it just needs to be nurtured and massaged and pulled out. And you think it’s this, but really let’s play with it. And it comes out to be something that can turn into something.

Tamsen Webster

I could talk about this for a long time, but let me give you the 30 second answer.

I’m going to give you two different ways to think about it. One is this way that needs to be at the overlap between three things. One, your domain of authority, which is what I call I mentioned it earlier, your background, your life, your experiences, your unique stories, your research, your life’s work, your education. Whatever it is, it has to be squarely rooted in only something you can talk about, that you can draw from your own experience. Now, why is that important? Because I’ve had people who come to me with amazing ideas and I’m like, oh, so do you study this? And they’re like, no, I just think it’s a good idea. I can’t have you talk about it.

Grant Baldwin

I’m sorry, I thought of this in the shower. I should do it. Yeah, exactly.

Tamsen Webster

It’s like, it’s awesome. And I’m like, yeah, but you don’t do that, so I can’t doesn’t work.

The second thing that you’ve got to have, your domain of authority, the second thing has to be that that thing that’s your domain of authority, whatever this idea is, has to meet an unmet need in the world. Meaning it has to help people achieve a goal of some kind. And even if it comes out of your unique experience, if you can make it tie into a more universal goal that people have, the better off you’ll be. So I mentioned in passing this friend of mine whose expertise was in sales. The core of the idea was actually a psychological idea that would apply if people understood the core of what he’s talking about and were to apply. His method for what he was talking about would help no matter what you were doing, because it was a situation that he was talking about that applies broadly. So domain of authority meets an unmet need.

And the third one you might find a little surprising, but I can’t even tell you how many times it’s happened. You have to actually be passionate to share it. Now, this may be more of something from an organizer standpoint where I will find someone who is amazing. They’ve got amazing domain of authority. It absolutely meets an unmet need in the world. And they’re like, yeah, I’m not really interested in giving a talk. And I’m like, man, really? I’m like so close. And the thing that I’ve learned, though, is that you can’t make them want it. And so at the same time, that can’t be the only reason why you want to talk. This is why professional speakers have that extra bar to go over. It’s like they’re really passionate to share, but the higher purpose needs to be it needs to serve the audience not only of the day or the night of the event, but the world. These are really about ideas that change the world, however you define world.

So the easy way to think about that is I call it the three Is, the intersection between Important, Interesting, and Individual. So the important piece is, is it important? And from this I’ll borrow from Radio Lab, who talks about an important idea is one that, yes, it solves this unmet need. So I want to talk about homelessness. That’s his example. Okay, great. Why do you want to talk about homelessness? And his example is, well, an important but not interesting answer would be because people who are homeless are often mentally ill. Now, that’s a really important idea from a TED standpoint, though it’s not interesting enough. As hard as that is to say, to make that cut. Because most people already know that a large portion of people who are homeless or mentally ill. An interesting answer to layer onto the important would know I want to talk about homelessness because, and this is still Bloomberg’s example, because a significant number of people who are homeless prefer to be homeless rather than the alternative.

That’s the kind of thing that I’m listening for is like, oh, I’ve never thought about that. And then the piece that I layer on top of that is that individual. Now tell me why you are the only person who can talk about that that way. Show me how that ties to your core idea. Because even if the themes of what you’re talking about, other people talk about, because plenty of people talk about big data or environmental causes or whatever, show me how that uniquely ties into you. Right. So you have something that’s from your background or that you can take a different approach on all of this that nobody else can tell. And that doesn’t mean that you have to have some crazy, I was a POW for 28 years kind of story. It just needs to be something that’s truly individual to you. So important, interesting, individual. And that’s my quick answer.

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How TEDx Events Work With Speakers

Grant Baldwin

I love it. Okay, I’m going to ask you one more question, though.

I’m curious when most speakers would approach you and say, hey, here’s my big idea. It sounds like you guys work a lot with them that we’re not like, hey, show up on Saturday at 10:00 a.m. And be ready to give your talk. So is that exclusive to you guys? Do all TEDx talks do that? I assume it’s like in your best interest to make your speakers look really good.

Tamsen Webster

Absolutely. Particularly since we have so few is probably why we have, as far as I know, one of the if not the most hands on coaching experiences for our speakers. So I work with those speakers for three to four months prior to the talks, and we go through everything. So even if they come in with a great idea, what we’re going to do is break it down into its component parts, make sure that it’s unassailable and how that case is made that we work with them on. How to open it, how to close it, how to make it, how to take know see a lot of speakers come from an academic background, and the academic format for a talk is very different than what a ted style talk format would be. An academic talk tells you right up front, here’s what I’m going to tell you, here’s a problem, here’s a solution. Now let me explain it. And that’s just not very interesting. And in a short period of time, and in fact, in a short period of time, you can get away with much more interesting storytelling.

So a lot of times what we’re doing is saying, what’s the way that we can A, make this idea even stronger? How can we pull out what is truly unique about this idea? And then what we’re working with them on very much is how do we get really interesting storytelling around this so that it’s what they want. So of that three to four months, we spend about half of it on the talk itself and the other half on the performance. It divides about half and half. So let’s say it’s six weeks on just getting the talk to rehearsal ready, so getting it to either a detailed outline or to a script. And then the last six weeks are just rehearsing the bloody hell out of it right over.

Grant Baldwin

That’s the non glamorous, non sexy part that nobody sees.

Tamsen Webster

Exactly. Well, a huge amount of revision happens aloud, and so that’s something that surprises people, too, which is it can be beautiful on paper. And I will look at it and go like, that’s the best talk I ever seen when I’m seeing on paper. And then they’ll stand up to give it. I’m like, yeah, it doesn’t work. It is an art and science. We can get it to a certain point on paper and then you just have to start giving it. And when you give it, the ear starts to play its best role in saying, okay, you know that story that was three quarters of the way through. Let’s open with it. This is going to be much better if we open with that story and then things get different weight. We change the language around things.

But I would say my ideal is to get the talks locked by two weeks in advance so that they’re locked, locked, locked, so that in those last two weeks, they’re not iterating on the talk at all. It’s really just cranking on getting it into their head, because while it’s not against TED rules to have notes. And in fact, Big TED increasingly is allowing people to have notes. But I think it gets in the way of people’s connection with the audience. My goal and part of the process that I’ve developed take speakers through is designed to just absolutely implant the talk in their head so they’re nervous at the beginning, like, how am I going to do this? How am I going to get a talk? And to a person, they get to the end, they’re like, I know this talk cold. And it’s like, I know you do because you’ve known the components since week one. So once you know that, then it’s much, much simpler to just make sure you nail it the whole time.

How to Connect with Tamsen

Grant Baldwin

Awesome. Beautiful. Well, Tamsen, thank you so much for your time, for sharing your insights and wisdom behind the curtain here. If people want to find out more about you and where you’re at, where can we go?

Tamsen Webster

My website is www.tamsenwebster.com — that’s the best way to find me.

Grant Baldwin 

Thanks, Tamsen. All right, there you go. Hope you enjoyed that conversation with Miss Tamson Webster about anything and everything you wanted to know about stuff, huh? Fascinating. There’s several things there I didn’t know about. I’ve never actually done a TEDx Talk, and obviously I’m familiar with it and heard about it, but there’s a lot of nuances there I just was not familiar with. So super interesting and fascinating for myself as well.


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