4 things you should know about TED Talks

Introduction

Is giving a TED Talk or a TEDx Talk on your bucket list? If so, you may be wondering how to achieve that goal, and asking questions such as, what’s the difference between TED and TEDx Talks? How can you know if your idea is interesting enough to be considered for a TED talk? How you can get your foot in the door with TED or your local TEDx?

To start, it’s worth taking a look at the history of TED and TEDx. TED (an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design) 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. The first city to be licensed for an independent TEDx event was Cambridge, Massachusetts, which hosts regular forums, and has had several talks become official TED talks.

TED Talks have become one of the most high-profile examples of public speaking gigs today. But to deliver a talk on the big TED stage, you have to understand some key nuances and differences between types of TED talks, in addition to knowing how to choose your topic and get paid to speak on any stage. If you are excited to learn more about giving a TED or TEDx talk, let this be your guide! (If you’re interested in other avenues for public speaking, we have a piece on how to best get started here.)

1: What’s the difference between giving a TED Talk and a TEDx Talk?

According to TEDx Cambridge director Tamsen Webster, the generally accepted distinction between a TED Talk speaker and a TEDx Talk speaker is that while TEDx speakers include any speaker who spoke at a locally organized Ted event, such as TEDx Cambridge, TEDx Phoenix, or TEDx Toronto, a TED Talk speaker is someone who was invited to speak at one of TED’s own conferences, such as its annual conference in Vancouver, aka “Big TED.” It can also include specialized TED summits such as TEDMED, TEDWomen, or TEDYouth. Note: With the occasional exception of travel costs, both TED and TEDx speakers are generally unpaid.

One further wrinkle to the distinction: 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. Every year only about 40 or 45 TEDx videos get promoted out of about 56,000 TEDx Talks a year.

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).

2: How to get a TED Talk

Although “Big TED” Talks are invite-only, many TEDx Talks are relatively accessible. According to Webster, the process of getting selected to give a TEDx Talk depends by venue, and can be competitive. Hundreds of applicants to be one of a dozen or so speakers at TEDx Cambridge.

Here are some examples of how TEDx locations select speakers:

  • Invite only: The TEDx Executive Director and leadership team of the individual location source speakers through personal networks to find and curate a select roster of speakers for annual or twice-annual events.
  • Via speaker nomination form on the TEDx location’s website: Some locations exclusively use nomination forms to source speakers, while others use a mix of nomination form entries and sourced speakers.
  • Through networks: TEDx locations may have a nomination form, but source speakers through past TEDx Talk participants.

 

Because every site varies, you should check out the website to find their selection process, find past speakers who could help you network, and whether there are additional requirements. (A common requirement for smaller sites is that speakers live near or have a close connection to the TEDx venue.) Generally, bigger cities tend to have more established TEDx events. This means that they charge higher ticket prices, can cover speakers’ travel costs, and have higher production value. The flipside is that they are often more competitive and more likely to require speakers to have previously given talks at smaller TEDx venues before.

Another caveat worth noting is that 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 talk 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.

3: How to give a TED Talk

So you wrote a killer proposal, got approved for the event with the TED organizer…what comes next? While the event organizer will be in charge of many of the event details, there are several things you can do to prepare for your talk:

Preparing 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 (and only then) determine if slides are needed or necessary. Generally, the most effective use of slides is 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.

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.

Begin with the end in mind

You ever get to the end of listening to someone else speak and you’re left 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?

4. Top TED Talks for inspiration

So you’ve learned a little bit more about the process of being selected for and giving a TED or TEDx Talk. Now, what are some top examples of past TED or TEDx Talks? See below for some of the most-viewed talks on the TED Youtube channel over the years (descriptions from TED):

The most-viewed TED Talk is on procrastination: Tim Urban takes us on a journey through YouTube binges, Wikipedia rabbit holes and bouts of staring out the window — and encourages us to think harder about what we’re really procrastinating on, before we run out of time.

 

 

In 2014, the world avoided a horrific global outbreak of Ebola. In 2015, Bill Gates gave a TED Talk on why the world wasn’t prepared for a global pandemic. Just a few years later, COVID-19 hit.

 

 

Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk at TEDxHouston, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity.

 

 

Roman Mars is obsessed with flags. After you watch this talk, you might be, too. These ubiquitous symbols of civic pride are often designed, well, pretty terribly. But they don’t have to be. Mars reveals the five basic principles of flag design and shows why he believes they can be applied to just about anything.

 

 

Amy Webb was having no luck with online dating. The dates she liked didn’t write her back, and her own profile attracted crickets (and worse). So, as any fan of data would do: she started making a spreadsheet. Hear the story of how she went on to hack her online dating life — with frustrating, funny and life-changing results.

 

 

Why do people see the Virgin Mary on cheese sandwiches or hear demonic lyrics in “Stairway to Heaven”? Using video, images and music, professional skeptic Michael Shermer explores these and other phenomena, including UFOs and alien sightings. He offers cognitive context: In the absence of sound science, incomplete information can combine with the power of suggestion (helping us hear those Satanic lyrics in Led Zeppelin). In fact, he says, humans tend to convince ourselves to believe: We overvalue the “hits” that support our beliefs, and discount the more numerous “misses.”

 

Conclusion

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 learn more about finding your big idea? Webster returned for a follow up podcast on just that, which you can listen to here.

When you’ve had the chance to listen to those podcasts, feel free to take a look at our 100 tips for motivational speaking, which can boost not only a TED Talk but any speaking engagement! Happy speaking!

Want to know exactly what to say to finally land paid speaking gigs?

We’ll send you the exact three emails you can send to conference planners and event organizers that Grant Baldwin (our founder) used to book over $2M in speaking gigs. 

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Here are a few other resources you might find helpful. 

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