How to give a TED Talk (and how not to)
I’m recovered from my TED Talk (transcript, TED blog coverage), so I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the experience of giving a TED Talk, what I learned from it, and what you might want to do if you’re in a similar situation. (Other speakers have been sharing their insights, too.)
It was thrilling, of course, a brief chance to leap onto a stage where I’ve seen so many great talks. It was a chance to embed myself deeper into a community I’m grateful to be part of. (I am doing more with TED now, as I’ll report in upcoming posts.) I was part of a session that included three giants — Andrew Stanton, Billy Collins, and Michael Tilson Thomas — so I was comfortable delivering a brief palette cleanser between the bigger, weightier, presentations.
That doesn’t mean I treated the advice in my talk as a joke. I hope it came across with humor — using Tina Turner as an example for business comebacks was supposed to be funny — but the comeback advice was meant sincerely. Tina really does have four very useful lessons for people and companies pulling themselves back up. The TED Talks that have moved me the most have had a combination of authority and vulnerability and I tried hard to capture that. My job was to show what Tina’s lessons taught me, but without the talk turning out to be about me.
Some advice I got before I went onstage from two pals who nailed it in their previous short talks turned out to be prescient: Paul Kedrosky said “it would be over before you know it” and Jim Daly said I’d feel like I was “shot out of a cannon.” Right and right. And after the talk, all I got was positive feedback; anyone who thought I wasn’t any good wasn’t going to come over to me and tell me that. A week later, I have a more balanced view of how I did (especially after seeing some warts-and-all video). Which brings me to the venerated TED Commandments.
The Eleventh Commandment
There is some excellent advice TED gives potential speakers on this page supporting TEDx speaker prep, but the physical “TED Commandments” it sends to event speakers (on a heavy plaque that’s somewhere between a tablet and a large tile) was a particularly helpful collection. There’s an older version of the “physical commandments” floating around the web. Here are the current 10 (I’ll leave out the descriptive text and just list the commandments):
I. Thou shalt not steal time.
II. Thou shalt not sell from the stage.
III. Thou shalt not flaunt thine ego.
IV. Thou shalt not commit obfuscation.
V. Thou shalt not murder PowerPoint.
VI. Thou shalt shine a light.
VII. Thou shalt tell a story.
VIII. Thou shalt honor emotion.
IX. Thou shalt bravely bare thy soul.
X. Thou shalt prepare for impact.
Pretty great advice, no? I followed it as best as I could, but I want to offer up an 11th commandment:
XI. Trust thyself.
In the days before the event, I must have practiced the talk 100 times, to everyone from friends I spotted in various Long Beach lobbies to my own reflection in the hotel bathroom mirror. I had the talk well-memorized and my presentation was adequate for someone who makes his living as a writer and an editor rather than as a performer. But, the afternoon before the talk, I wanted to be certain that all would go well if I had a brain freeze on the red circle, so I added presenter notes to my few slides. If there was a problem, the answer would be on the “confidence monitors” at my feet. Seemed like sensible backup for all but the most unexpected catastrophe.
But a funny thing happened to me when I had my chance on the stage: those monitors distracted me, like TVs in a bar when I’m trying to have a real conversation with a fellow human. As you can see from this cameraphone shot my fellow TEDxBoston curator Danielle Duplin took of the big screen at the TEDActive simulcast, I didn’t look down at the monitors all the time, but I surely looked down at them too much. What I thought would save me if I had trouble actually caused trouble. I should have trusted myself more.
Most of the time I was up there, though, I followed the advice my host June Cohen gave before the talk: enjoy yourself. I had a story I wanted to tell and I had a chance to tell it to an audience that could do something with it. I feel very, very lucky.