how to become a ted speaker

How to do a TedX Talk: A behind the scenes look

My imagination had been captured by TedX many years ago, when I saw Shawn Achor talk about his sister Amy. He convinced her she was a Unicorn and stumbled upon the power of happiness to shape a life (and evade consequences).  I’ve talked about Amy the Unicorn many times since then in my classes, coaching sessions, and in conversations.  Ted’s mission is to promote ideas worth spreading, and I’m doing my part!  Then it occurred to me… do I have an idea worth spreading?

I think I do!

Thus inspired, I set out to discover how I might also give a Ted Talk.  What I learned is that there are many, many independently organized Ted events– referred to as TedX events.  In fact, in the last known accounting of TedX events (July 2015) there had been 13,522 TedX Events, in 3174 cities, in 143 countries. (By the way, featured TedX talks had received almost 600 million views on youtube, during that same time period. That’s a LOT.)

Each of these independently organized events accept applications, conduct interviews and choose 9-12 speakers… which, If I could apply to enough of them, felt like good odds!

So, I set to applying to every TedX event I could find within driving distance of my house.  Basically, I would stalk the TedX Event page, find events happening near me, and apply.  I also told everyone I know that I was on the hunt, and people would sometimes send me events that they found.

  • I applied to TedX Lancaster, PA.  Nothing. Not even an official rejection.
  • I applied to TedX Wilmington, DE.  Nada. No word.
  • Then I applied to TedX Harrisburg and BAM!  Victory.

Now, just to be clear, I applied to each of these events with the exact same application materials!  Each of the events used the same application (see below), and I replied to each with identical answers.

Now, obviously, had I continued to fail, I would have eventually tweaked my application materials!  But since I was just beginning, I  didn’t want to wait to send an application; I was busy and prone to forgetting, so I would apply on the very day that I heard of the opportunity.  It was important to me to be swift and nimble, because it really felt like a numbers game– entirely about the right match!

Questions asked in the TedX application:

  • Please provide a summary or outline of your talk. (300 words or less)
  • Have you given this talk before? If yes, explain. (25 words or less)
  • What is the main point of your talk? (25 words or less) *
  • What is your “idea worth spreading”? (25 words or less) *
  • What will the audience take away from your talk? (25 words or less) *
  • Why did you choose this topic? (25 words or less) *
  •  
  • Anything additional you want to tell us? (100 words or less)

The Interview Process

The process to go from applied to accepted was really very brief.  Basically:

  1. I was notified by email that I was being offered an interview
  2. I signed up via a google spreadsheet for a 15 minute time slot
  3. I showed up via Skype and gave a 5 minute version of my talk
  4. Three people watched me to do it, and one them said “That’s amazing. We love it. We’ll be in touch.”
  5. A week later I heard that I was selected!

Not a complicated process!  Now, I do know that some other TedX organizations do much more drawn out and complicated application processes, but mine was… not.  And I’m really grateful for that!

“Preparing”

One of the reasons I was so confident in my idea was that I had given a version of this talk (3 reasons you aren’t doing what you say you will do) all over New York City in 2017 and 2018; by the time I got my TedX talk, I had done 22 talks on this topic this year alone. And, in 2017, I had given 17 workshops based on the same basic outline!  I knew these ideas well, and most importantly, I knew that they resonated well with audiences.

So, when the TedX people sent me my schedule of deadlines, I was NOT worried.

The deadlines were:

ted presentation

Because I was feverishly preparing for my own in-person event, scheduled to happen 2 weeks before the TedX talk, I cut through the early deadlines and sent a finalized script to the first one.  The coach they had assigned to me responded, saying “Looks good, just add a bit more about innovation.” I did so, and then promptly back-burnered the talk.

One fine September day, however, I decided to practice the talk, “Just to see how long it would be.”

I immediately knew I was in trouble.  Maybe really big trouble.  When I looked at the timer, my talk was 28 minutes long.  TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTES!  A Ted Talk, as you probably know, is only 18 minutes long, at the outside!  My hero, Shawn Achor, did his in 12 minutes! I was hoping for something about 15 minutes long.

What was I going to do????

Well, I did what I always do in situations like this, I checked in with my friends at Heroic Public Speaking.

Don’t I sound so casual and cool?  Yeah… PANIC.  How was I going to cut my talk in HALF?

My regular process for preparing to give a talk is what I’ll call the “outline and improvise” method. I know what I basically want to say, I consider the amount of time I have, and then I go with the flow of the room (What Amy Port would call “Winging it”).. this has been a very successful strategy for me. People love my talks!

But with only 18 minutes to work with, I couldn’t wing it. Every time I tried to cut it down using this method I’d either blow my time goal, lose important points, feel like I’m talking at the speed of light, or get flustered and blow my stage presence.

It wasn’t good.

I needed a new way.

Enter Mike Ganino

Mike Ganino

Mike is an AMAZING public speaker, and the head performance coach at Heroic Public Speaking.

When I talked to Amy, she suggested I contract with Mike for 2 hours to get some performance feedback.  I worked up a script, sent it to him and we met in person for the first time at the Heroic Public Speaking Live conference, a little less than 2 weeks before TedX.

We met for half an hour in person and, honestly, I felt like I bombed.  I felt wooden and lecturey and not great.

He listened, laughed at my jokes (He’s so kind), and very nicely told me that I was kind of wooden and lecturey.

“Do you have any personal stories that we can weave in here?”

“What’s really at the heart of that mindset? Why?”

“How did you come to know all of this?”

And out of our conversation, he pulled bits and pieces of humanity into my speech and helped me to restructure the flow into a more entertaining and much less packed-to-the-brim-with-psychology talk.

“Go and write this up and we’ll talk on Thursday and I’ll see it again.”

I did so. And when we met again, 2 days later by Zoom it was SO. MUCH. BETTER.

Thank God, because by then I was just slightly more than ONE WEEK AWAY from TedX!

“Now,” he said “You need to memorize this.  However you need to do it, just memorize it. No more editing the script, just memorize.”

So, I set off to memorize a script for the first time since my role as Martha in the Secret Garden in high school.

how to go to a ted talk

Repetition and Rehearsal

Now, the trick to memorization is in the sweet combination of repetition and variety.  Basically, repeat the crap out it, in every imaginable way. So, from Friday through Monday of the weekend before the Ted Talk I blitzed:

  • I wrote the script long hand in different colored pens
  • I texted it to myself, re-texting parts that tended to get lost
  • I typed it on a computer
  • I recorded it on Voxer and played it on repeat a I walked around town
  • I made my family and friends sit through it
  • I sang it to myself as a terrible broadway style musical/rap
  • And, maybe most importantly, I planned for SIX rehearsals in the week prior to the TedX Talk

 

The first rehearsal was with people from the Heroic Public Speaking Facebook group on Tuesday (5 days before TedX).

We all showed up on zoom and I asked some of them to give me line-by-line notes about when I deviated from the script. The others were responsible for telling me whether my jokes were funny.

how to watch ted talks

Though the rehearsal was, by and large, a success there were a few times when I forgot what I was going to say… and at one point, I had NO idea what I was supposed to say next… my script watchers gave me my next line and everyone cheered me on.

It was a truly supportive and powerful experience!  I loved it… but I was scared.

What would I do if I lost my way on Sunday, on camera, in front of 150 people?  What if rehearsal and memorization didn’t work for me?  What if the ONLY WAY  I could be a good speaker was if I worked from an outline and improvised?

It was in a little bit of a spiral, I’m not going to lie.  I called my business coach, who (as always) reassured me that I was as ready as I needed to be  and I was able to pull back from the edge.

“I need a break from this script,” I realized.  And I didn’t think about it AT ALL for the rest of the day.

When I woke up the next morning and did a run through… I HAD THE WHOLE THING!!!! All the jokes. All the parts I had a tendency to forget! ALL. OF. IT!

My fears has been for nought, which was a good thing, because I had two more rehearsals on Wednesday, in FRONT of an audience (4 days before TedX)!

Polka Dot Love

A few weeks before, Kamie Lehman, the director of the women’s networking group Polka Dot Powerhouse in Bensalem, PA had called, asking if I could do two back-to-back speaking engagements on the Wednesday before TedX.

It was actually terrible timing- I had been away from my family a lot in the prior two weeks, and this would involve a night away. And I’d have to strand my family without our only car to get there, and, frankly… I was really tired.

“YES!” I said… because, inconvenient though it assuredly was, it was a chance to give my Ted Talk twice in one day! Polka Dot has two meetings a month, both on the same day. One is a lunch and the other is a dinner meeting.

So, on Wednesday morning I drove the 2 hours down to Bensalem in time for the lunch meeting… and I crushed it!!!  It was AWESOME. I remembered all the bits and pieces!  Everyone was so supportive and told me how great my talk was.

I was feeling pretty good! “I got this.” I said to myself, confidently.

In between the meetings, I spent the day running around seeing friends in the area. I returned for the dinner meeting, pretty tired and kind of run down.  I decided I didn’t really need to review my notes.  It went so well in the morning, so surely I got this, right? RIGHT?

No. About 5 minutes in I went completely BLANK.  Totally blank!  In front of a room of (extremely supportive) women, I just completely lost the thread. Though it felt like forever, it was really only 5 seconds… but it was a humbling, terrible 5 seconds.

Watch:

I DID get it back on track and the rest of the talk was good but I had learned my lesson: Don’t get cocky.  

Even More Rehearsals

Following my double header in Bensalem, I was left with three final rehearsals- two with the TedXHarrisburg team (an online rehearsal to check on timing, and the dress rehearsal on the day prior to the real deal) and one with Mike Ganino.

On Thursday I did my final online rehearsal with the TedX coaches (14 minutes! Total memory recall!) followed by my last hour with Mike.  It was time to talk about performance!

This rehearsal with Mike was a hallmark of my TedX experience, I have to say.  It changed forever how I think about speaking engagements.

Because I had memorized the script, the conversations I could have about the talk changed.  Before- when I would come up with an outline and then wing it- the deepest I would go to plan my talk was about which stories to tell and what order to put pieces in.

But with this new way, those decisions were made prior to memorizing the script.  This later conversation, then, was about delivery, intonation, pacing, pausing and how to deepen the audience’s experience of the message.

To find places where things could be staged a bit more, I first went through the talk (Total memory recall! Huzzah!) and Mike suggested 3 or 4 places where we could play with it.

  • In one place he had me tell a joke three different ways. One kind of over the top excited, once like his Sassy Aunt Denise (who I MUST one day meet) and once in a very subdued manner.
  • In another place he suggested that I change the intonation, instead of going up in tone for emphasis, he suggested, I should go down. I think it made it much more powerful.
  • And at the end, he had me pull way back in my delivery, to make it feel like it was occurring to me for the first time.

It was really different to have conversations like this about my talk. It was really deep in the details, a place I hadn’t been able to go before. This new frontier had been foreclosed to me when I thought that the outline and improvise method made me more natural.   But, (spoiler alert!) one of the things I heard most often at TedX was “You are such a natural on stage! You are so comfortable and conversational!”

So, here’s one for the chronicles of #irony: memorization and rehearsal made me more fluid, comfortable and natural.

It’s Time to Go to Harrisburg

On Saturday I travelled to Harrisburg on the Amtrak train for the mandatory dress rehearsal.  My husband followed in our car (leaving our kids with Grandma), to join me in the evening for the pre-event meet and greet, scheduled by the TedXHarrisburg people.speaking at a ted x lecture

During the dress rehearsal, each of us 9 speakers gave our talk.  Mine was second, to my enormous relief!  I still don’t know what the first speaker’s talk was about because during the dress rehearsal and the live event I was back stage playing my talk in my head on repeat (I learn my lessons!).

During the dress rehearsal, I had total memory recall (relief) but only got a few laughs… that spooked me a little. But I chalked it up to the fact that the entire audience (of 10) were either playing their own talk in their head or nervously worrying over details for the event the next day.

The hard part was that the tech wasn’t delivered because the venue had a concert that evening.  Fortunately, I didn’t have any slides, but I was hoping to test out the microphone.  I have a lot of hair, and I wanted to find out how exactly the microphone was going to fit in and around all of it.

But, c’est la vie.  That part would have to be an adventure.

The Big Day

The day dawned sunny and bright.

I woke at 5am with one thought: Today I share my idea worth spreading!

I snuck out of bed, went down to the hotel lobby for coffee,  journalling (Big days are NOT the day to mess with your routine!) and to hand write my talk one more time, for old times sake.

My husband joined me and we went to meet my business bestie for brunch.  I had a hard time eating, but forced myself to eat some eggs and toast, so I didn’t have any blood sugar issues on stage.  During brunch, they were given very specific instructions: laugh at my jokes!  If you think it’s only mildly funny, LAUGH! They agreed, (Pro-tip! Always agree with the woman with the crazy eyes) and we headed to the event!

Amanda and Caitlin

Me and my biz bestie, Dr. Caitlin Faas

We arrived 2 hours early, so I could test out the microphone and, frankly, take some pictures of myself on stage, which you aren’t allowed to do once the show begins.

TEDx Harrisburg

The microphone worked fine- fortunately it was one of those that goes around your ear and sticks in front of you mouth, instead of one of the lapel microphones that pin on your shirt, that are always getting brushed with my hair and crackling.  Unfortunately, the slide technology was SUPER glitchy.  It made me SO grateful that I wasn’t relying on slides!

The Event Begins

Speakers had a few tables out in the audience where we could sit with our guests after our talk -was over… and before… but since I was second, I disappeared back stage 20 minutes before the event began to (you guessed it!) run through my talk on repeat in my head.  Then I did it out loud with 2 fingers in my mouth (this helps your throat open up, I’m told).

The guy before me went on.  I started pacing around in the back.

He got close to the end of his talk and my TedX coach put my microphone on.

He came off stage, silent high fives all around.  “You did great!” I say, when his mic was turned off.  “You will, too!” he says.

I hear the emcee introducing me.  I step to the wing, ready to go.

“Dr Amanda Crowell”  Clapping!

I’m on stage. I smile, plant my feet, and begin.

And my rehearsals did not fail me.

  • I hit all the high points.
  • I delivered all my jokes as planned.
  • I paused when I planned to pause.
  • And, best of all, I connected with the audience! There was one woman in the middle row, smiling and nodding the entire time… I’ll always be grateful to her.  A guy at a front table who was a generous with his laugher. And a woman staring me down, who laughed when I pointed directly at her.

It was great.  I. LOVED. IT.

There was clapping again.  I smiled, and walked off stage.

It was over.

I went to join my husband and friend, satisfied that I had done my best.

And ready to do it again.

Update: My Ted X talk is out! You can view it below.

About the Author Amanda

Amanda Crowell, PhD is a cognitive psychologist obsessed with how people make change. She is best known for translating cutting edge research into practical strategies that can be used right away.

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