How to Do a TED Talk

What’s Different About a TED-Style Talk?

The unique “TED Talk style”  is driven by several factors:

  1. Length (Talks are less than 18min)
  2. Broad audience. (Most of the audience for a talk are generally curious people, which differs from unfilmed events targeted at a specific industry)
  3. Talks are filmed (so the audience isn’t mainly in the room – they’re watching your talk online, sometimes years after it was delivered)
  4. There is no Q&A after the talk (so TED Talks are very different from workshops or panels)
  5. The speaker selection process is highly competitive (so bad speakers or people with bad ideas never make it)
  6. No selling from the stage (you’ll never hear a TED speaker tell people to go buy their book)

As a result of the above, talks tend to use lots of stories (because stories are great ways to indirectly introduce ideas an audience is unfamiliar with), they don’t have direct sales pitches, and they aren’t highly technical (since the audience is broad).

There is no TED-style talk format that TED or TEDx events dictate you use. TED and TEDx speakers simply tend to speak in a certain way because of the time limitations, the lack of Q&A, the inability to sell from the stage, and the broad audience.

Things to Do Before Giving a TED Talk

Before creating a TED Talk, you’ll need to set some groundwork. There are a few requirements.

Requirement 1: Get Booked (Or At Least Past The First Round)

The first step (before you write your talk) is getting booked.

If you write a talk but can’t get booked, you don’t have a TED Talk at all…you just have a talk. Simple as that.

Even if it seems like you’re doing extra prep work and “getting ready” to get booked by writing your talk first, you shouldn’t write your talk until AFTER you’re booked for a few reasons:

  • First, your topic may not be as good as you think. You may not get booked with this topic, but you might with a slightly different angle. Find a topic that gets you booked. Then you’ll know you are writing a talk about the right thing.
  • Second, some events (especially the best TEDx events, and TED themselves) have big speaker lineups and often limit speakers to less than the typical 18min (for instance, I had a client that got booked at a 10,000-person TEDx event and was given a 3min slot). So, if you write the world’s best 18 min talk before knowing which event you’re speaking at, you may have to change it entirely later.
  • Third, many hopeful TED and TEDx speakers spend a ton of energy writing the perfect talk, and they don’t have any energy left over to actually get invited to speak and end up giving up. You don’t want to end up with a document on your computer that never sees the light of day.
  • Fourth, TEDx and TED events don’t expect you to write your talk until after getting booked. They give you plenty of time for this, and in fact, if you try to submit a full talk to most events, they won’t even read it. Instead, many of them limit you on an application form to about 150-300 words for describing your topic.

Instead, get booked first (I recommend you become a TEDx speaker), get a date on the calendar, and this will drive you to focus on writing your TED Talk. It’s a lot more fun this way!

At the very least, make sure you made it past the first selection round.

Events may ask for a draft version of your talk during the selection process, but they’ll only expect a draft at this point. They’re mostly doing this to ensure that you don’t procrastinate if they select you and to make sure that you know enough about your topic to write a 5-10 min talk about it.

To get invited, you’ll need to apply, and in short, you do that by reaching out to events that are looking for speakers and applying to speak.

When you apply, you’ll need to answer questions like:

  • What is your idea/topic?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What are the takeaways the audience will get?
  • Why are you the best person to share this idea with the world?

And so on.

If you’re not sure how to answer these, I suggest following my guide on finding TED Talk topic ideas.

Once you know your topic, you’ll need to find events looking for speakers. My TEDx call for speakers tool is by far the easiest way to do that (you’ll get a spreadsheet of events so you can easily apply and email alerts to notify, which allows you to find a list of events looking for speakers now, and the info you need to apply.

Requirement 2: Finalize Your Topic

You may have been booked with some pretty vague ideas about your topic, or you may even have been booked because someone in your network recommended you as a speaker.

It’s FAR easier to write a talk when you know your topic is sound and you already know how the audience will react to your ideas.

My article on finding the best TED Talks topics shows you how to do this. When clients hire me as a TED Talks speaker coach, this is the first thing we work on, and my clients have told me that by following this topic validation method, they can write a talk very quickly, and they’re one of the most confident speakers on event day! 

So, make your topic rock-solid before you start planning/writing your talk. It’ll save you a ton of work and self-doubt later.

How to Create a TED Talk

Step 1: Plan A Compelling Intro

Once you have your topic/synopsis and you know you’re on the right track, it’s time to put everything into an outline so you can plan the flow of ideas.

But before you do that, I like to start out by coming up with some potential best TED Talk openings for your message and personality.

A compelling opening generally makes people feel excited about the talk and how amazing it will be, so this is a fun place to start.

Step 2: Plan Your TED Talk Speech Outline

If the intro hooks their attention, the main body develops the idea and spurs them into action.

Outlining things (with some bullet points, rather than a full script) is best here, as you can make sure the flow is right and move ideas around. Writing the script is much easier if the core idea flow makes sense.

I like to start with the end and work my way backward, thinking about where you want to end, then thinking about what ideas someone needs to know for the ending to make sense (here’s how to end a TED Talk). 

Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine some of the main ideas that can go in your TED Talk:

  • What does the audience know already? (these beliefs may need to be corrected or touched upon to lay the basis for your big idea)
  • Where did these existing beliefs come from?
  • What are the consequences the world is suffering (if not already obvious) because of these initial beliefs?
  • What are their obstacles to changing their beliefs/ideas?
  • What are the benefits they get from this new idea?

Step 3: Decide on Visuals

After you’re set on the outline (i.e., the main flow of ideas), realize that communicating some of these ideas doesn’t have to be done with words alone – it can be done with a demonstration, a visual, and so on.

Some events won’t have a projector, some will (it’s best to ask), and some stage setups may make demonstrations impractical (depending on the size and layout of the stage and the demo you’d had planned).

The event may ask for slides in Powerpoint or Keynote format, but at this stage, they may not be able to tell you which file format to use. I find it easiest to use Google Slides, which has the capability to export to any format.

If you’re stuck on how to design great-looking slides, the book Presentation Zen is a great choice.

Step 4: Write Your Talk Script

When writing your TED Talk speech, remember the time limits — talks must be less than 18 minutes (there is no minimum time), but the specific event you got booked at may impose a shorter time limit.

How long should you make your talk?

There are a few considerations:

  • How complex the idea is (and how much time you need to get the idea across)
  • How comfortable you are with memorizing (a longer talk takes more effort to memorize)
  • And…YouTube’s statistics on TEDx views

The first two points are straightforward. The last one is interesting….as it turns out (after analyzing every TEDx YouTube video dating back to 2009), longer talks get more views (up to 18 minutes, at which it tapers down).

how to give ted talk
TED Talks around 18min get the most views

I don’t think it makes sense to draw out your talk unnecessarily. However, if you feel like it needs to be on the longer side (eg: 16-18 minutes or so), it’s good to know you don’t get punished.

The average person speaks at about 150 words per minute, so an 18-minute talk is about 2700 words. So, based on the length of your document, you can estimate the talk length as:

Talk Length (minutes) = Word Count / 150

Step 5: Get Feedback On Your Script

It’s very rare that anyone gets a sneak peek inside the TED Talks process!

If you put up a social media post asking for people that are willing to give you feedback, you WILL get tons of responses. After all, you’re doing an exciting thing, and people will be pumped to help you. Getting feedback on a TED talk is much easier than you’d expect.

After you ask people who’d be willing to give you feedback, identify a few people you think would do the best job, then show them the script in chunks — just the intro at first, then ask for feedback. 

Then show them the next section, and ask for feedback.

I like to do this over Zoom, so you can get their thoughts as you go (instead of email, etc.)

Why one section at a time (while hiding the rest)? This is exactly how an audience will consume your talk on YouTube. They don’t see it all at once, they’ll see a few seconds of it, and they can leave any time (if you’re finding that people are bored or not as engaged as you’d like after the intro, my article on the ways to start a TED Talk may help)

The best people to ask for feedback from are:

  • People that have a pre-existing relationship with you (friends, family, people in your mastermind or Toastmasters group, paid coaches, and so on)
  • …that are NOT experts in your field (e.g., if you have a talk about improving relationships, don’t ask other relationship coaches). This is to ensure your message isn’t too basic or too advanced for your audience (i.e., avoiding the curse of knowledge).

Step 6: Memorize Your Script & Practice Delivery

Memorizing a TED Talk is easier than you’d think.

I memorized my TEDxWindsor talk (the first talk I’d ever done) during a week when I had overnight flights to and from France, my first ever triathlon (a 70.3 half-Ironman race), and the subsequent recovery time from the race (and stress leading up to it).

Here’s how to memorize a TED Talk:

  1. Break it into sections of a few sentences, each that focuses on one main idea (e.g., a story about a particular person could be one such chunk)
  2. Memorize the first sentence of the section
  3. Memorize the last sentence of the section
  4. Memorize the full section
  5. Set a stopwatch, and see how fast you can say a section by memory (you’ll only be able to say a section aloud from memory very fast if you REALLY have it down, like your phone number, so this is a great way to make sure you are ULTRA confident in a particular section)
  6. Memorize the next section using the same steps above
  7. Try to say two sections aloud from memory, then as fast as possible
  8. Once you’ve made it through the entire talk like this (as fast as possible, to test your memory), practice saying it at a normal pace (e.g., when to speed up on purpose, when to slow down).

When memorizing, it’s important to say your talk aloud (don’t just think about it in your head).

When you’re practicing speaking at your regular speed, it’s important not to speak too fast. This isn’t just because it’s a good practice for speaking in general, but for subtitling your talk (once it’s online). 

TED and TEDx talks get subtitles by a volunteer team around the world, and TED has guidelines for transcribers. These subtitle guidelines state that subtitles must be on the screen for long enough for someone to read them (the max speed is 21 characters per second).

I’ve done subtitling for TED, and you simply can’t finish the subtitles for some talks because, for one section, the speaker was speaking far too fast, and there were too many sentences in a row (with too short of a break) to subtitle.

In other words, if you talk too fast, your talk may never be transcribed and translated into different languages.

Step 7: Deliver to Test Audiences (Zoom and Live)

Your body language, tonality, speed, and so on all need feedback, you’ll want to get comfortable delivering your talk, and your talk script may still need some final tweaks that only a fresh audience will notice.

Test your talk out with real audiences BEFORE event day.

Remember, you’re doing people a favor by inviting them into your TED Talk process. They’ll be pumped to help!

There are two ways to get feedback:

  1. Zoom calls (or another video conferencing software). This allows you to do a LOT of practice and feedback sessions (I did close to 20 Zoom talk deliveries with different people), and the different audiences will make your pre-talk jitters disappear.
  2. Live, in-person group audiences. I delivered my talk to a few local universities (again, it’s rare that people get to see a “sneak peek” of a TED talk before it hits YouTube), and it’s important to get used to delivering your talk to groups as well, and in-person (not just over a screen)

Step 8: Finalize Event-Day Stage, Schedule, and Photo/Video Details

You would have been told about the event day details from the organizers already, but in case you haven’t, here are some questions to ask:

  • What is the speaker order?
  • Do they need your slides in Powerpoint format or Keynote?
  • Is the stage fully-lit, or darker (if the latter, you may not want to wear a dark shirt as it’ll look odd on video)
  • Will you have a handheld mic, a clip-on lapel mic, or a headset-style mic? (if lapel, you may not want to wear jewelry that could rub up against it. If handheld, that will affect your hand motions as you speak, and you may want to practice holding a fake mic to see how this feels)
  • If there isn’t already a dress rehearsal planned at the venue, see if it’s possible to do a test talk from the actual stage in advance of the event day, or at the very least, on the morning of the event.

You’ll also want to make sure the photography and videography team is well-aware of any key moments you want to capture in a particular way.

For example, tell them:

  • You need several photos with you while speaking, and you absolutely need the big “TEDx” letters to be in the shot (the stage sign may have the full event name, like “TEDxLondon.” The “TEDx” part is far more important to capture in the photo than the “…ondon” part of the sign
  • About any key slides you have, demonstrations you’re doing as part of your talk, or moments in the talk where you may be moving around the stage in a particular way. They’ll want to know in advance to capture these key moments.

Step 9: Give your TED Talk Presentation on Event Day!

On the day of the event, it should be more of the same! You’re ready:

  • You’ve already been booked by the event. The event organizers chose you above other speakers!
  • You’ve got a fully validated topic, and know that a broad audience will love it
  • You’ve practiced your talk and have it memorized.
  • The event organizers have told you when you’re speaking.

You got this.

Step 10: Pick a Title (For YouTube)

You don’t need to decide on a title for your talk until after it’s delivered (and with all the other tasks on your plate, you can safely avoid this at first), but after event day, you’ll definitely need to have a title for YouTube.

The title helps people discover your talk, and there are predictable formats (and examples) of great TED Talk titles you can steal from.

There are also length limits for your talk on YouTube.

Check out this article on how to title a TED Talk for a complete guide on choosing an amazing title.

What To Do Now:

  1. If you have a topic in mind, apply to be a TEDx speaker (this tool is by far the easiest way to find events now, with all the info you need to apply). 

If you aren’t ready to apply yet (or you want help with the entire process),  you can hire me as a TED Talks speaker coach. I help with the entire process, and I guarantee you’ll get booked.

Ryan Hildebrandt
Ryan Hildebrandt
Articles: 33

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