Every speaker dreams of taking the TED stage – or at least this speaker did! As a professional speaker, it’s a great honor to be asked to speak at a TEDx event, to share your “idea worth spreading” with the world and hopefully inspire your audience with your message.
In November of 2014 I was honored with the invitation to speak at a TEDx event, which was to be hosted by the City of LA’s Emergency Management Department in March 2015. There was, of course, no way that I could or would refuse this invitation!
Standing on the reputable TEDx stage, people expect a certain caliber of message to be shared with them. A TED speech is meant to be both inspirational and aspirational. It’s meant to be engaging and motivating. It’s quite an honor, and it’s quite a pressure as well.
I took a solid three months to prepare for my TEDx speech and, for those of you who may be interested in – or even in the process of – creating your own TED talk, I wanted to share my experience with you here today. It is my hope that I can provide you with some good tips and resources to help you deliver the best speech of your life, and to do the TED name justice, as I hope I have done in my own TEDx Talk.
How to deliver a great TEDx talk
If you’re anything like me, then you’ve watched countless TED and TEDx talks over the years. The best of them leave you feeling thoughtful, and above all, inspired. I took this opportunity as a big deal and knew that this talk would be one of the most important talks I’ve had the pleasure of giving in my speaking career to-date. I felt this way for several reasons but mostly, because being on a TEDx stage is an honour and I wanted to do it justice.
I broke up my TEDx talk preparation into four stages:
- Content creation
- Mental prep
Step 1: Research
Over the course of a month, I watched (and re-watched) dozens of brilliant speakers stand on the TED and TEDx stage and deliver their messages in a conversational tone that left their audiences reflecting and inspired. I studied everything from the structure of their speeches, to their delivery, straight through to their choice of outfit.
Additionally, after careful selection, I also read three books that I felt would help me deliver a TEDx-worthy presentation.
The first book was Power Cues, by Dr. Nick Morgan. This book is inspiring and motivating in itself. It discusses how to use body gestures to master what Nick calls “the second conversation”. This is not the type of book you only read once. It’s the type of book you read and then you re-read each chapter to put its learnings into practice. This is also a book that I recommend to crisis leaders – as well as leaders of every kind. If you’re interested in learning more, I had Nick on my podcast earlier this year to discuss how to master your body language for crisis leadership. If you haven’t yet listened to this conversation, I highly recommend you do so.
The second book I read was called How to Deliver a TED Talk: Secrets of the World’s Most Inspiring Presentations, by Jeremey Donovan. This book discusses the structure of a great TED talk.
The third book I read was Talk Like TED, by Carmine Gallo. This was another phenomenal read. Carmine Gallo is an author I’ve enjoyed in the past and reading his Talk Like TED book was inspiring. This book really helps you condense your message into a short, 18 minute presentation and gives you food for thought to contemplate and aspire to throughout the entire process of creating your speech.
These books motivated and inspired me, which is what I was hoping for. Combined with all the TED talks I studied, I felt I was ready to create my speech.
Step 2: Content creation
Once I felt as though my research had been thoroughly completed, I began the task of outlining my message for the talk. I knew the heart of the message I wanted to communicate, but taking a message that I typically deliver in a one hour keynote address, or even a three hour workshop, and condensing it down to 18 minutes was quite a challenge and an interesting experience to undertake. However, after experiencing this process, I highly recommend this exercise to every communication professional out there.
Creating my title
The first step was to create the title of my talk. This was the first step, primarily because the conference organizers over at the City of LA needed it! However, creating the title is also a great exercise to keep your speech focused and on track.
In order to do this, I took a look at the titles of the most popular TED talks out there. One thing they all have in common is that they’re all short yet extremely descriptive. For example, if you look at the top 10 most viewed TED talks (which vary between TED and TEDx talks), you’ll find:
- “How schools kill creativity”
- “Your body language shapes who you are”
- “How great leaders inspire action”
- “The power of vulnerability”
- “My stroke of insight”
- “The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology”
- “10 things you didn’t know about orgasm”
- “Why we do what we do”
- “The puzzle of motivation”
- “Underwater astonishments”
All of these titles consist of no more than 2 – 7 words, yet each of them are extremely descriptive and enticing, not to mention great Google keyword searches. For my title, I had a hard time deciding between “The secret to successful crisis management” and “The secret to successful crisis management in the 21st century”. I know they’re almost the same, but my thinking was that it was advantageous to be most descriptive, so I decided to go with the slightly longer version and so, “The secret to successful crisis management in the 21st century” became the title of my TEDx talk.
With my title I had my direction and my promise of delivery to my audience. From there, it was time to create my speech.
Developing my speech
I’m not one to write out an entire script. The way I write my speeches is pretty well out loud after I’ve outlined my themes, goals, audiences, etc. So I began by outlining the exact message that I hoped to inspire my audience with. From there, I took a look at some of the interesting case studies that inspire me and have proven to relate to past audiences. This in itself was an interesting process. For example, it turns out that I usually spend 6-7 minutes on the BBC story I share in my TEDx talk. That’s one third of my allotted time! So the challenge was in mapping out the salient points that got to the heart of my message, while still telling the story in an interesting and relatable way. Finding the salient points in any story or message and making sure you share them in an engaging and interesting way takes reflection, along with trial and error.
The structure of my speech
I knew I wanted to captivate my audience by opening with a story, and Nick Morgan says you should aim to do this within the first minute of your presentation. I also gave myself the additional goal of making my audience laugh within that first minute of my speech. Laughter, according to Nick, puts the audience’s brainwaves on the same level as yours, helping them be more receptive to your message. However, generating laughter is not ever a given. Even if you tell the funniest joke in the world, the audience may be cranky, serious or just may not find it funny, so it’s always a gamble. In order to put the odds in my favor however, I decided to use an anecdote that had resulted in laughter in past presentations – as well as in one on one discusses with friends and clients. Additionally, I rehearsed the way in which I would emphasize certain words in my delivery.
After the opening minute of my speech, my next task was to paint the problem that my audience faces. This, I figured I could do in a maximum of 5 minutes, taking up a third of my presentation time.
From there, I wanted to give my audience the solution to their problem. This needed to be done, again, in a captivating and relatable way. I wanted to use stories to help me draw out my points and bring my audience into the discussion with me, making them the heroes. So I fleshed out some of my favorite examples and, with lots of trial and error, mapped out the salient points while making sure to keep the stories interesting. This, I figured could take up a maximum of 11 minutes.
The last two minutes would be left for my conclusion. This is one of the most important parts of a speech, as it consists of the final words that you leave your audience with. For a TEDx talk, you want those words to summarize your message and leave your audience with a call to action that inspires and empowers them to actually act. Nailing the ending of any speech is important; nailing the ending of a TEDx talk is critical to its success.
My dilema in relatability
There were two audiences I needed to relate to and inspire in this one speech: the audience I was presenting in front of on the day of the event, and the audience that would watch my presentation online over the course of the next few years. The first audience consisted of emergency managers for the City of LA, and the second audience consists of any professional interested in learning the secret to successful crisis management in the 21st century!
Therefore, as much as I needed to relate to the audience that I would be presenting in front of in real-time, I also needed to relate to those who would click play on the video of my talk in the future. This was extremely important. This was also a challenge, as it meant that I needed to have examples and stories that related to both audiences. It also meant that I couldn’t be completely direct in speaking solely about emergency management. So my selection of stories and examples ended up being quite a mix that, I’m happy to say, ended up working quite nicely together.
My first draft was no where near good enough!
After spending a good couple of weeks on the development of my speech, I began to rehearse. But a good speech cannot simply be created, rehearsed and delivered. A good speech needs to be tested. So I set out to test my message and its delivery.
To do this, I selected some close friends and colleagues that I trust and highly respect. I got in touch with each of them and asked if they would be willing to watch a video recording of my TEDx talk and provide me with their most critical feedback. I was looking for brutal honesty here! I’m very fortunate to have such an amazing group of friends and colleagues that I trust and can turn to for such important help, because each of their time and feedback was invaluable.
With the many comments and questions I received back from people, I realized that, though it was an interesting talk, it didn’t perfectly communicate exactly what I wanted to impress upon my audience. So back to the drawing board I went!
I repeated this process a good two or three times, each time receiving feedback from a select few, but different group of friends. The purpose of not sending the video recordings to the same people over and over again was two-fold: 1) I didn’t want to ask too much of anybody’s time; and 2) I felt it was important to receive feedback from fresh eyes, as my audience’s eyes would also be “fresh”.
With each new piece of feedback, I refined my message. I would look at the questions and comments that were sent back to me and use them to help me determine how I could do a better job at concisely communicating my message. Some stories got swapped out for others, but mainly it was about reworking the key message points in-between the stories. When you only have 18 minutes to deliver a speech, every second counts.
However, as valuable as everyone’s feedback was, if I kept asking for it, it would have been a never ending process. At some point you just have to trust yourself and move forward. So, with about three weeks left to the big day, I moved to phase three of my process.
Step 3: Rehearsal
I committed to rehearsing 3 to 4 times a day, in different settings so I never became fully comfortable in one setting – after all, the TEDx Talk was not being held in the comfort of my office!
I also made my rehearsals as realistic as possible. By coordinating with the amazing people putting this conference together, I learned that there would be a counter visible to the speakers that would count down from 18 minutes. I also learned that we could display bullet point notes in front of us to help keep us on track throughout the speech. So, in every single one of my rehearsals, I rehearsed in front of a counter counting down from 18 minutes, and had my bullet point notes positioned in front of me. This allowed me to confidently know at what time I should be at what point in my speech.
Here’s a copy of the bullet point notes I used to keep me on track during my speech:
Rehearsing is invaluable. Through Nick Morgan I’ve learned that rehearsing with an abundance of energy does wonders for helping you keep your energy level high on stage. It has something to do with muscle memory and the confidence you build up before-hand. Although I naturally tend to come alive on stage, impassioned to be helping those I’m speaking with, this is always a valuable exercise to undertake… until you strain your voice!
A few days before the TEDx Talk I called my father in-law for a quick (unrelated to my speech) chat. Although I speak with him regularly, when he answered the phone he didn’t recognize my voice. Once he realized it was me on the other end of the phone, he asked if I had a cold because my voice sounded very different. I wasn’t sick so I realized that maybe I had been rehearsing too enthusiastically! Petrified that I wouldn’t have my voice on the big day, I decided to tone it down a little during my rehearsals over the next couple of days, saving my “dress rehearsals” for the two last days before I left for LA.
Step 4: Mental prep
On March 24th, the day before my TEDx talk, I left for LA. At this point, I was confident with my message and with my capability of relaying it passionately in a maximum of 18 minutes. What was next, was to manage my nerves!
I’d be lying if I said that I don’t get nervous when I go up onstage. Of course I do, I’m human! I get nervous that I may lose my train of thought or that I won’t impact my audience in an emotionally inspiring way. However, I’ve also learned the hard way that if you focus on your nerves, you can sabotage yourself. And sabotaging myself was, quite frankly, out of the question. No way did I work this hard to sabotage myself in something that I knew in my heart I could do with great success.
So during the 6 hour flight to LAX I read specific articles that relax and empower me, as well as a specific chapter in Power Cues that particularly tends to inspire me. I also read another book that I highly recommend called The Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod.
The Miracle Morning is a book about empowering yourself to reach your full potential. It discusses things like affirmations and visualization, amongst other things. Meditation, affirmations and visualization are things that help to calm and mentally focus and prepare me before I go on stage. I have a morning ritual on the days that I present where I wake up early to spend time doing these things, and then I continue to remind myself of my capabilities and visualize the outcome of the day that I want to achieve, whenever a hint of self-doubt begins to creep into my mind.
Knowing my own insecurities quite well, I took time on the plane to assess them and develop positive statements to counter them. I landed in LA at 11am local time and took the day to mentally focus and pamper myself. I then went to bed early to make sure I was refreshed and energized for the big day.
The day of my TEDx talk
When my alarm clock went off at 4:30 am on the day of my TEDx talk, my eyes jolted open and I was overwhelmed with excitement! I had 2 and a half hours to myself to meditate, motivate and empower myself before I had to get ready for the day. During this time, I visualized what success would look like and I visualized exactly what it would take, step by step, to achieve the success I knew I was capable of.
And then it was show time!
My friends at the City of LA’s Emergency Management Department had given me the privilege of being the last presenter of the day, calling me “the closer”. This, I took as a great honor. It was up to me to close the day with a bang. Throughout the day, I had a blast meeting people, networking and listening to the other wonderful speakers. Getting to know the audience personally tends to help me with my nerves. When I know who’s out there, I feel as though I’m speaking in front of friends, which has a calming effect.
Whenever a glimmer of doubt attempted to enter my subconscious, I quickly countered it with my affirmations and at 1:40pm I was introduced onto the TEDx stage.
Delivering my speech
My time on the TEDx stage was far too short! I had such a blast speaking with the audience, sharing with them the secret to successful crisis management in this 21st century. I walked off stage with 10 seconds left on the timer, feeling high with the success I had hoped to feel. The comments I received from audience members were overwhelmingly positive, which filled my heart with such gratitude and pride.
My goal was to empower and inspire my audience to take steps everyday towards adapting the type of proactive mindset that will give them a leading advantage in a crisis. Of course there are things that I think I could have done better, but all in all I have to say that this experience of delivering a TEDx talk was one that I completely enjoyed and am very proud of. It was a challenge that helped me grow as a communicator and as a professional speaker.
I have to thank my friends and colleagues who took their precious time to provide me with their invaluable feedback throughout this process. Your kindness and support meant the world to me and was invaluable to my success. I hope to one day soon have the honor of repaying the favor.
I also have to thank the amazing people at the City of LA’s Emergency Management Department who honored me with the invitation to be one of their TEDx speakers, and who took such great care of me throughout and leading up to the event. The detail that they put into the stage decoration and the entire conference was incredible.
I’d also like to thank Captain Chris Hsiung, of Mountain View Police Department, Trushar Barot, apps editor at BBC World Service, and Daniel Noah, from the National Weather Service in Tampa Bay, for sharing your stories with me and for being a source of inspiration for myself and countless others. Keep on leading the way!
Your feedback is welcome!
After all of this talk about the process of creating a TEDx talk, I will leave you with the final product of my TEDx speech. I’d love to hear your comments and feedback on both my talk and your own process and experience in creating and delivering a TED talk, in the comments below. With that said, here it is – and I look forward to hearing from you!
The secret to successful crisis management in the 21st century
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.