How to prepare for a TED talk: 7 things I learned

When I told a friend that I had been invited to give a TED talk about The Healing Power of Writing at my local TEDxTownsville, he said he wasn’t worried. I wouldn’t have any problem filling 15 minutes.

He had a point of course, but he was also missing the point. I can certainly talk for hours about the healing power of writing without drawing breath. But trying to cram everything I know about my topic into a 15 minute talk is a very different challenge.

How to prepare for a TED talk became my focus for the following four weeks (that’s how little time I had to prepare).

I learned so much from this experience, I thought I would share how I prepared and what I learned from giving a TEDx talk in October 2020.

1. Spend time on your draft & nail the story structure

A TED talk is essentially a performance. It’s about sharing an idea worth sharing through story telling. Stories are memorable and create connection. Think of it as taking the audience on a journey and practice telling your idea as a gripping story. The key to making it a gripping story is to make it personal. Tell us something about yourself. Let your personal story take centre stage so that the audience can relate to it. Audiences love speakers who own their vulnerability and who are authentic.

A TED talk is NOT a lecture and it’s not a conference presentation and it’s certainly not a causal chat, even though some of the most accomplished speakers make it look effortless and casual. Just take a look at Brene Brown’s talks.

The first thing I did to prepare for my TED talk was watch as many TED talks as I could. I focused on talks in my subject area and on the most popular talks in the history of TED to learn about effective story telling.

What they all had in common was a clear roadmap that takes the audience on a journey.

The other thing they had in common is that they were laser-focused on ONE IDEA. It can be a complex idea and you can explore it in complex ways, but introduce too many ideas and you will loose your audience.

2. Start with a strong hook

You need to hook your audience from the moment you open your mouth to speak your first words. There are different ways to do that and I tried out several versions with a live audience. It’s all about hooking your audience so that they hang on your every word, but it’s also about feeling comfortable with the way you are presenting your story.

There are different ways to hook your audience:

Ask a question:

A question creates curiosity and immediate connection with your audience.

A great example of this is Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk about How to make stress your friend. She asks her audience to raise their hands if they have experienced some form of stress this year. That’s a pretty clever way to engage just about everybody in the audience. But she also does another thing which is super effective in hooking the audience.

Kelly McGonigal starts with an unusual statement. She says “I have a confession to make and it has to do with stress,” and then she goes on to tell us that what she has taught for years, ie. that stress is bad for us, is actually no longer true. We are intrigued right?

Start with an unusual statement:

Startle your audience, like Kelly McGonigal did, with an interesting and unexpected statement.

How about Pamela Meyer’s talk on “How to spot a liar” for an unusual opening:

“Okay, now I don’t want to alarm anybody in this room, but it’s just come to my attention that the person to your right is a liar. Also, the person to your left is a liar. Also the person sitting in your very seats is a liar. We’re all liars.”

Provocative alright. Are you hooked?

Start with a story

A very popular and effective way to start a TED talk is by telling a story. Stories create connection and if told well, they impact us emotionally and stay with us long after the talk.

A great example is Susan Cain’s famous TED talk about the Power of introverts.

“When I was nine years old I went off to summer camp for the first time.And my mother packed me a suitcase full of books, which to me seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity. And this might sound antisocial to you, but for us it was really just a different way of being social. You have the animal warmth of your family sitting right next to you, but you are also free to go roaming around the adventure l and inside your own mind. And I had this idea that camp was going to be just like this, but better…”

3. Have a catch phrase

Think of this as your Call To Action. Mine was simply this: “We all have access to the healing power of writing 24/7 at the cost of pen and paper”. It’s a way to remind your audience of the core idea of your talk, the idea worth sharing. I sprinkled it strategically throughout my talk in small doses to remind the listener that I was tying it all back in together to my central idea.

4. How to prepare for a TED talk? Practice, practice, practice!

The most-watched TED speakers prepare for a year, some rehearse their talk for 300 hours! They also actively seek public speaking opportunities to rehearse their talks with live audiences. I had just under a month to get ready, which was less than ideal but it meant I had to be completely focused and I had to rehearse practically during every waking moment of the day. I am not joking!

You don’t get a teleprompter and we didn’t get a timer. This meant we had to know every word off by heart and we had to keep strictly to our scripts to avoid going over time. We were told that a talk over 18 minutes would not be uploaded to the official TED site. This means: do not improvise. Know your script off by heart.

How do you learn your script off by heart?

I recorded my talk on my phone, over and over. That helped me with the timing and also to get used to my words and to become aware of the flaws. Once I was happy with my overall script, I began to memorise it. There are many sophisticated techniques on how to do this, but I simply repeated it out loud all day long. For three weeks I became that crazy woman who speaks to herself non-stop. I said my talk out loud on my morning walk, in the shower, while driving, while doing the dishes. Any opportunity I had, I would rehearse my talk. You literally want to be able to do it in your sleep!

A week before my talk I started rehearsing with live audiences (via Zoom and with friends in my lounge room). That was all I had. The pros start rehearsing a year ahead. Start rehearsing with a live audience as early as you can. It is key to gaining confidence. For one, you really get a feel for what resonates, what is unclear and where your audience will laugh or where you might loose them. The other thing this does is prepare you for the unforeseen.

Own your pauses!

This was another important thing I learned by rehearsing in front of a live audience. Don’t race through your talk. On stage most of us will speak faster than normal. Know where to slow it down, where to pause and where to go faster. Pauses are really effective to allow the audience to take it all in. At first they’ll be distracted by your dress. One friend wasted my intro wondering why I didn’t wear a necklace. You can’t control your audience’s thoughts, but you can guide them with the rhythm of your delivery. Allow your words to resonate with your audience after you make an important point before you move on to the next thought.

Don’t change your script

Once you have gathered feedback on your talk from several live audiences, start rehearsing for real. At this stage you should be happy with all the suggested edits. I found it really helpful to be told to stop changing my script a week out from the talk. It will only confuse you at this stage if you change it. You want to start rote learning your words.

5. What if…”

Think of a worst case scenario and be prepared for it. What if a phone goes off or if someone drops a glass (as happened at our event) or worse, what if someone yawns? It is very easy to get startled and to loose your flow, or worse, to go blank (as also happened at our event to one of our speakers). I practiced with friends who had dogs jumping up and down and knocking over glasses and it taught me to keep my cool and to just keep talking.

What if I forget my lines or skip a whole paragraph? I worried about this, as it kept happening during rehearsals. The answer is, just keep going. Practicing with a live audience teaches you that they will have absolutely no idea that anything is missing. Train yourself to just keep going. Nobody will ever know!

Prepare a set of palm cards, think of it as a clutch. It felt it very reassuring to have the main headings of my talk summed up on half a dozen palm cards. I never looked at them, I didn’t need to, but it felt good to hold them in my hand.

6. Get yourself stage-ready

You want to feel good about yourself standing up there in the spotlight. Preparing for a TED talk also means spending time on how you look and feel. I am not big on manicures but I lashed out and got my nails done (bright red for the toes, French polish for my fingers as I didn’t want them to distract the audience) and I had my hair cut and colored. I did have a scary (and in hindsight funny) last-minute mishap with my dress, you can read about it here. My advice is: try your dress a few days before and pay attention to your bra, ladies!

I got a good night’s sleep, I went for a swim and a walk and I kept myself well hydrated all day. An hour or so before the talk, I made sure I stopped sculling liters of water so that I wouldn’t feel the urge to pee once I was on stage.

7. How to prepare for a TED talk: stay calm

Easier said than done! I had to give my TED talk in less than ideal circumstances. Apart from having only just under four weeks to get stage-ready, we had a bright white light shine into our faces (to balance the red light from up top) which made it impossible to see the audience, let alone connect with the audience. I literally had no idea how many people I was talking to. I couldn’t see anything. I was also the last speaker, which didn’t help with anxiety levels.

How I kept calm and focused before giving my TED talk:

I had planned to enjoy the event and watch all the other speakers before me. I soon realised that this would distract me too much. Instead, I kept to myself, avoided eye-contact with other speakers (which felt weird but helped) and I avoided looking at the screen in the green room with the live broadcast of the others. In stayed within my own bubble until it was over.

Stay focused on your WHY. I reminded myself why I was here, why my message was worth sharing and why I needed to share it tonight.

Stay focused on your audience. It was helpful to remind myself that I was here to spread my message about the healing power of writing to the wider world. During a global pandemic this message needed to be heard more than ever. I kept reminding myself that I was here for my audience and that helped a lot. Even though I literally couldn’t see anybody, I felt connected to my audience. I just imagined my online community and how my words would resonate with them. It helped because suddenly it wasn’t about me anymore. It was about them.

Practice positive self-talk: You got this! You are prepared, you are a professional, you’ve practiced more than anybody. I never thought I would ever speak to myself like that, but it really worked.

Walk around the block: To steady my nerves as the time got closer and to repress the scary thought that making a fool of myself up there on stage was a real possibility, I walked around the block slowly a couple of times until my toes started to bleed in the new shoes (do avoid that at all costs!). I said my talk out aloud one final time as I walked. Public speaking coaches typically advice against doing that.

Practice right before the talk? My wonderful coach Joanne Keune who was also the organiser of the TEDxTownsville, was adamant that I should stop rehearsing by midday. I followed every other piece of invaluable advice she provided, but I ignored her on that occasion. And it worked for me. It made me feel calm and reassured to say my words out loud one last time before I went on stage. I really could do this now with my eyes closed and therefore hopefully also with my eyes wide open, like a deer in the headlight, from that bright light shining at me on stage. So my best advice on that one is, follow your gut.

Do a meditation: an hour before I had to go on stage I popped my headphones in and listened to a guided meditation on my phone by Tara Brach. I have to thank my TED sister Peace Mitchell for this advice (watch her talk for a great example of powerful storytelling). Peace mentioned that that’s how the Dalai Lama prepares before he goes on stage. Naturally I took the advice and it worked!

What’s your best tip on how to prepare for a public speaking event?

Share with me in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

Hi I am Kerstin

Kerstin Pilz

I am a published author and former academic with 20 years university teaching experience. I discovered the healing power of writing when I went through the darkness of grief. Writing was my lifesaver.
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