The Newbie’s Guide To Delivering A TEDx Talk

My time on the TEDx stage in Vancouver.

My time on the TEDx stage in Vancouver.

I did not do even one perfect run of my talk before going up on the TEDx stage. I kept messing up the order of different sections, or changing up the words up till the final hour of my practice run.

The thought of being recorded as I drew a blank of my next line and having it forever documented on YouTube terrified me.

It was a miracle that the one and only time that I perfectly recited my talk was while I was on stage. The one saving grace that I believe helped me deliver at go-time was all the preparation I committed to.

Delivering a TEDx talk is a fantastic milestone for entrepreneurs to work towards — it’s a great channel to get a message across, or in my case, a wicked challenge that pushes you to grow as a human being. I highly recommend it.

If you’re interested in doing a TEDx talk, here are my best recommendations on how to book a slot and make your experience as comfortable as possible on stage. I am not an expert on public speaking, and this post is not for someone striving to speak like a pro.

This is for the newbie who just wants to tell a story on stage without forgetting their lines, freezing, or throwing up.

Before I dig into the preparation for the talk itself, here is how I was able to land admission into a TEDx event in the first place —

Finding the TEDx Platform

At the time of doing my TEDx talk, I was living in NYC. Due to the sheer volume of competition, I knew that my probability of getting a slot in a TEDx talk in any of the 5 boroughs was less than 50%, so I did not waste my time applying to any NYC TEDx platforms.

Instead, I set up a Google alert for “TEDx speakers” and regularly monitored Twitter’s “TEDx” hashtag feed. After doing this for a few months, I was able to find several TEDx locations throughout the US and Canada that I could apply to and landed a spot at a Vancouver TEDx.

If you don’t particularly care for where you’ll do your TEDx talk and are open to traveling, I recommend going down this route of doing a countrywide and bordering-country search. It’ll allow you to do your TEDx talk on a quicker timeline and heighten your probability of getting accepted to do a talk.

Preparing A TEDx Talk

Practicing for and delivering my TEDx talk was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. An 8 minute talk has about 1,000 words; so with those 1,000 words, I had to remember all 1,000 words in a specific order while also paying attention to my speaking speed, physical pacing, and delivery and timing in response to the audience’s reactions.

There were a couple of things I did in preparation for my talk that I believe attributed to my success, and will absolutely do again the next time I have to deliver a structured keynote. Here are those key things —

1) Remove All Points Of Resistance

My talk integrated storytelling as well as personal reflections I had throughout my experience. There were specific sections in the early drafts of my talk that I kept forgetting or mixing up. The first 5 times I attributed it to memorization shortcomings, the next 10 times I knew that there was something wrong in the way I was telling the story.

The more I thought about it, I realized that the reason why I kept messing up these specific sections was because the story was being told in an order that my brain wasn’t used to. The talk was based off of real experiences and thoughts that I lived and mulled through, and had shared with numerous friends. Through this retelling, my brain already had a sequence in place of how I told this story. The places where my talk forced new narratives and realizations was where I struggled.

It’s kind of like telling your life story, but telling it backwards — there’s a natural sequence and predictable order of how to tell this story, but when you slice and sew it into a bigger, more meaningful message (like for a TEDx talk) your brain can’t help but resist the weird way you’ve stitched this new narrative together.

I was quite annoyed by this constraint, but knew that the alternative of relying on my memory of 1,000 words wasn’t a sound plan. I have never been a memorizer and never will be. I buckle under the anxiety of having to recite something I memorized and always bomb it, but excel at speaking freely about a topic I love under a loose outline.

So to combat this constraint, I focused on the first lines for each transition point in my talk so that I had an outline hammered into my head. I found that as long as I knew the cues for each transition point, that my probability of messing up that section of the talk was very low.

I also revised my drafts for the talk by using my mess-ups as clues on how to change it. If I kept mixing up paragraphs 3 and 5 during my practice runs, I used it as a feedback loop to revise my talk to make the switch work. I listened to how my brain wanted to sequence the story and just made it work. I needed my brain to work with me and I didn’t see the point in fighting against myself. I located and let go of all points of resistance so that I could maximize my time learning and practicing my talk.

A side note on drafting your talk —

You will go through multiple revisions when practicing your talk verbally, so don’t anchor yourself to the talk in text form.

I’ve met a lot of people that first work on writing their talk in full prior to enrolling in a TEDx event (I definitely did this). If you’re an experienced speaker and this is your process, go for it, but if you’re a newbie like I was, I don’t recommend this. If you want your talk to be good, you have to be open to it getting slaughtered while you’re practicing it in front of other people. Having a loose outline of your talk will be necessary to apply to a TEDx event, but you’ll save yourself a lot of time and grief if you don’t chain yourself to a specific script until you receive some feedback.

2) Work With A Speaking Coach Or A Mastermind

We thankfully were given a speaking coach to help prepare for our talks, and I don’t think I’ll ever give a keynote again unless I have a coach. The feedback and outside perspective on what works, and what will and will not resonate with the audience was extremely valuable. This is important because your talk should be a conversation (even if the audience’s responses are internal and silent) and not a platform for you to talk at people. It was also helpful to get advice from a coach on best practices when it comes to delivery speed, physical pacing, and more.

We conducted our coaching calls in a group with all of the TEDx speakers, which was great. Having a mastermind-esque environment with different people helped refine my talk so that there were no phrases, statements, or talking points that didn’t make sense. If there were parts of my talk that didn’t resonate with even one audience member, I had the appropriate feedback to change it so that I could connect to anyone listening to my talk.

3) Record Yourself And Listen To It On Repeat

When I began panicking on the week of the talk because I wasn’t able to do a perfect run of it, I read through my talk and recorded it on my smartphone. I continuously listened to the recording when I was commuting or making meals so that it became unforgettable. By listening to the recording on repeat, my goal was to become more comfortable with the topic transitions and have the whole talk feel ironclad against any distraction, cough, or sudden movement in the audience thrown my way.

4) Practice 2x More Than You Think You Should

Practicing this talk eventually got incredibly exhausting and boring by the several hundredth time, but in truth, I should have practiced even double this amount. I never got to a place in my practice runs where I could complete my talk seamlessly so that I could practice my physical movements throughout the stage and add other flair.

So if you plan on practicing 4x a day, double it and make it 8. All it takes is 8 minutes to tell a beautiful story or to completely blow it and waste 3 months of your life on a talk that you can’t even share. Put in an exuberant amount of effort so that you’re over prepared, and do not cram your practice runs — this didn’t work in high school and this won’t work on a stage with the added pressure of a room full of people staring at you.

5) Accept Your Flubs And Finish Your Talk, Even During Practice Runs

It’s a very real possibility that you may forget your next line while you’re live and doing your talk. Instead of freaking out, bounce off of where you left off and continue telling your story according to how you remember it. Riff for a little bit and give your brain the space to breathe and let it navigate you back (it always will). However, don’t stop talking — it will give your brain the opportunity to introduce a bunch of fearful self-talk that will run you over.

Even when you mess up during practice runs, keep at it and finish your talk. I found that doing this helped me practice what to do when I messed up a line or section and safeguarded me against freezing up on stage and saying nothing. If you mess up but keep talking, no one in the audience will know that you’ve messed up.

If you’re preparing for a TEDx talk or have always wanted to do one, I hope that this provides some insight or gives you the confidence to do one. Doing a TEDx talk was a ton of work and frankly became a part-time job, but it was completely worth working through the challenge. Especially for a newbie, doing a TEDx talk is a great way to take a crash course in public speaking and learn a valuable skill that will help you in various contexts for years to come. 

Sophia Sunwoo