I spend a fair amount of time these days as a communication coach helping people prepare for TED speeches. Even people who never prepared a speech before, preferring to wing it, suddenly get coaching religion when it comes to TED. There’s something about knowing that 18 minutes of you will be there, forever, on the Internet, to compare to all those other geniuses, that gives even confident b*llsh*t artists pause.
So, in order to push the conversation forward, here are my 5 quick steps to a killer TED speech. Yes, it’s important, and yes, everyone from here to Alpha Centauri will be able to watch the speech forever, but let’s get this done anyway and have a little fun in the process.
1. Pick an idea that you know something special about. Maybe you know how fire-walking works, or sword-swallowing, or you have a method to predict the direction of the stock market. There’s something you know in a way that no one else does. Make it something you’re passionate about, because if you’re going on record, it better be something that gets your heart racing.
2. Connect a bit of your own story to the subject. Now we need a little bit of your biography woven in to the subject. Did you learn fire-walking from a crazy uncle? Were you briefly in the circus, and had to swallow swords to survive? Or did you dream up that stock market racket while bored in 5th grade math? We want to know. But we only want to know a little. A TED talk is not about you; it’s about the idea, made human through you.
3. Now make your passion, and your story, universal. When I was young, my grandmother used to scold me if I talked about subjects that were “not of general interest.” From her I learned not to gossip, and not to talk about my buddies in school unless they had done something earthshaking – of general interest. It’s an idea that still hold merit, and here it means finding the universal problem that your passion, and your story, speaks to. One recent TED talk wove the speaker’s own shyness together with some research on introversion together with a universal problem: extroverts can’t solve all the challenges facing us. The result was a perfect TED talk.
4. Start with the universal problem, then move to your story. You can also do it the other way around. But only if it’s very well constructed. We have a low tolerance for other people’s personal stories when they natter on with irrelevant details. But when they put us on a ledge, high in the Himalayas, or skydiving from 15,000 feet, or facing a man-eating tiger, and they do it with economy and a touch of cool, then we’re hooked. Nonetheless, we always want to know what the point, the moral, or the lesson is. So start with the universal, or the individual, but get to the universal before very long. Don’t bore us with your holiday snaps, metaphorically speaking, unless you were visiting the Dalai Lama.
5. End by telling us how we can join together to combat, surmount, or erase the universal problem. Always close with a call to action, because, what the heck, you’ve got the world’s attention. Don’t waste it! And don’t make it self-serving, because the whole point of TED is that it’s not about marketing yourself, it’s about sharing ideas. Really, really interesting ideas.
There are lots of universal subjects left, and an infinite number of personal stories to connect to them. We’ll be watching TED forever.