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TED conferences are extremely popular. So much so that speakers at TED and independently organized TEDx events are not paid. In fact, at some conferences the speakers have to pay the admission fees even though they deliver the content. Why is it still appealing to give a TED-talk, you may ask? First of all, the strength of the brand with millions of subscribers on YouTube is only increasing over time. Secondly, it has become a great reference for all your future work in communication. And lastly, you may have an idea that you want the world to know about. TED is a great way to start a discussion and get input. In this article, I want to describe how you can become a speaker at a TEDx event. 

  1. Your Big Idea

You might be familiar with TED’s slogan “Ideas worth spreading”. Keep this slogan in mind, once you start thinking about your speech. Start with empathy and set the ego aside for the moment. What is your big idea that you would like to send into the world? What problem does it solve? Who benefits from it? 

A good first exercise is to put your big idea into one sentence. The sentence could be something like:

  • Three secrets to prosperity
  • An alternative solution to global warming
  • How to raise your child without forgetting about yourself

Every message that you want to spread will be connected to your big idea. The big idea might not be in your speech, but it is a sort of mantra that helps you stay on track and keeps you motivated, once you start crafting your talk. It should be a sentence that excites you. 

2. Network

Once you have an idea, why you want to speak at a TEDx event and what your big idea is that you want to talk about it is time to network. You can find plenty of TEDx events on the TED website (https://www.ted.com/tedx/events), especially if you’re fortunate enough to live in Europe or North America.

Each event has a theme. Some are specific and others are fairly broad. The theme of the event I attended was: “Outside the Bubble”. You can easily see if an event you found matches your big idea. If you have found an event to your liking, check out social media and get into contact with the people organizing the event. The more people you know the better. LinkedIN is especially powerful because most organizers link their profile to the event they organize. You can then easily find them by searching for the desired event. 

If your speech is not ready yet or your idea needs some polishing, it might be a good idea to volunteer at one of the events. Most people, who work for TEDx, are volunteers and the work-atmosphere generally is friendly and open. If you volunteer, you’ll gain insights into the selection process of speakers and all the work that goes into organizing a TEDx event. 

In my case, a speaker coach connected me to one of the organizers at TEDxKoenigsallee. I called her and she told me about the selection process, which included a 60 second video pitch and a clear description of my big idea. My friends helped me shoot the video, we selected an appealing background in the wine-hills of south east Germany and I made an effort to stay within the time-limit of 60 seconds. 

3. Always Go

The second step to giving a TEDx talk was a phone interview. Not all organizers do that, but the bigger events have several people responsible for the speaker selection and they need to agree on the line-up for the big night. During my interview with two of the organizers it became clear to me that they liked something about my pitch, but they didn’t like my big idea.

One of my drama teachers used to say: “Listening is the willingness to change!” Unfortunately, in the real world, listening is mostly waiting to say something. Luckily, I was trained in improvised theatre and picked up on the verbal and emotional clues during the phone call. My original idea, about how analytical and creative thinkers approach challenges differently, didn’t resonate with the committee. Instead, the interviewers seemed to be more interested in the topic of resilience that they had seen on my website. The call ended with a suggestion. The committee asked me to hand in a one-page outline of the talk. It was supposed to be crisp and clear.

Now I had a choice to make. Should I hold on to my original idea or write a completely new proposal of my talk. I decided to do both and wrote two one-page outlines for two different talks – one about resilience and one about creative and analytical ideas. It was a great exercise for me and I felt good about myself, but unfortunately none of the proposals really hit home with the speaker committee. As the date of the TEDx event approached I received a text message. In a polite text I read that it might not be time for the resilience idea just yet, but maybe next year. 

At first, I was disappointed, but then I thought that I would not give up so easily. I knew that I wanted to give a talk a TEDx and was determined to make it happen. Two words popped up in my mind – ALWAYS GO! To me, those words mean two things. The willingness to follow through, even if success seems improbable and seeing the opportunity in an otherwise disappointing situation. 

I stayed in contact with one of the organizers and asked if we could meet for coffee in Düsseldorf, where she was located. I told her that I wanted to become a volunteer for the event and help as much as I could, if I was not selected as a speaker. I figured that I might as well learn as much as I could, while preparing for next year. To my surprise, I received a delightful message a while later. The speaker committee had selected me as a speaker. 

4. Speak from the Heart

Churchill has said it best in his short famous speech from 1941: “Never give in, never, never, never!” The real work began with the selection. I had to rewrite the entire speech three times and then make major changes another four times until I had a final draft. Several people corrected the structure, ideas and grammar. This was helpful, because English is my second language but also frustrating, because the event was approaching fast and in the end I had only a few days to memorize my speech. 

In the middle of the process, I thought that my idea and my speech is possibly not good enough. “Who cares about resilience anyway?”, “No-one wants to hear about play” were thoughts that ran through my head. During that time, I read Dale Carnegie’s book about public speaking: “How to Develop Self-Confidence & Influence People by Public Speaking,” which was especially helpful. In one chapter, Carnegie describes the importance of speaking to the audience as if you’re having a conversation. He emphasizes that it is especially important to not memorize your speech word for word. It is important to know the beginning and end, but the middle is made up of a conversation based on ideas and stories delivered freely and spoken from the heart.

Carnegie’s words resonated with me. I didn’t have enough time to memorize every word of the speech, but I knew the essence of what I wanted to say and focused on learning the beginning and end of the speech. Now, it might be wise to learn your speech by heart, if you speak in a language that you don’t speak well. But if you speak in your mother tongue, conversation beats memorization.

5. Stagecraft

Before the TEDx event you’ll likely rehearse in front of a smaller audience. At TEDxKoenigsallee all speakers spoke on a smaller stage in front of all organizers and speakers the day before the main event. Yes, you will be coached and yes, you will have a sense of what to do on stage, but stagecraft needs a lot of preparation.

If you can join an improv theatre, participate in open mic nights or become a member of a speaking club such as Toastmasters International before you give your TEDx speech, do it.  Get on stage as much as possible, because the TEDx stage is special. You will stand on a red, round piece of carpet that you are asked to stay on. There will be lots of people in the audience and your speech will be online for years to come. This increases pressure and makes it harder to deliver a good speech.

There is no way around practicing to stay calm in such a situation. Improvisational theatre was especially helpful for me, because there is an X-Factor in every performance. During my talk at TEDx I was especially irritated by the little TV-screen next to the monitor box on stage. I didn’t use any slides during my presentation. Instead my image was shown on the big screen behind me. Unfortunately, it was also shown on the small screen in front of me. While I was speaking, I constantly saw myself giving a speech. Every time I moved, little me on the screen moved as well and reminded me that this talk is being recorded. 

Improv taught me to enjoy and celebrate those little irritations that often occur when technology is involved. As a speaker, it will be your job to keep your composure. Never explain and never complain. 

I wish you a successful talk and a wonderful time as a speaker. It is a wonderful way to reach a bigger audience, to move people and start a conversation about ideas that matter. Enjoy your path,

Ben Hartwig

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