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So you want to be a TED Speaker?

Joanna spoke about 3DLILA at TED2016 and was an “experience” at TED2018. She has a few words of insight and advice for those interested in being a TED speaker. Much of her advice follows her own philosophy: Be Brave, Be Curious, Be You.

I was down in San Luis Obispo talking to a room full of powerful women and members of the National Association of Women Business Owners local chapter. One of the participants asked me a question that I not only thought was worth answering, but also reminded me that I needed to update you all about some of my musings at TED 2018.

Her question: I want to do a TED talk, what advice do you have for making that happen?

Not surprisingly I have a ton to say on this topic. I thought I’d boil it down to my top pieces of advice.

1. Have an idea worth sharing. As much as it looks like an opportunity to tell your story or even promote your product, it’s not. Trust me on this one. A couple of speakers at TED 2018 got this wrong, and their talks looked more like an advertisement for their product. The backlash was fast and brutal. Not only did the audience not like it, but they called out the curators for their miss. The ones that missed had forgotten that at its core the audience wants to hear an idea. And an idea, by definition, means the listener gets to think about it and decide. It’s a suggestion, an insight into something new.

2. Your idea needs to be unique. I know this one isn’t a surprise. Don’t panic, unique doesn’t mean it has to be a whole new idea in its entirety. Some ideas are universal, but you do have to have a unique spin or perspective on an idea. One of the best examples was Tim Urban’s presentation on procrastination. Is procrastination a new idea? Absolutely not. Is the way he presented it new? Yes. And bonus points given as it made us all laugh. 

3. Your idea needs to be current and thematic. This concept requires patience and continuous focus. Patience because every single TED event has a theme. And with the “big TED” there are themes within themes. You may have the most brilliant idea in the world, but if it doesn’t fit into the theme, you won’t get stage time. To make it a tad more challenging, at the same time you need to be current. A perfect example from this year’s conference was Diane Wolk-Rogers' "A Parkland teacher's homework for us all." Buried in the emotional conversation about what it was like to be in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Valentine’s day 2018, was a lesson. She spoke of an idea about knowledge and understanding, from a history teacher’s perspective, of the 2nd amendment. We learned and cried with her as she spoke.

4. Say yes to every opportunity. My personal story of how I got to speak at TED the first time AND the second time has been built on the simple premise of “why not me?” In both cases, I never went to TED with the sole purpose of speaking at TED. I went to listen and learn. But then an email would come through from the organizers asking for ideas. Each time I would look at what I was doing and ask myself if what I was doing might be interesting. I threw my hat in the ring with an eye to and mindful of the audience. What would be interesting and useful for them? I use this approach with beyond the TED stage. It’s how I approach every speaking opportunity. Would my idea be helpful to the audience? If yes, then volunteer your services. They don’t always say yes, but they can’t say yes if you haven’t thrown your name in the hat.

5. Be consistent and be you. Here’s what’s true about every single speaker on the TED stage: They’ve been noodling on their idea for a LONG time. I’ve asked a couple of them and the average time they’ve given me is 10 years. Now I know this seems like a LONG time, but this is SO important. What ten years of thinking gives you is a deep, personal knowledge and understanding of about a topic that you can almost feel in each speaker. They could talk about the idea for hours with endless stories about how they landed in this spot. This goes for the technologists, the entertainers, and the designers. Not one of them (or at least the good ones) has thought “I want to do a TED talk, what should it be about?” All their ideas came from their work, their research, their passion. The idea was molded over the years through curious, dedicated work which then manifested a new idea. Their ideas are rich and complex. Those great speakers, the ones that you could listen to for hours, are invested in their idea. Their passion and honesty shine through. A little secret: Each and every person freaks out a little about having to synthesize it down into the allotted 20 mins allowed.

If you want to speak at TED or a TEDx event I’m sure at this point you are having one of two reactions to these suggestions.

  1. I have an idea and my idea fits the criteria.
  2. I don’t have an idea that fits the criteria.

If you’re in group 1, then go for it. Just start getting to know people and asking for the opportunity to speak. There is no harm in asking. Practicing your idea in front of audiences is a great way to get a polished presentation.

If you’re in group 2. Hold up a second. My guess is you do have an idea, you just haven’t found it yet. Because this is what I believe: Each and every one of you has 10 years of experience in your life, and in your life, you’ve learned something. Learned something that only YOU uniquely experienced, something that is a part of who YOU are.

Pay attention to your awesome, whatever it is, and maybe your idea worth sharing might be found.

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