How Giving a TEDx Talk Actually Works

June 20, 2024

As you may know, I recently gave a 12-minute TEDx talk, and I'm here to share my experience with you. I'm not going to give you the talk itself—that will be available online in a couple of months—but I want to share how such an event comes about, along with some insights and lessons learned.

The Motivation Behind Giving a TEDx Talk

The first question that comes to mind is: Why would anyone want to give a TEDx talk? It's unpaid, and involves a lot of stress, energy, time, and effort. In the end, maybe nobody watches it outside the room where it was given. If you're lucky, it might gain online visibility, but that's far from guaranteed. So why do it?

There are various motivations. Some might do it for vanity, to feel important on stage. Others might hope it helps their personal brand and visibility online. For me, though, the main motivation was to share ideas and a message that I deeply believe in. A good TEDx talk is like a preacher's sermon, a motivational speech, or the address of a rare good politician—it comes from a place of deep commitment to a worldview.

The Commitment of Other Speakers

At the TEDx event, the other speakers were equally committed to their topics. Some even incorporated music into their talks, blending singing with their message. It wasn't a rock concert, but it certainly pushed the boundaries of what a talk can be. TEDx talks give speakers up to 18 minutes to share their ideas, and the variety in presentation styles is quite broad.

The Process of Giving a TEDx Talk

Starting a TEDx talk begins with the application to speak. There are many calls for speakers, but getting selected is another matter. Organizers need a license from the central TED organization, similar to a franchise model, which comes with strict rules. They decide on the speakers and ensure there's a central theme connecting the talks.

These talks cannot be commercial or political in the sense of campaigning. They can address societal trends or political issues broadly but must avoid being partisan. The organizers can invite speakers who fit the theme and have something valuable to share.

My Journey to TEDx

For the TEDx event at KU Leuven in Brussels, the organizers reached out to me to apply (without any promise that I'd be accepted). They found my profile interesting and asked if I wanted to apply. The theme was "chain reaction," interpreted in a social context rather than a scientific one. After considering what I could contribute, I decided to focus on political communication, psychology, linguistics, and personal development which seemed to resonate with them so they accepted my pitch. My talk's title eventually became "Your Words Will Shape Your World."

Preparing the Talk

The preparation process was intense. I had to draft, revise, and receive feedback multiple times. Losing one's ego is crucial here—accepting constructive criticism improves the final product. I rehearsed extensively, not just to memorize but to "internalize" the message so I could deliver it authentically.

The Four Stages of Writing

A journalist once taught me about the four stages of writing, which are highly applicable to preparing a speech:

  1. Madman: Collect all ideas, quotes, and concepts without filtering.
  2. Architect: Organize these ideas into a coherent structure.
  3. Carpenter: Refine and chisel the structure into a polished form.
  4. Judge: Critically review and eliminate anything unnecessary.

Being your own madman, architect, carpenter, and judge is challenging. External feedback from trusted colleagues is invaluable during the ‘judge’ phase.

The Importance of Rehearsal

Rehearsing was essential. I recorded my speech, listened to it repeatedly, and practiced in my car and with others. This helped me refine the flow and ensure I could deliver it smoothly. It's also vital to read the speech out loud, as speaking differs from reading silently.

The Role of Visual Aids

Initially, I thought I wouldn't use slides, but feedback indicated that visuals could enhance comprehension. Martin, a very talented designer friend of mine, created a Prezi presentation that allowed me to zoom in and out on key points, making the talk more dynamic and in sync with the message. Visuals also served as reminders for me and aids for the audience, ensuring the narrative was clear and engaging.

The Day of the Talk

On the day of the talk, I was the first speaker. It's interesting how nervousness works: for me, I was pretty anxious but it immediately disappeared when I stepped on the 'red dot' stage. Stage fright comes from one thing and one thing only: uncertainty. Its source can be multifold, such as 'will I remember my speech?', 'will the audience resonate with my message?', 'will something unexpected happen?' - but to the greater degree I can reduce these uncertainties, the less nervous I will be.

In the end, despite thorough preparation, technical glitches can still happen—my slides didn't initially appear on screen. The organizers quickly fixed this, allowing me to proceed as planned. The live setting always brings its own challenges, but the key is to stay composed and adapt to whatever comes up.

Final Reflections

No plan survives first contact with the audience, much like a boxer’s plan doesn’t survive the first punch. The delivery won't be exactly as rehearsed, but that's okay. The goal is to share something meaningful, and if you can do that, it's a success. I was also told, quite wisely, that there are always 3 speeches we give: the one we plan to give, the one we actually give, and the one we wish we had given. The closer these three are to each other, the better it feels.

My Takeaway

After the talk, the most rewarding part was receiving feedback from the audience. Knowing that my message resonated with them was incredibly fulfilling. Creating and sharing something you believe in is a deeply nourishing experience. I encourage everyone to consider giving a TEDx talk because the journey teaches you many lessons, and giving the talk is just a small part of it.

If you're interested in hearing more, just send me a message.