10 ways to prepare for a TED style talk

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

I’ve given all types of talks. And while all presentations take an investment to make them effective, the creation of a high-stakes, beautifully staged TED-style talk often proves to be especially difficult. It takes work to craft the talk, and then even more to make the delivery sound natural.

What makes preparing for a TED Talk so tough?

A TED Talk is 18 minutes long—a length that was chosen by TED organizers based both on neuroscience and strategy. They understood that 18 minutes was long enough for a speaker to flesh out an idea, but short enough that a listener could take in, digest, and understand all of the important information.

TED curator Chris Anderson explains:

“The 18-minute length works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.”

In reality, creating a talk that is ONLY 18 minutes, instead of 45, is tougher than you might imagine. Woodrow Wilson summed up the process of giving a short, but effective speech best when he said:

“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

Not only is the 18-minute speech editing process challenging, but the rehearsal process takes a lot of time. In fact, I discovered that the amount of rehearsal time required is inversely proportionate to the length of the talk. True story: for the last 18-minute TEDx Talk I gave, it took me approximately 18 hours to rehearse.

Preparation tips: How to give a TED Talk that gets a lot of views

Here are ten preparation tips for how to give a TED Talk that fits within tight time limits and results in a presentation that’s as effective as possible.

1. Print your current slide deck as 9-up handouts.

The 9-up format is conveniently the same size as the smallest sticky note. When I prepared for my TEDx Talk, I arranged and re-arranged my message onto sticky notes—adding sticky notes until I was happy with the flow. If I’m whittling down my talk from, say, a 40 minute talk, I make sure I cut at least half of my slides. Keep trimming and trimming until you feel you are close to 18 minutes. During this process it becomes clear that your big idea can be communicated in a succinct, distilled manner.

2. Solicit feedback.

Assemble a handful of people who are effective presenters that you trust to give honest, unfiltered feedback on your narrative and slides. Verbally run the ideas by these folks (it doesn’t have to be a formal presentation). Have them look at all the slides at once so they give feedback on the “whole,” not the parts. Have them give you feedback on the content you’ve chosen and ask whether they think it will resonate with your audience. Consider doing this a handful of times: when I did my TEDx Talk, I repeated this step four times, twice with my ExComm Manager and twice with my company President. After they added their insights, I was ready to have the slides designed.

3. Rehearse with a great (honest) communicator.

Choose someone you trust and also that understands how to give a TED Talk, and rehearse with them. In my case, I rehearsed with a Duarte speaker coach. She would say honest things like: “When you say it that way, it can be interpreted differently than you intended,” “When you use that term, you come across derogatory,” “I thought that when you said it last time it was better, you said…” She worked hard tracking phrases and rounds of what was said. When it comes to preparing for a TED Talk, honesty is the best policy. Make sure your coach is not afraid to speak up; 18 minutes goes by fast. You love your material and you want to include all of it, but if you want to master how to give a TED Talk successfully, you need someone you trust to help you murder your darlings.

4. Close the loop.

A lot of times, as the presenter, you know your material so well that you think you’re making each key point clear. You might not be. Your coach should make sure you are telling people why. It’s the “why” around our ideas that make them spread, not the “how.” Articulate the why so your audience understands what’s magnificent about your big idea.


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5. Practice with clock counting up.

The first few times, rehearse with the clock counting up. That’s because if you go over, you need to know how much you’re over. Do NOT be looking at the clock at this time. Have your coach look at it because you don’t want to remember any of the timestamps in your mind. Finish your entire talk and then have your coach tell you how much you need to trim. Keep practicing until you’re consistently within 18 minutes. Your coach should be able to tell you to trim 30 seconds here or add 15 seconds there so that your content is weighted toward the most important information.

6. Practice with clock counting down.

Once you’re within the timeframe, begin practicing with the clock counting down. You need to set a few places in your talk where you benchmark a time stamp. Calculate where you need to be in the content in six-minute increments. You should know roughly where you should be at 6, 12 and 18 minutes. You should know which slide you should be on and what you’re saying so that you will know immediately from the stage if you’re on time or running over.

7. Be noteworthy.

Your coach is there to jot down what you say well and what you don’t. They should work from a printout of the slides and write phrases you deliver effectively so they can be added to your script. They should help you capture phrases so you can type them into your notes.

8. Don’t be camera shy.

Videotape some of your final practices. It doesn’t have to be a high-end video setup—I’ve used my iPhone camera on a tripod in a hotel room. You just need to feel like something’s at stake. Videotaping yourself helps you get used to looking at the camera, and you can review the video to look at your stage presence, eye contact, gestures, plus identify any expressions that need modification. Also, if you do an especially good practice run, you can go back and listen to the audio and add the best snippets to your slide notes. The TED audience has only about 1,000 people in it, but the TED.com audience has millions. So, talk to the camera like there are humans on the other side of it.

9. Do one more FULL timed rehearsal right before you walk on stage.

Right before you go onstage (we’re talking day-of), do one more timed rehearsal. This will ensure that you know the speech and that you’re well aware of where you might need to slow down or speed up.

10. Have two natural ending points.

I gave a TED-style talk in India with a head cold. I knew I’d possibly lose track of timing. Give your talk two natural ending points. Pick two natural places you could stop in your talk, then demarcate those as possible endings. That way, if you’re running way over, you can stop at your first ending point, and while your audience may miss out on some inspirational or emotional ending, they’ll have heard all of the most important information that matters.

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