Your TEDx Talk

By Alex Hum

This year, TEDxLSE focused a lot on developing student speakers to represent the school at the conference, in order to make the event more about the LSE community. But we wanted to provide more personalized advice and assistance to what they were working on, more than what a Google search can provide. There is a lot of advice online about how to give a good TED Talk and how to host a good TED event, but none of those checklist blogs and generic videos are nearly as helpful as spending some focused time with an expert.

We were fortunate to have a friend that put us in touch with Michael Weitz from Virtuozo, one of the co-founders of the experienced training and consulting firm. They specialize in honing communication skills and leadership, with extended specialty experience in training TED speakers for TED Global. Virtuozo helped us deal with the uncertainties that come with dealing with an organization as enigmatic and omniscient as TED. Their style and rules create a lot of things to consider when managing the team, choosing speakers, structuring talks, and marketing the event that always seem to fall into grey area.

It was a rare opportunity and when I first contacted Michael I was not even sure if I would get a response because I assumed that Virtuozo would be too busy for my small group. I was surprised to see that Michael had personally responded quickly, and was enthusiastic and flexible in finding a way to work together with TEDxLSE. Michael conducted a 2-hour webinar with my team and our student speakers and provided sagely advice that would be difficult to replicate in any other form.

The webinar created an open dialogue where both my team and the student speakers we were working with were able to clarify ideas and ask follow-up questions. This is important for speakers when most advice online is terribly generic, saying, “Tell the story your way”, or “Don’t be vague” (how ironic). None of this “advice” is illuminating in any practical way. These are statements that only become helpful when they are explained in context to your personal questions – the explanation might be different depend on who is asking and what their talk is about. This is why our partnership with Virtuozo elevated our success to the next tier, because their experience and originality added so much to our team.

The kinds of questions that prospective speakers will have are typically more specific than online resources can offer. Part of what made the experience with Virtuozo so unique and helpful was how honest the advice was, and how well Michael understands the perspective of speakers.

“Seek eye contact, don’t wander around too much, don’t worry if you are nervous because that shows you're looking forward to give the best you have… it is these tips that a speaker cares about and needs to know.”

Now, to make myself guilty of the very listicles I’ve just criticized, here are some things we learned from Virtuozo for aspiring speakers to consider!

On images: Only use images if it is helpful to illustrating your point. Each one you show should have a significant role in explaining your idea, so don’t feel pressured if you don’t have a PowerPoint. If it hasn’t shown itself to you as a useful tool, you might not need it, but be mindful that images can be evocative and can help the audience connect with your talk by engaging more senses.

On statistics: Talks grounded in science can go over the audience’s head, and lots of numbers and statistics can be jarring and cause fatigue. On the other hand, stories that are entirely personal do not have the credibility that is provided by quantitative research. In other words, there is a balance to be found by the speaker depending on the idea they want to convey and the discipline they are speaking in. On the whole, keep statistics significant, visual, and digestible to make sure you show that you know what you’re talking about without losing the audience.

On props: Bringing things for the audience to look at in person can be an excellent tool to explain what you are talking about, but it is even more helpful to surprise or provoke your audience and keep their attention. Michael showed us an example of a neuroscientist who brought out a human brain much to the disgusted excitement of the audience that was hooked on the talk. A helpful way to consider props is to ask if they will evoke the audience’s senses or emotions better than your words can.

On the audience: All TED Talk advice says to connect with the audience, but that could mean any infinite number of things that usually are not well-explained. There is no hard and fast rule about how to connect with the audience – this is only guided by the desirable result that the audience has been moved mentally or emotionally by your talk. As far as directly asking for responses to questions or inviting individual participation goes, inexperienced speakers should steer clear because it requires experience and skill to lead the conversation to make sure you are still hitting the relevant points of your talk. If it goes well it can get the audience on your side, but you risk losing control over the room and over your talk. Less than direct participation, for example a show of hands in response to a question, can also be a good tool but be prepared for the demonstration to counter your point, which you will have to adjust in your script. It is plainly embarrassing when a speaker says, “As you can see, most of you…”, but that is not what most of us saw.

While the questions were in response to direct questions from speakers about their talks, the principles can be distilled and are generally applicable. It’s also helpful for organizers and curators to know this because these should be the questions they should be asking when a speaker says, “I have an idea, what if I do this…”

For the organizing team, Michael answered broader questions about how to make a TED event more impactful, and more importantly, cheaper and easier to organize. There are lots of ways for universities and other organizations on a budget can cut corners that are not just finding ways to get by with providing less.

Michael tapped his experience with TED to give the curatorial team several ideas of which we never would have thought of: everything from how to work with speakers to how to make the audience feel a part of the event.”

Here we go, part two of yet another internet TED checklist, this time for the organizers:

On food: Food trucks! Everyone loves food trucks because they are fun and gimmicky, and it doesn’t cost the team anything to provide. This year we tried to make a little bit of an international marketplace – unfortunately some of the trucks bailed last minute so make sure you secure them with a deposit or something because they will feed your audience on little cost of your own!

On decoration and visuals: Keep them simple, extravagance has never been the point of TED, and make sure that whatever you have on stage will translate well onto video. The event is one day where your limited audience will see everything you’ve put together, but the video continues to reach more people long after your event has ended, and you want it to look good.

On scheduling: Plan long breaks that encourage people to talk to each other about reflections of the talks and their own ideas! Don’t exhaust your audience by pummeling them with a string of intense talks, and don’t be worried that the breaks will be dead air. Help the audience members connect, ask them to introduce themselves, and they will take care of themselves.

These are only some of the things that we covered in the webinar, but I hope I have made it quite obvious that this level of depth and analysis does not come without a personal guided tour of the structure and mechanics of a TED Talk. It’s worth pointing out that this blog post has forcibly let go of the tone and authenticity that makes this kind of advice so effective, which is why it was great to have Michael to talk to us.

Hopefully, more than the generic listicles that purport to know what goes into a TED Talk, this has teased out more specific issues that both organizers and speakers will encounter. Thanks to Michael and the rest of the Virtuozo team for helping TEDxLSE find our feet in pursuit of a bigger and better year.