This weekend I keynoted the fall joint conference between the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. It was a gratifying, yet intimidating experience talking to my peers--my equals--about the future of journalism. I'm glad I was able to rise to the occasion.
In fact, most public speaking skills I possess today lead back to my first, successful TED talk in 2014. There is a certain rigorous focus I carry into all my talks now. A colleague reminded me that I've never shared my insights from the TED experience.
Here is the process:
Practice: You should be able to say your talk in your sleep.
I quietly shudder every time a speaker tells me they plan to "Wing it" or "Go with the flow" once they get on stage. That's the equivalent of a boxer saying he expects his body to know what to do once he gets in the ring--and, as one mentor once told me, everybody has a plan until they get hit for the first time. People can usually tell when you are making it up as you go along, especially if you are talking to experts about something they know.
Here's the ultimate contradiction: TED Talks feel so conversational because they are heavily practiced. TED provided me a coach to share my outline, develop my brief PowerPoint and practice both over Skype and in a dress rehearsal--and I was on the second stage of the main conference. First stringers often get months of training.
I also did my own work. I was given six weeks notice that the talk was going to happen and I did my talk three to four times a day every day until the conference. The written talk went from a rough outline to a set of index cards to a conversation I memorized in my head. (Incidentally, index cards were the subject of my second TED Talk.) Why memorize the talk? The point is to remove as many barriers as possible between you and the audience. When you get on stage, you want all your focus to be on connecting with your listeners through eye contact, emotional engagement and physical presence.
Narrow: Know the one thing you want the audience to take with them
Here's the problem when you are asked to speak: People value your opinion because you are an expert, but you know too much to have a simple, clean speech because you are an expert! Worse, consciously or unconsciously, you may be eager to prove your own expertise by providing as much information as possible. Just don't.
TED has a simple rule: Talks are 18 minutes or fewer. It isn't much time. It is less about the time per se, though, and more about how deep you can really get within roughly a quarter of an hour. The time limitation means that your discussion on string theory or on the American justice system or on being brave needs to be completely understandably and free of all excess fat.
My pain was acute, as I had written an entire book on my topic, the Positive Power of Observation (Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed with Documenting Our Lives Online was actually published by another arm of TED). Information overload was a serious concern. Since it was my first TED Talk, I actually went to the other extreme: I focused on a proverbial footnote in the book and asked for a four-minute talk, about as short as TED Talks get. The brevity forced me to clarify my thoughts, to make every word count and to maximize my emotional impact.
Specialize: Connect the topic to or talk directly on something you care about
The ultimate public speaking compliment is that "so-and-so could read a phone book and make it sound interesting!" What you're really complimenting is the delivery and the engagement, not the depth of his or her content. It's like eating a donut: Light on substance, but it tastes really good.
TED Talks are the opposite, where the goal is to feature people with significant substance and raise them up as strong speakers. I've heard many inside stories about rich moguls and even popular figures trying to get a TED Talk, but they actually don't have something of significant scale to say. Conversely, I've regularly seen people from quiet corners of the globe and even relatively shy speakers take the TED stage and mesmerize the audience with a compelling perspective.
I pushed my TED Talk higher by making sure I tied in not only a strong perspective, but a perspective unique to my personal passions. I wanted the audience to feel my excitement as I talked. You actually caring about what you're talking about is something that cannot be faked.
TED is great at filtering through not necessarily the best speakers, but the speakers most passionate about their subjects. It's a process you should be applying to your own public speaking choices.
Photo Courtesy: Maria Aufmuth/TED