Telling someone you've done a TED Talk is like sharing that you've published a book: They usually say they want to do the same and want to know how to do it. I have done three TED Talks, one at the main conference and two at regional TEDx events. A key wrinkle is that I was always asked rather than requesting to be onstage. In fact, this may be the most important wrinkle.

Everyone I know who has done a TED Talk has had a different path. Here are three commonalities that can increase your chances of doing one yourself.

Be of service

If you watch a bunch of TED Talks, you'll notice a pattern: Extremely few speakers, if any, actually talk about their product, service, or brand. Sure, their notoriety may have helped get them up there, but what they do up there isn't built around selling a widget.

In my experiences, this was actually the nonprofit organization's policy: Don't mention your product in your speech unless it is absolutely necessary and relevant to your impact.


Also, you aren't paid. TED speakers are not given money, though they are given a free conference pass (particularly valuable for the difficult-to-attend main conference) as well as travel needs depending on the budget.

So, if you aren't getting big bucks and you aren't getting a platform for your business, then what's left? Service. You are on the stage to serve. My talks were about tech transforming humanity, how big ideas come from small places, and the bane of perfectionism. For each talk I was, respectively, a founder of a startup, a co-founder of an even bigger startup, and author of a recent book on the talk's very subject. None of that was mentioned on the stage, because it wouldn't serve the audience.

Be present

Here's the best thing you can do: Get off of YouTube and actually see a TED event live. Many are low cost, if not free, and the regional TEDx events are plentiful. When I lived in Southern California, I think there were like a dozen TEDx events happening within driving distance.

I grew up hearing opera, and then, years later, I took my wife to a live opera. There is no comparison. Same with TED, especially if you want to do a TED Talk yourself.

You'll also see the flow, culture, and cadence of the community in person. There is likely a TED near you, and the regional TEDs are much more geared toward local discussions that you can relate and speak to better.

One funny note: Speaking at the second stage of the main TED conference led to my speaking at my second TED event. I happened to connect with the curator and they invited me to talk at their event. My second TED Talk might not have happened if I hadn't been present at the first conference.

Be yourself

Are you making an impact on the people you want to serve? Are you making waves within your industry? Is there a particular, intense drive you have, a mark you want to make on the world? By and large, TED speakers have one particularly thing they know that they need to share. The need to share becomes something you want to give to others.

I don't believe you have to sacrifice everything to make your entrepreneurial mark on the world. It's literally on the back of my business card. I experienced it -- twice -- and have walked in the shoes of the people I now coach.

My last TED Talk, at TEDxToledo, was a brief, deep dive on the entrepreneur self-sacrifice myth. I worked hard on my talk, but I didn't have to work hard on myself.

You shouldn't have to reinvent yourself to talk about your idea. It should be something others recognize in you or something you want to pass along to others.

Getting onstage is hard. Your TED topic, on the other hand, should be what you already know.

Published on: Jan 16, 2020
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