If Inc. reader engagement is any guide, all things TED Talk (and by extension, TEDx Talk) are incredibly popular. Posts listing the best TED Talks are extremely popular. So are tips for public speaking based on the presentation skills of great TED and TEDx presenters.
And then there's this: Plenty of people want to know how to the process of being a presenter works: Selection, preparation, what goes on behind the scenes, etc.
Whenever I meet someone who knows I was a presenter at TEDx Palo Alto this year... that's usually the first question they ask. (Especially if they're aspiring TEDx presenters.)
So here's a look behind the scenes of my TEDx experience.
I was first in the running to present at the 2018 TEDx Palo Alto. (Yep: You already know where this is going.)
My book had just come out and Alyssa Adler, my publicist at Penguin Random House, pitched me. Ronit Widmann-Levy, the producer and curator of TEDx Palo Alto, lined up a Skype call to discuss the possibility.
I spent a lot of time preparing: Coming up with a one-sentence elevator pitch, a few cool bullet points to show the benefits to the audience, why I was the right person at the right time with the right message... I thought I was ready. I thought the call went really well. They said they would get back with me, but I figured it was a done deal.
And it was, but not how I expected. I didn't make the cut.
So I figured that was the end of that.
The Second Call
I figured that was the end of that.
But then, almost a year later, Ronit asked if I wanted to hop on a call to discuss possibly speaking at this year's event. I spent a little time thinking about possible topics, but right up until the call I hadn't settled on anything.
So -- at least it seemed this way to me -- I rambled and stammered and pretty much assumed, even before the call was finished, that I had blown my chance again.
But instead of letting me down gently, Ronit said, "Great. We'll see you in Palo Alto in May."
All righty then.
Cliff isn't just a coach; Cliff is also a pro. Cliff can walk his talk.
Which is great, because many TEDx presenters are professional speakers. They (and by "they," I kinda mean me) aren't always interested in feedback and advice. If you've spoken to 4,000 people and gotten most of the room to stand and applaud at the end, you feel pretty good about yourself.
Cliff has a knack for brushing all that aside and getting your attention -- not by being loud, but by being right. Take me: My style is relatively informal, relatively casual... instead of trying to come across as professorial or authoratitive, I try hard to establish a connection and rapport.
Which is great in most cases, but not necessarily for a TEDx Stage. I'm used to speaking for 45 minutes to an hour; squeezing a message down to 15 minutes or less means every word must count. And it also means that pacing is important.
I tend to speak relatively fast; Cliff worked hard to slow me down so that certain moments had time to breathe, and make an even bigger impact.
One method for better using meaningful pauses was practicing with a metronome. Cliff had me set one (there are phone apps you can use) for 45 beats per minute. The metronome clicked away in the background, reminding me to wait a beat or two after saying something important, before transitioning to another point... I was skeptical, but it worked.
Even though I still went a little too fast on the actual day, my pacing was a lot better.
If you think you could use a speech coach -- and trust me, you do -- consider Cliff. He's great. And a really nice guy. As he said early on, "My job is to tear you down... and then build you up better than you were before." And he did.
The Time Limit
TED curator Chris Anderson imposed an 18-minute time limit because it is "long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people's attention."
But that doesn't mean everyone gets 18 minutes. While individual videos are the only result most people see, every TEDx event is also a show for the people who attend. So the organizers work hard to make the show flow, pulling together a diverse mix of ideas and topics... and alloting different time limits for different speakers.
A few presenters at the 2018 TEDx Palo Alto got 17 minutes. Most ranged from 8 or 9 minutes to 14 minutes or so. My time limit was 11. (Which made sense: My topic was fairly straightforward; I didn't need more than 11 minutes. I probably could have done it in 9.)
As Ronit said to me when I asked about a dress code, "We want you to bring who you are to the stage." Presenters were free to be themselves.
But not free to run over their time limit.
A couple presenters privately grumbled about being forced to conform to a time limit. One got offended when I said, after listening to him complain for a while, "Their house, their rules. If it bothered you that much, you shouldn't have agreed to speak."
More on that in a minute.
Ronit scheduled a full dress rehearsal for the day before the actual event: Clothing, mic pack, lights, staging, slides... the goal was to make dress rehearsal feel as close to the show as possible.
And in most ways, it did -- except it's a little odd to speak to five or six people scattered across the first row of an otherwise empty 300-seat theater.
But then again, the stage lights were so bright I coudln't see past the first row anyway.
While the dress rehearsal did create a sense of familiarity -- dressing room, staging area, waiting by the stage manager for my cue, etc. -- it's tough to know how you've done without any audience feedback. It's hard to read the room when there is no room.
So I kinda hated it... but later realized it was a valuable experience.
Now, whenever it's possible before a speaking gig, I run through at least part of my presentation in the empty hall where I will later speak. Getting a feel for the room, for the stage, for where the sound techs will be... familiarity ensures I won't have to spend time thinking about "performance" nuts and bolts and can focus on the audience.
Which is every speaker's focus belongs.
TEDx presenters are accomplished people: Scholars, researchers, authors, journalists, businesspeople... most of them (me excluded) are "someone." And, well, many of them act like they know it.
At least until they're about to go onstage.
I got up early that day, ran through my presentation once, and that was it: If I wasn't ready by then, I wasn't going to be ready.
So I was really surprised to see a number of speakers busily cramming before they went on. Sure, a few sat and chatted. (Hi Gabriel!)
But many buried their faces into their screens or papers, reading and re-reading out loud. Some rehearsed with their faces inches from a wall. Others paced back and forth, practicing their nonverbal gestures and even their pre-planned frowns and smiles. (I thought one was mad at me until I realized he had retreated so far inside himself he didn't even know I was there.)
Key takeaway: No matter how much a person might act like the master of their domain... stress strips away the pretense and posturing exposes who you really are.
So if you're ever nervous before a speech or presentation or meeting... don't worry: Everyone is.
Some just don't let you see it.
The Time Limit (Revisited)
Most people stayed within their allotted time. Doing so should have been easy. For one thing, presenters should have rehearsed enough -- and, as Cliff recommended, crafted their presentation to leave a small time buffer just in case -- that running over shouldn't have been an issue.
Plus, while the lights were so bright I couldn't really see the audience (and what I could see was shapes, not faces), I could still easily see the large digital time at the back of the theater.
Since the event itself started a few minutes late, and the lady before me went a few minutes over, the stage manager leaned over just before I went on and said, "Ronit asked me to remind you not to go over."
Fair enough. So I didn't.
But one guy did. While I'm not positive, I feel sure he turned his 16 minutes into well over 25.
Later I heard him tell Ronit he knew he was running out of time and just "decided not to worry about it." (Can't imagine how thrilled she was to hear that.)
Again: Their house, their rules. If you do a TEDx Talk, treat it like the honor it is... and respect the rules of the people who invited you.
What I Learned
It's easy to let the "TED" thing get in your head: The platform, the audience, the cameras... and most of all, the expectations you put on yourself. It's easy to start to think that what you will say -- especially since you've heard yourself say it so many times -- isn't interesting or groundbreaking enough.
Pretty soon imposter syndrome -- the inner belief that you're inadequate and mediocre, despite evidence that shows you're skilled and successful -- starts to creep in. And then you start to worry about the audience.
Which definitely happened to me.
But then I was talking with Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan. (Hey: I may be dropping names, but Duff's is a good name to drop.) I mentioned I was presenting at a TEDX event the following week. "I'm comfortable in front of crowds," I said, "but something about the TED style, format, and audience makes me nervous."
He paused for a moment and said: "Remember, people want to see you do well. They want to see you kick ass."
Say you're anxious about a pitch meeting. You're afraid you'll bomb. You're afraid they'll tear your presentation apart. That perspective -- that anxiety -- makes you see the people in the room as potential enemies.
In fact, the opposite is true. They're not the enemy. They want to love you. Investors constantly search for great ideas, great ventures, or great companies.
They want -- they need -- to invest in great people. Which means they're on your side.
The same is true for Duff. The audience isn't primed to be critical when he performs. His fans don't want him, or his band, to have an off night. They're excited. They're pumped. They want the show to be magical.
They're on his side.
They want him to kick ass.
In short: Believe that other people want you to kick ass, and it's much more likely you will.
But don't just take my word for it: Science says so.