"It was the scariest f---ing thing I’ve done in my life,” Derek Sivers says. Before him sat Microsoft founder Bill Gates, former Vice President Al Gore, and about 400 other audience members. Sivers, a lifelong entrepreneur, was about to share leadership lessons--by way of narrating a YouTube video featuring dancing hippies. He had three minutes.

It was 2010, and Sivers was onstage at TED, the biannual gathering known for serving up exquisitely crafted talks to the world’s big thinkers and leaders. TED presenters aren’t typically professional speakers but researchers, technologists, and other people simply doing interesting work. Months in advance, TED organizers hunt for new speakers and solicit proposals from past attendees. Last year, TED also began hosting a talent search that allows hopefuls to apply online and submit videos. “We want people talking about the ideas they most love,” says conference programmer Kelly Stoetzel.

About two months before the conference, speakers must submit an outline or script. Then, Stoetzel and her team help them hone their ideas and incorporate anecdotes. A month beforehand, they schedule a Skype rehearsal, during which the presenter gives the talk and gets feedback on structure, pacing, and clarity. After that, they encourage speakers to practice--with a stopwatch, in front of nonexperts, in front of a mirror, over and over again, and get the talk down to their specified time limit.

Then, a day or two before the conference, speakers do a dry run on the actual stage, with countdown timers running, to get a feel for standing there, looking out at the seats, and projecting to the back row. The hope is that the training takes over when the unexpected happens. And the unexpected usually does happen. Nilofer Merchant, author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #SocialEra, remembers when an unexpected laugh threw off her TED talk about the benefits of walking meetings. “I thought, Oh, no; I just lost a line,” she recalls. “I literally threw out a point I was going to make.”

Sivers managed to narrate the hippie video, which showed how one crazy person can start a movement, just as he had practiced it, word for word. It got laughs, a standing ovation, and more than three million views online. “No other conference I’ve ever spoken at required me to do so much, so far in advance,” Sivers says. “But it really helps.“

Keeping it Real

The best presentations seem spontaneous, even if they are highly scripted. Here are tips 
for staying cool onstage from TED organizer Kelly Stoetzel.

1. Tell the Story Your Way. You may be tempted to copy the structure of popular TED talks from the past. But if you do that, your talk may very well end up feeling contrived. Instead, map out the structure that seems most natural.

2. Work The Crowd. Before your speech, chat with conference attendees during coffee breaks, lunch, or cocktail parties. The small talk will give you a better sense of your audience. Even better, you’ll see a few friendly faces in the crowd when you take the stage.

3. It’s Not About You. When you write and deliver your speech, don’t think, This is a message I must communicate, Stoetzel says. Rather, she suggests thinking, People will love knowing about this! “It’s almost like you’re providing a service on the stage, and makes it feel more like a conversation.”


Kelly Stoetzel describes some stand-out TED talks and the keys to a great presentation below.