How do I get a TEDx Talk?
It's a question I get A. LOT.
And I get it. For a lot of folks, giving a "TED talk" is on their bucket list (or their marketing plan. Sigh.), and as someone who got five speakers' TEDx videos promoted to TED.com, I'm a good bet for having the answer. Except I don't. I only have the questions you need to answer first.
Here's why: the idea of giving a TEDx is far different from the reality. And worse? You don't even get to determine that reality. The TEDx organizers do... and every single TEDx organizer does it differently. That said, there are some consistencies about what organizers look for, in both speakers and ideas. If you understand those realities, then, you can determine your true willingness, and readiness, to do one.
In other words, the first question you need to answer is: "Should I do a TEDx talk?" And in a burst of complete nerdiness, I created a flow chart to help you decide (click on the image below to download!).
All those little red letters on that PDF correspond to more detailed answers and exercises I'll cover in an upcoming webinar, which you can sign up to be notified about below.
Interested in what exactly we'll cover? There's a quick (as I can make it) tour of how to find your answer to that new question, "Should I do a TEDx?" below the sign-up bar.
Everything you wanted to know about TEDx
(and aren’t afraid to ask!)
“How do I get a TEDx Talk?” That’s a question I get a lot, and with good reason! And, if you’re reading this email, it’s likely that YOU want answers to that question, too. In fact, you probably have LOTS of questions about if, when, and how to do a TEDx. That’s why I’m offering my new webinar, “Everything you wanted to know about TEDx (and aren’t afraid to ask).”
You’ll learn the answers I’ve learned to the questions I’ve gotten as Executive Producer and Idea Strategist at one of the world’s premier TEDx events (TEDxCambridge) and my work with dozens of clients seeking a TEDx stage.
From what’s the difference between TED and TEDx, to what organizers are looking for in your idea and application, to whether or not you should even do one at all, we’ll cover everything you need to know to start your TEDx journey.
- Recorded webinar with Q&A
- A special TEDx Flowcart and Cheat Sheet
Should I do a TEDx?"
1. Why do you want to do it? If it's because you think it's your golden ticket to fame and fortune. It's not. You're more likely to be injured by a toilet than to get your TEDx video onto TED.com. Not to mention organizers can sniff out someone who's doing it "for business reasons" a mile away. Do it because you can't imagine not doing it, because you must get that idea out there, even if it's only to the (likely very small) audience that sees you give it live. This, I suspect, is the primary reason TED and TEDx don't pay their speakers: it's to make sure the talks are in service of ideas, not the people delivering them.
2. Assuming you have one of the three "good" reasons to do it, you next need to answer, Is it a big idea? A "big" idea is one that can have big impact on life, universe, and everything, even if the shift in thinking or behavior that will create it is small. If your idea doesn't meet that basic standard, don't do it. That one's pretty simple. If you don't know yet, keep working on it (the next few questions can help). But if you're pretty sure it is a big idea, then two things about it must be true:
- Your idea must be bigger than the context that created it. It can't just be your or your clients' stories.
- You must be able to defend it with credible proof.
- The only exception is if you're legit famous (most of us aren't), and even then your idea has to stand on stage with people whose ideas satisfy the other two.
3. To get a TEDx, you have to be able to state that big idea clearly, cleanly, and quickly. That's why the next question is Does it fit in 140?, where 140 is the number of characters. This is a very good pressure test of your idea, by the way, because getting a coherent explanation of your idea into a space that small requires that you understand your idea well enough to make it that small. Also, some version of this question is on just about every TEDx application I've seen. The trick is that you have to create that sentence ...using words people understand. This is not your title or tagline, so you can't use any proprietary terms or words that need more explanation. If you can't say "yes" to both questions of these, you need to keep working until you do. Test it with people who don't know you or your idea already.
4. To up the difficulty level, your "140" also has to satisfy the next two questions: Does it give the people what they want? and Does it do it an unexpected way? By "want" I mean, does your idea meet an unmet need, solve a problem, or achieve a goal that the audience is likely to already care about. By "unexpected way" I mean, the method or approach contained in your idea (which needs to be in the sentence!) must be new, contrarian, or unfamiliar. For example, if I were to put Amy Cuddy's "power pose" idea into this format, I would say, "This talk is about how body language may be a way to overcome imposter syndrome." (81 characters). "Overcome imposter syndrome" satisfies what people want, "body language" is the means they don't expect.
If you can't identify these two things in your idea AND get them clear enough to fit into a 140-character sentence, you aren't ready yet. Keep working until you do, but know that this is hard. It often takes at least two sessions with my clients to get them to the point where they can do this with their ideas. You don't just find a diamond, you have to mine it first (or grow it, if you're being all newfangled).
5. Next up is, Is it only yours? Now, I know, there's nothing new under the sun... except for when you're the one that discovers something new. That's why so many TED speakers (the real ones) are scientists, researchers, and academics. They actually do discover something new and can claim an idea or an insight as "only theirs" (though most respectable scientists, researchers, and academics don't – even they share credit). But you'll notice that a "no" here isn't an automatic "Don't do it." That's why the next question is can you add something new? to a topic or an idea that others already talk about. I'm of the belief that most people can, but it takes time and hard work to do it.
The first step? See what else is already out there. Please do this. TEDx organizers are basically Professional Pattern Recognizers. They see a LOT of ideas and are generally very well read. They're looking for how you add to, build on, contrast with, or are in opposition to what's already out there. They're looking for those differences because it's those differences that people often find "worth spreading" (to quote the TED tagline).
6. It's that "worth spreading" aspect that's behind the next question: Have you talked about this before? If the idea you want to spread is core to your business and content, this question is probably pretty frustrating to you. Yep. I know. But think about it this way: TED and TEDx are about ideas that should spread. Not those that already have spread. Not those that had the opportunity to spread... and didn't. So if you're thinking you can just revamp a presentation you've already been giving for a couple of years, no, you probably can't. And if you published a book about the idea, and it didn't take off, again (back to the first question), a TEDx talk is likely not going to be the thing that saves it now.
No, the idea has to be strong enough on its own, and needs to be on the upswing of awareness, not the down. If you've already spoken or published on this extensively before, then it's up to you to find a new angle on it. As a former organizer, clients often use me to help them spot (a) why their TEDx application wasn't accepted or (b) what about their idea is intriguing enough to develop further.
7. Speaking of TEDx applications, some folks might be surprised that Have you done a TEDx talk within three years? is on the critical path to whether or not to do a TEDx. You may know (or be) someone who seems to "collect" TEDx events. "I've done four!"
"I've done six!" Here's the bald truth: I can think of at least three high-level TEDx events, right now, that will not accept you if you've done another TEDx talk in that timeframe. Why not? Because it looks like you've got the wrong answer to the first question. Trust me, NOBODY has that many truly great ideas in that timeframe. I work with some very high-level thinkers (TED stage alumni included) and the average incubation period on a new idea is at least three years. So, when you accrue TEDx events like notches on the bedpost, it doesn't look good. It makes you look small time or self-serving. And neither look good on you.
8. Okay, so let's say you've made it this far. You have a big idea that gets people something they want via a means they don't expect, that people haven't heard or seen before (even from you). You can summarize it crisply in your 140. But before you start drafting your application, you need to think about another important reality: how much dang work this is. So, do you have 60-90 hours to give? Because that's the average. Not just in my experience. I've asked multiple organizers and TEDx speaker coaches, and they all agree. I've even had clients track their time and it's always in this time frame.
And before you blithely say, "sure!," stop and really think about where that time going to come from. How much would that time cost you or your business? Can you afford that? Can your businesses? It's expensive, in both time and money (and remember, this is unpaid), so chalk that up as yet another reason why your reason to do it has to be rock solid.
9. Alright, home stretch. Sadly, the next question, Will you research to find the best fit?, hides a LOT of work in it. Unless the event is TED itself, please do NOT accept the first inbound invitation you receive to give a TEDx talk, at least without doing your research (and funny side note: TED asked one of my former TEDx speakers, who was already promoted to TED.com, to come speak at TED... and he turned them down! He wanted to work with me and the team at TEDxCambridge again instead, and did. He figured he made it to TED.com in the comfort of his own city, so why spend a week in Vancouver? Trust me, we were as shocked as you likely are). And if you're thinking, "Invitation! Those exist? I've been slogging away in application land for months!" Yeah, like I said before, no two TEDx events are the same, nor is how they find speakers.
Even if you get invited, though, know what your standards are. What should those standards be, you ask? Hint: go back to your goals. If you want good video, for example, make sure the event has a history of producing good videos (do a search on the events' name on the TEDx YouTube channel). If you want to learn something new, talk to those who've spoken at the event before to see what kind of coaching and processes they have in place. Generally, though, you want to look for events that are fairly well-established (so you can count on the event actually happening and the videos actually getting posted – I've heard horror stories about both). Look at everything, not just their videos, and learn as much as you can about the event, how it works, and what the actual experience of speakers is like.
And by the way, do all of this before you develop the talk or pay someone to help you do it. Make sure you have an idea that's worth investing in first. Please. I've had too many clients that have spent literally tens of thousands of dollars on writers or coaches who help them develop a talk that doesn't get accepted. When I've worked with those same clients to back up and tighten the idea? 90% of them have gotten a TEDx within six months. Not to mention, organizers want a say in your idea and your talk, which brings us to the last question:
10. Will you take feedback? Remember what I said about your not getting to determine the reality of giving a TEDx talk? Well it all comes full circle here. What I'm about to say next is super important, so note it: this is the organizers' stage, not yours. Sure, it may be your idea, but it's their event. They choose the speakers. They choose the ideas. They set the experience for the audience. That means your idea needs to work in service of them and of the standards of the TED name. Head of TED Chris Anderson tells TEDx organizers to live by the rule, "never compromise the integrity of the stage." Organizers take that VERY seriously. They're going to push back – because they have to – on every aspect of your idea, your talk,
and your performance. Are you willing to do that, for the sake of your idea? And if you're thinking, "Wait, I'm not getting paid! I'm doing them a favor! I should be able to do what I want!," then just stop now. Either be willing to delve deep into your idea (and often, yourself) or don't it all.
If you've made it this far (and just in reading this!), congratulations. You're ready to go build your idea and to find your TEDx event. And if you're thinking, "nah, this is too much work," that's fine, too. But note this: except maybe sections 6, 7, and 9, almost everything on this list applies to the work you need to do for any idea you want to get out in the world. Want prospects to sign on the line that is dotted? Want to get your startup funded? Want to get hired to speak? Want to get a book professionally published? Then you need an idea that is clear, defensible, and differentiated. You need to be able to summarize it quickly, and in a way that invokes curiosity. And you need to give it everything you've got it.
Your idea deserves it. So do you.
Everything you ever wanted to know about getting a TEDx talk
(and aren't afraid to ask!)
Looking for more information on any of the above? Want to see the second side of that fancy flow-chart? Purchase the recording of my live webinar along with all the materials afterward.