Note: ePatient Dave deBronkart recently blogged, in his ongoing series on public speaking, about the role of cognitive dissonance in effective talks. That concept sits behind this post like an invisible framework. I don’t address cognitive dissonance directly but the concept is embedded throughout the TEDx talk I delivered. I highly recommend reading Dave’s explication (link below).
On May 5, 2013, on the weekend of the eighth anniversary of my father’s death precipitated by a nosocomial MRSA infection, I presented my first TED talk, at TEDxFoCo in Fort Collins Colorado USA. The intimate venue, Avogadro’s Number and its mural walls presented a sweet space in which to explore the conference theme: Life Worth Living.
TED and TEDx talks are known for short-format talks presenting “ideas worth spreading.” The two, while related, are different; TED events are “the mothership’s” multi-day conferences, some with global viewership; TEDx events are a global phenom where anyone so moved mounts partial- or one-day TED-styled events in their communities. They are widely respected and opportunities to present at either are an honor.
Blaise Pascal is, apparently, the original source of a saying often attributed to Mark Twain: “I would have written a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.” Time defines TED and TED-styled talks: they’re short—18 minutes (or so) max. The shorter the talk, the more time and effort required to shape it. Crafting mine took three very active months. How might you go about crafting yours? Here’s the path I took (this post is decidedly not short!):
Talk, It’s All Talk While it’s possible to present a TED talk as a speaking newbie (and mothership conferences sometimes include people who have simply brought into the world something so captivating that its value overshadows its originator’s lack of speaking experience), for most of us prior speaking experience helps. I know of three venues to obtain that experience. First, Toastmasters speaking clubs. Myriad local clubs (often many within a single metro area) provide ongoing regular opportunities to practice, gain comfort with, and learn to stay on your toes when speaking. Next, local service clubs and the occasional radio interview. Each form presents unique opportunities to hone your speaking skill. Radio interviews range from minutes to a full hour; service club talks range from 20 to 30 minutes. Both venues are always in need of speakers. Finally, Ignite style talks and events are like mini-TEDs and utterly unique. Each speaker has 5 minutes and must accompany themselves by a slide deck, of their making, of exactly 20 slides that auto-advance exactly every 15 seconds. In particular, these fun, pressure-cooker talks are a great opportunity to sharpen your thinking, writing, and speaking. You can field test an idea while offering something of value to a generally rowdy audience in a setting where some amount of crashing and burning is anticipated and even welcomed. Particularly fortuitous are Ignite opportunities as part of a conference you attend—sign up early or the slots will get filled. Ignite format talks are the format to sear the meat of your future juicy TED talk.
A Talk’s Arc Conventional guidance says to select a single topic for a short talk. I guess it depends on what one means by ‘topic.’ My overarching topic, what is required of us in order to die in peace,” is big. Even though its core is new and unique work I’ve developed and consider paradigm-shifting (the idea worth sharing), I felt that presenting any one aspect of dying and death requires touching on other aspects in order to orient the audience; otherwise the talk would feel abrupt—especially because I’m a lay person (what gives me the right to stand up there and wax about this sensitive, usually avoided subject?). Ultimately I crafted four sections:
• a thematic overview which also introduced my family and personal story as briefly as I could figure to say it (the craziness of each of my parents’ terminal hospitalizations and what I learned from them could be a conference talk all their own)
• a rap, my musical statement of our absurd end of life quandary…I think I can say that I’m alone in the universe by rapping about end of life issues. The rap, while wry and satirical, is also succinctly serious. It adds a lively humorous element to a very profound topic (and it also sets up the talk’s third section).
• an extended section, the talk’s core, introducing and detailing my new work (Windrum’s Matrix of Dying Terms™)
• a closing personal story that makes new connections bridging the cognitive dissonance exposed, and partially bridged, in the first half of the talk (see ePatient Dave deBronkart’s blog post on the role of cognitive dissonance in public speaking).
You’ll have to judge for yourself whether these four sections add up to a single topic or detract from a core. I held foremost the question of how I could best serve this talk’s audience. The TED community values personal story for its connective potential. Some story is necessary; yet had I spent too much time on the story of my parents’ demises I would not have had adequate time to delve into what people could do for themselves so as not to repeat our mistakes. I distinguish between actionable and non-actionable content. I want to leave my audience motivated and able to take action—because I believe that timely personal action is the most important aspect to achieving peaceful dying. (Were I to present this same format talk at the medically-devoted TEDMED conference I’d compose it’s content differently).
Your Slide Deck After eight years using the same background and typographic design, a TEDx talk presented both the need and opportunity to revise my visual approach to my slide decks. The bar for excellent visuals has been set very high in the TED world; some are exquisitely beautiful. Because the Matrix—a tool I developed to help us foresee and predict our futures—is at core a spreadsheet, and because its sixteen possibilities are meaningful, I designed a grid motif set against a stark black background against which art and information would pop (and against which there’d be no distraction). The grid background appears as 16, 6, 20, and 1 sections, chosen depending upon a slide’s content. Watch a range of TED and TEDx talks before even thinking about designing your slide deck. Then as you do keep your focus on what your message is, how visuals propel it, and beware of any visual element detracting from it. If you don’t have design chops and do have money, consider hiring a professional deck designer to help you with yours.
Language, Rehearsals, and Time Leaks TED talks vary; my talk’s deck contains 54 slides. One could say the talk contained 54 distinct thoughts. Compared to Ignite talks, TED talks at first seem like ranging over an unfenced speaking prairie. As you develop your talk you’ll feel a greater sense of enclosure. Here’s how I experienced that: if you were to embellish each slide with an offhand 2-second utterance, a 54-slide talk suddenly has grown by almost 2 minutes. This is one way to understand the discipline delivering a TED or TEDx talk requires. Perusing both TED and TEDx videos reveals a wide range of actual talk durations (and check with your event’s curator for his or her comfort level with talks going slightly beyond the formal 18 minute limit; some are draconian and some are relaxed). In any case by the end I knew that my talk would exceed 18 minutes by at least 1.5 minutes (and that TEDxFoCo curator Nick Armstrong had a lenient approach). I became hyper-aware of every phrase I chose to speak. And I do mean choose. Especially with a TED talk every word and phrase must be evaluated for the value it imparts—what do you *really* mean to say?
And so I rehearsed. My first runthrough clocked at 48 minutes; I was aghast. Judicious cutting. The next, 28 minutes. Deeply concerned. The third, 23 minutes. Sigh of relief; I was near the ballpark. And so must you rehearse. During the three weeks prior to TEDxFoCo I ran twice-daily videotaped rehearsals. I used my large screen TV as a deck display and stood near it; the TV/deck was in the frame so I could sensitize myself to best moments to change slides. I recorded with my funky old Exilim camera on a tripod. Neither the audio nor video was of any quality but they served their purpose. I transferred each video off the camera’s USB card to my laptop. In Quicktime I clipped away all but each version’s core talk; the first thing I did was run the playback head to the end to assess the overall time. By this point, two weeks into the final rehearsals, I knew where my talk’s transitions were and quickly advanced to each of them, comparing the day’s two tapings and noting the timestamp at each of the three sectional transitions (1>2; 2>3, 3>4). Why did I spend more or less time on section X between this or that take? Weeding out (and deleting) talks in which I either really blew it or was just plain off, I set about looking for what I termed ‘time leaks.’ I tried to discern what differed between the 19:30 rehearsal benchmark and the more typical 20:30 rehearsals (the final talk clocked at just over 20 minutes). I couldn’t; identifying distinct leaks was just too persnickety. As the last week progressed I backed off to one rehearsal daily, and the day of the talk I didn’t rehearse at all. At the end my concern was not about forgetting what I meant to say, but rather of sounding robotic.
In the end I was surprised, upon viewing the event video, at hearing several phrases that I had never uttered in rehearsal. Despite all the rehearsal, spontaneity emerged—a good thing!
I don’t know if my rehearsal regimen was extreme or not. It was what I needed to do for my comfort and to fulfill the charge that giving a TED or TEDx talk is to me.
Who is Your Audience? TED and TEDx talks’ videos are posted online. Any TEDx talk has the potential of being “swept up” by TED and being directly findable and featured on the “mothership’s” sites. So in either case our audience is twofold: the people in the room and a global audience. What is your goal? Is doing a TEDx talk a fun, albeit challenging, one-off enterprise? Do you have larger ambitions, say public speaking on a national or international scale? Are you simply sharing something meaningful for you or is your talk also infused with a desire to foment change? In my talk’s case, with a complex topic that scares many (most?) people, and with ambitions for sharing my work globally, awareness of a dual audience impelled me toward finding a way to manage the four-part talk structure I deemed necessary.
7.26.13 edit: here’s a link to TEX curator Chris Anderson’s guidance about what makes a great TED talk.
Bart Windrum is a citizen end-of-life reform advocate.