What I Learned from Speaking at TEDx

Image credit: Big Car
Given that I do a fair amount of public speaking each year, I wasn’t overly concerned about appearing onstage at TEDx Indianapolis.  But most of my work is done in half-day or full-day facilitated workshops or 60-minute keynotes, not a 10-minute presentation.  And while some of what I’ve gleaned presenting 5-minute IGNITE talks (on innovation and on personal priorities) applied, I learned (and relearned) a few important lessons. 

Edit ruthlessly. 

Good writing requires great editing.  This was instilled in me during my undergraduate academic work in English and reinforced throughout my professional career writing for journals and trade publications.  My initial presentation drafts tried to cover far more major themes than the final version.  Even it might have tried to do too much given the time constraints.

My editing process consisted of asking myself four questions repeatedly:  
  1. What’s the bottom line I want people to think about and act on?   
  2. Why is this point (this example) important to include?
  3. Will it lessen the overall impact if it is removed completely?
  4. Is there a better way to show rather than tell my point?
Matthew May's new book, The Laws of Subtraction, explores the power of editing and constraints for innovation.  I'll be writing more about it in the near future, but for now you should visit his website and watch some of the video clips that highlight the book's content.
Make the most of metaphors and stories.
Image credit: Big Car

It was great to speak with attendees after my talk and hear them bring up specific examples of what resonated with them: some mentioned the Edward deBono quote about crayons, some spoke about the bagged lettuce example, some noted Sondheim and George Seurat references.  I had chosen each of these metaphors or stories as potentially memorable anchors to encapsulate the major points I was trying to make. 

Honor your voice. 

My work is almost always experiential and interactive: it's what I am known for contributing.  But I initially told myself there was no way to bring that to play in a 10-minute stage presentation with 500 people in fixed auditorium seating.  So my first presentation design included nothing of the sortI hated it.  It felt flat.  Worse yet, it didn’t feel like me, and I knew I wouldn’t enjoy giving it.

Talking with a few colleagues helped me see a way into bringing more of who I am and what I believe into the presentation.  This resulted in the silent opening, perhaps the most terrifying 40 seconds I’ve ever had speaking in public.  But it achieved my primary objective: turning passive spectators into engaged learners while illustrating the main theme of my talk.  It was counterintuitive and somewhat risky, but thankfully, it worked pretty well. 

Preparation can vary.

I was fascinated with the varied approaches other speakers used to prepare their presentation since it is such a personal process: writing it out almost verbatim, using a lengthy slide deck to tell the story, practicing in front of family and friends.  Some people are great at making intensely rehearsed remarks seem fresh.  I'm not.

So my approach was somewhat different.  The first and only time I went through the entire talk was the day I actually delivered it at the conference. (I've yet to watch the video of it and most likely never will). Being present is a key part of my commitment as a facilitator, and as a speaker I didn’t want to be so scripted and polished that the talk could almost be delivered on autopilot.

Instead, my rehearsal consisted of crafting the language around what I labeled “set pieces,” the key one- or two-minute segments  introducing each key point.  I then ran through those enough times to get a feel for the words and the rhythm that mattered most.  I wanted their transitions and connections to simply emerge from me onstage guided by what felt right in the moment.

While slightly unorthodox in approach, I hadn’t really been too concerned about it until I received this text from a friend a few days before the event:
How goes the preparation for what might be the most important 600 seconds of your entire professional career?
(Note to self: get new friends in 2013.  LOL).

My friend was joking, of course.  It’s not like I was speaking on the TED Conference mainstage (um, Chris Anderson, I’m available though).

And I’ve long believed that what a speaker should fear most is not an appropriate level of nervousness or performance anxiety when heading onstage, but instead, the absence of it.  The moment we think we have it all figured out ... that nothing can go wrong ... is the moment that everything unravels.  This is as true for speaking on a stage as it is interacting with a friend or colleague. You can't rehearse authenticity.

Good speaking (or facilitating) is ultimately about good relationships.  Good relationships require being human.  So whether it is the stage at a conference or the stage on which you appear in life, it’s not about performing: it’s about you.  Share your story.  Speak on your terms.  What others make of it is beyond your control. 

And that is the ultimate lesson I hope never to forget.

Update:Since TEDxIndianapolis in 2012, I delivered this address in two 60-minute keynotes in 2013 and one 25-minute TED-style talk in 2014.  Video for the latter can be watched here.  You can see how my thinking has evolved, as well as how I continue to hone in on how to make key points resonate and have staying power with participants.