Toward the end of last summer on a warm August afternoon, I was sitting in front of a fan at my desk catching up on emails. I was in-between trips, taking care of some admin work before getting ready to leave for Greece the next week. I opened my inbox mid-morning to see a new message pop up with the Subject line: “TED Invitation”.
I read the email with eyes wide in disbelief. I’d learned by this point in my freelance creative career to not get too excited about anything– you really don’t know the outcome of things— but just being invited to speak on such a prestigious stage, to me, was a huge affirmation.
I accepted the invitation, and had just under 3 months to prepare. As discussed with the TED team on an initial phone call, my talk would be about the way photography informs the ways we experience the world. But though I knew the overall gist of my talk, getting it out of my brain and onto paper was harder than I thought it would be.
I didn’t expect to learn so much from the process of writing and delivering my TED Talk. I thought it was mostly an opportunity to get my idea out there. It turned out to be just as much of a learning opportunity for me, personally and professionally. Whether you are developing your own talk or just curious, here are my three biggest takeaways from the experience.
FYI, these are all my own opinions, and this blog post doesn’t reflect the opinions or views of TED. 🙂
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE CENTRAL IDEA
A TED Talk is not the place to tell your whole life story. A TED Talk is an Idea Worth Spreading. ONE. IDEA. You have to figure out what that idea is, and eliminate anything in the talk that does not point back to that. From what I learned throughout the process, a TED Talk must have a crystal clear central idea for it to really land with the audience.
It took me weeks to arrive at my central idea. I wrote and wrote and wrote, hoping that a brain dump (i.e. getting it all out of my head and into a Google Doc) would eventually point me to one definitive concept. This was a challenge for me, as I needed to be as specific as possible, and my thoughts pointed to many ideas around an overall theme. At first, they were simply too broad. I needed to whittle my talk down so that I was actually providing somewhat of a fresh perspective, not just repeating a chorus that already existed. That’s not the point of TED!
TED Talks these days are not as long as they used to be. I had a maximum of 12 minutes to work with, which is roughly 1,500 words… not much longer than this blog post. And considering we don’t exactly have the longest attention spans these days, my goal was to cut whatever was not absolutely essential. And even then, there was about a minute of my talk that didn’t make it into the final video edit. Did I mention that a TED Talk should also be memorized, word for word? 🤯 No teleprompter or anything. So you better make every word count.
Make deliberate decisions on what you are saying and not saying. Do not be vague and do not generalize. Speak about your experience. Speak to the point. Speak to your idea– it’s the reason you’re on the stage in the first place.
PERFECTION IS A MYTH ON ANY STAGE
Though it looks like I gave my TED Talk seamlessly, I didn’t. There were multiple lines I stumbled on, and a few parts that I re-did.
I remember messing up my very first line because I was speaking too fast. I felt heat rise in my chest as my anxiety spiked. I then took a deep breath, smiled at the audience, and started over. I had to put aside knowing that I had built this talk up in my mind for months, how important I felt it was to me and my career, and how well I wanted to do. Now it was showtime, and I had to try my best.
Throughout the months leading up to the talk, I followed TED’s recommendations on the timeline for writing and practicing, and was working with a speaking coach. My talk was memorized, and I knew exactly when to press the button to change my slides. The time and energy-intensive preparation for something like this is truly key, and nothing replaces it; you really do have to prepare for this to the best of your ability, and there’s no way around that. But once you’re on that stage, you have to breathe, smile, and have fun.
None of the speakers I shared the stage with came back into the green room after delivering their talk and said that they nailed it. None of us got through our talks seamlessly without having to repeat at least one line. We were all nervous, even the speaker who had already spoken on the TED stage (twice!). We all required encouragement (and wine. or maybe that was just me.).
It doesn’t have to be perfect. It probably won’t be. If you miss a line or forget something, take a deep breath. Be flexible & personable. Remember that the audience is human, too.
EVERYONE AT TED IS ON YOUR TEAM (INCLUDING THE AUDIENCE)
I found everyone I interacted with at TED to be immensely supportive and helpful. Whether you’ve been invited to speak, nominated by someone, or applied and got accepted to a TED event or conference, remember that they want you to be there, and they want to help you succeed. A TED Talk is delivered to a live audience, but the bigger (arguably more important) audience is online. Your talk will be professionally edited to make you look and sound your best.
It’s also helpful to know that the audience is made up of people like you. I was not expecting such an interesting and engaged audience, and enjoyed speaking with people after my talk in person, and via email afterward. They are genuinely curious about your idea, and want to hear what you have to say.
Meeting the other speakers at the event and sharing our experiences was also highlight for me. I found it so encouraging to hear from the other individuals who went through the very same process I did, and to then watch them communicate their idea on the stage. Your fellow speakers are fascinating people who do important work in this world. Get to know them!
Overall, TED is a community, one that you’re now a part of.
I learned so much going through the process of writing and delivering my first TED Talk. It was weeks of writing, deliberation, focus, feedback, stress and excitement. And if given the opportunity to do it again, I absolutely would!
I have gotten feedback that I look so comfortable on the stage, and I really appreciate that! In truth, by the time the time came to deliver my talk, I was comfortable… but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t tremendously nervous. Of course I was nervous– who wouldn’t be?!
I walked off stage feeling my heart beating fast and loud, and was full of adrenaline for days afterward. It was a big moment in my career and life, and is something I’m proud of. Who knows if everyone will agree with my talk, or relate to it, or find it impressive or moving or totally pretentious. None of that is what matters at all. I just hope it makes people think about what it means to be intentional. That’s a big reason why I’m here.
My TED Talk, Does photographing a moment steal the experience from you?, was delivered at TEDSalon: Crossover, in partnership with Brightline at TED World Theater, on November 14, 2019 in New York, NY. You can watch it on the TED site here.
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Lounging in bed with coffee during this pandemic I ran across your creative indoor series and enjoyed them. Decided to listen to your TED talk. I’m a retired portrait photographer and travel a fair amount now. I KNOW I’ve missed some amazing moments ‘trying to get the shot.’
I had to contact you to tell you your talk was wonderful. It spoke to me at so many levels. You really made me think again about how I make a photograph when I travel. I do this with my beloved flowers. I take time. I immerse myself. I literally feel like something sacred occurs in these moments in a garden. But not so, at least not very often, when I travel. It’s the ‘hurry up’ thing, I guess, because I’m a tourist.
But I will now be more deliberate about what and why. I will now take more time to breathe in and be in a space completely. I get it. Your TED talk was wonderful. I will watch it again. I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for sharing your wisdom.
Be safe. And stay well.
I just saw your wonderful TED talk. In 2010, I wrote an essay about an experience I had when I lost all my family photos, and for several years people have suggested I turn it into a TED talk. Lo and behold, you beat me to it! Anyway, I’ll e-mail it to you just so you can see your point is well taken!
[…] the images in this Ted Talk. See also Sullivan’s blog post about her Ted experience. Photography does indeed inform the way we experience the […]