What’s it like to give a TEDx talk? Speakers tell their stories

Posted by: Emily McManus

Barefoot Foodie onstage at TEDxBGSU. Photo: Enoch Wu

If your New Year’s resolution is to give a TEDx talk yourself — or to silence your inner monologue that thinks “I can’t do public speaking” — read a few of these stories, written by people who got up on the TEDx stage this year. They’re brave, prepared, and honest about what it takes to take the stage.

For instance, here’s a dialogue that Brittany Gibbons, the Barefoot Foodie, had with a friend before she spoke at TEDxBGSU this fall:

I don’t know how to be good at this, Andy.

You will be amazing.

Or this could be the biggest thing I fail at, ever.

Unlikely. Nothing could beat you half slipping into the grave hole at my grandma’s funeral.

Well that’s for sure, they should mark those better.

(Update: Upworthy called Brittany’s talk “One Of The Bravest Things I’ve Ever Seen.”)

Janice Tanton felt the same way before speaking at TEDxCalgary:

It took me two weeks to think through whether or not I could do this — to break through the safe, quiet soli­ti­tude of my cocoon-like stu­dio and step into the stage spot­light to share.

… and she came through with a deep insight into why we feel this way:

Fear, in my opin­ion, is just a mis­guided form of creativity.

Security expert Jeremiah Grossman has given hundreds of public presentations. But when he started to lose his anxiety and nervousness about public speaking … it felt wrong:

Had I finally overcome? I’m not an introspective person so it wasn’t until very recently that I think I figured it out. In 2011 my public presentations weren’t pushing the envelope as much as in years past. The content was good to be sure, but it also focused on “safe” business level subjects and incrementally advancing work from previous years. In short, I really wasn’t putting myself out there as far as I’m used to. In my case, the feeling or fear and terror arises when pushing forth an idea or a concept and unsure if people will think its uncompelling or totally idiotic. A chance you take.

That’s about when I got a call from the TED offering a speaking slot in TEDxMaui. We got to talking about my work and discussing an idea worth spreading. It didn’t take long. Then all of a sudden I’m thrust right back into fear and terror mode, but now that I understand it, the feeling is almost comforting. It signals that I have an opportunity to take things in my industry, in our industry, to a new level — or of course drive right off a cliff. Either way it’ll be a good show! :)

“Everyone should give a TED talk,” writes Doug Johnson, after being inspired at TEDxPhiladelphiaED:

So here is my question: Could you give a TED talk inspired by a personal passion for what you do? What would it be about? What would others learn from it? What makes you look forward to the next day even after a rough time at work? What do you take time to reflect on?

(Doug gave a TEDxTalk himself last year at TEDxASB, so he knows what he’s talking about. He says: “These TED talks are tougher to do than one might think.”)

Verena Delius spoke at TEDxBerlin, and in her prep, she discovered the upside of the 18-minute limit:

TED limits your talk to a maximum of 18 minutes. This leads to clearer thoughts, a clearer structure, stronger take-aways and a more concise train of argumentation of the speakers. You can´t spend too much time on irrelevant points that don´t bring across a message and you have to focus on the important points.

And in a guest post on Jeff Goins‘ blog, John Yates shares “Four Keys to Speaking at Your Next Local TEDx Talk.” Here’s one of his insights after a day at TEDxNashville:

1. Be an amateur: David Mead, a Nashville singer-songwriter, told a story of his friend who was humble enough to admit he had never heard of the Beatles, which deeply resonated with me. I thought: How many times have I missed out on learning amazing new things, because I wanted to appear as an expert?

Do you have a story of speaking at a TEDx — or insights from attending one — that you’d like to share? Hit the comments below, or write a blog post and let us know about it!

Comments (27)

  • commented on Aug 12 2012

    I had an opportunity to attend a TEDx event recently. I was inspired.

    Check the write-up I did for the event.


    • Emily McManus commented on Aug 12 2012

      Thank you for sharing your blog! What’s your own answer to your question: “If you were to deliver a TED talk what would your speaking topic be?”

      • commented on Aug 12 2012

        I would talk about my experiences as a community volunteer and the inspiration I got from it to co-start a non-profit organization that seek to improve the quality of teaching and learning in my community and surrounding areas. I will tittle it “Let us take action, let us not leave it to the government”

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  • Gary Gunter commented on Feb 17 2012

    I know someone that would be perfect for giving a Tedx talk. Is there a way to get in touch with Tedx organizers? My understanding is you need to be invited – and there is no formal application process. Is that right?

    • Emily McManus commented on Feb 18 2012

      Hi Gary! You can find an upcoming TEDx event near you on this page: http://www.ted.com/tedx — and many TEDx events would love for you to suggest yourself as a speaker. Most events will offer some way to get in touch, such as a contact email listed on their site. Best of luck!

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  • commented on Jan 10 2012

    Greetings Aastha! I totally know how you feel. That was one of the biggest fears I had when I gave my talk. The gaps between how I saw the perfection of the talk going vs. my inability to deliver it the way that I could really bothered me going into the talk. At some point, you just have to let go and really think about channelling all of that energy into the passion of your words and intent and the IDEA of it all. That will translate! Folks are wanting to learn – look at it as an opportunity to share what’s inside you.
    It was one of the biggest learnings for me. You’ll do wonderfully!

  • Aastha Kankariya commented on Jan 6 2012

    I am a seventeen year old, and I am suppose to speak at a upcoming TEDx in India called TEDxSinhagad. I really sometimes feel i met just fail at this and not do a perfect job.
    So, my mentor told me “Aastha. your problem is that you aim about being perfect…just try to be good – its the first stepping stone to perfect…don’t get over ambitious”
    I understood that we just gotta be what we are and accept the mediocrity of our work that it may even be bad or extremely good. :)

  • Somen Dawn commented on Jan 4 2012

    It had been more than 4yrs since I last took to stage to speak to an audience of more than 100 individuals. I was unsure whether I would be able to connect with my audience, whether 4yrs of a silent technology job would give me enough push to speak voraciously, whether my words could express the smiles of a hundred Disha kids from our NGO, and whether I would be able to express how I was Inspired By Life! And all that in 18 mins… I could have spoken for 180mins and still fallen short of time. I had to learn to ‘cut the fluff’ and deliver crisp summary of my ‘Ideas worth spreading’. When I spoke at TEDxManipal 2010 on ‘India’s 35$ Dream – Technology, Innovation and People’, I never knew the amount of introspection that was needed. I had to revisit almost my entire life and figure out why I took a decision that I took; essentially, I had to look back and connect the dots!
    By far the youngest among the speakers, who were the most notable names in their respective field, I had every reason to be nervous. But the nervousness was gone the moment I took the first step onto the TEDx stage which coincided with the thunderous cheers from the audience. Going back to the city I spent 4 yrs of my life gave me strength and comfort. Although the faces were unknown, I could see in them my friends from engineering days. TEDx gave me a reason to retrospect, to celebrate, to dream, and to share!

    [During my engineering at MIT,Manipal, we started Disha (http://tinyurl.com/752rm4l), non-govt org to teach under-privileged kids. After engineering, I worked at a technology startup for 4yrs and then came back to deliver a TEDx talk.]

  • commented on Jan 3 2012

    Hey Emily, Thanks for writing this post. Hopefully it will encourage others, and give them a slice of what it’s like. Truly, it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life. Would I do it again? Ummmmm……. Yessss?

    There is so much love, talent, brilliance and respect in a TEDx event. I don’t think humanity can get enough of the inspiring exchange of ideas.

  • Robin Farr commented on Jan 2 2012

    I spoke at TEDxMileZero in Victoria, BC in September 2011 and it was an incredible experience. I told my story of crippling postpartum depression and how I finally started to get better after I took my mask off and started sharing my experience through writing about it.

    Before the event, I had told one of the organizers that I was pretty sure I was going to cry while I was speaking. At the end of one of our speaker meetings he said, “You’re not really going to cry, are you?” as though it would be a horrible thing. Well, I did cry. And it was totally powerful.

    That same organizer was responsible for giving me the time warning when I had a minute left of my allotted 6 minutes. I kept looking at him but he didn’t give a signal, and during something like that it’s really easy to lose track of time. In the end I went almost 18 minutes – the normal length for a full TED talk.

    The whole time, the audience was totally silent, and I saw several others crying. When I was done I got a standing ovation – the only one of the day. At the intermission I had a bunch of people come up to me and tell me how powerful they thought it was, including a man and his wife and one of their adult daughters. He was crying while talking to me.

    I’ll never forget it.

    I wrote about my experience here: http://www.farewellstranger.com/2011/09/11/walking-the-tedx-talk/

  • commented on Jan 1 2012

    I would love to give a TED talk someday! Here is one of my ideas for a topic: What I’ve learned from hip-hop DJs about being a pastor (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hhh_znO2nOE).
    –Kimberly Williams (Washington, DC)

  • Mike Jutan commented on Dec 31 2011

    I spoke at TEDxIB@York in Toronto in Nov and it was an EPIC experience!!! There are so many thoughts that I just blogged a summary of the whole experience here. I recommend that anyone who feels they have an “idea worth sharing” try hard to be a part of a local TEDx. It was such an unbelievable experience!


    Happy New Year :)
    Mike Jutan

    • Emily McManus commented on Dec 31 2011

      This is a great post — thank you so much for sharing your story. Your preparation techniques are so smart. And wow, your shoes!

      • Mike Jutan commented on Dec 31 2011

        Thanks Emily! I was SO psyched for this opportunity. It was a glorious experience!

        Thanks – sweet shoes, eh?! :) I got them when traveling in Singapore. They even glow in the dark! I think they represent my personality well :)

        Happy holidays to you and your family!
        Mike :)

  • Ilana Ben-Ari commented on Dec 31 2011

    I gave a TEDx talk in February 2011 at TEDxConcordia in Montreal, Quebec. I was speaking about a toy I designed for visually impaired school children to play with their sighted classmates, bridging communication gaps and developing empathy through collaborative play. Leading up to my talk everything was going great until, 10 minutes before I went on stage, I was informed that one of the speakers that volunteered to demo the toy was no where to be found. I was forced to pick someone else at random. He had never played or seen the toy before and was about to play it blindfolded in front of 600 people. Luckily, I was distracted by this potential disaster by the discovery that directly after that, and 2 minutes before going on stage, while putting on my hands-free microphone, the ENTIRE crotch of my brand new pants ripped. I mean entire crotch, about 3.5 inches. I had no choice but to grab the new player, take a deep breath and go on stage with completely ripped pants. Luckily you can’t tell in the video and until now I have never spoken of it publicly. I’d like to think it was a blessing in disguise. As there is in fact a slight twinkle in my eye and a smirk on my face during my talk that others had mentioned looked like I was relaxed and at ease. In fact all it was, was the cool cool breeze travelling through my pants and the feeling that nothing else could possibly go wrong. If you’d like to see more of the talk and possibly more of me, it can be found here: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxConcordia-Ilana-Ben-Ari-Toy.

    Ilana Ben-Ari

    • Emily McManus commented on Dec 31 2011

      OK, that goes into the Top 5 of crazy TED stage stories ever told.

    • Robin Farr commented on Jan 2 2012

      Oh, that’s awesome. Good for you for carrying on!

  • commented on Dec 31 2011

    I gave a 6 minute TED Talk on TEDxMexico City, it has been one of the best experiences of my life. Standing on a stage in front of 400 persons who are willing to hear you talk about what you love and your passions is an incredible experience. Of course I was scared and preparation is key to overcome your fears. You can find the content of my TEDtalk in here http://xgamebrainx.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/how-to-live-an-awesomly-epic-rpg-life/

  • commented on Dec 31 2011

    Your post is so timely. I watch the TED talks regularly. It was only a couple of short weeks ago that this vision came to me and it was of me giving a TED Talk. Specfically in regards to creating by-definition, sustainable respectful workplaces/schools/institutions where people could enjoy a welcoming, dignified space in which to feel and be empowered. This out of a program my company has developed and is currently sharing with a number of organizations. That said, I’ve attached a recent blog that I wrote regarding teen bullying/suicide that speaks to some of the notions. I hope you enjoy and what would the next step be for me to inquire further about having my vision realized in real time? :)


    • Emily McManus commented on Dec 31 2011

      Wow, what an amazing blog post. Look for an upcoming TEDx event near you right here: http://www.ted.com/tedx — and many TEDx events would love for you to suggest yourself as a speaker. Best of luck to you!

  • commented on Dec 31 2011

    I’d like to give a TED talk. My passion is ethics–I teach it, I’ve written a book about it, i’ve changed people’s lives with my classes and my seminars.

    • Emily McManus commented on Dec 31 2011

      Hi Bob! You can find an upcoming TEDx event near you on this page: http://www.ted.com/tedx — and many TEDx events would love for you to suggest yourself as a speaker. Best of luck!