How to Deliver the Talk of Your Life

Ed: A few weeks ago, Becky Blanton wrote to me saying: “I used your site to help me prepare for my TEDGLOBAL 2009 talk! It was a godsend literally. […] I would love to ‘give back’ by writing about what I learned from other TED talkers and my TED experience.” This is Becky’s educational and inspirational story.

s a speaker, one major milestone you face is your first highly public speech. Most of you won’t have to give that first talk at a TED conference as I did. However, if you do, it helps to remember that the things which make TED talks great can make all talks great.

TED speakers are asked to do six things in their talk:

  1. Distill your life’s work or experience into a 3, 6, 9 or 18 minute talk
  2. Be authentic/vulnerable
  3. Convey one strong idea
  4. Tell a story that hasn’t been told before
  5. Tell and not sell
  6. Absolutely and positively stick to the time limit

Do those things and you too can give “the talk of your life.”

How I Came to Speak at TED

“I had become invisible, one of the 3.5 million working homeless in America.”— Becky Blanton

In 2006 I was living in a Chevy van with my Rottweiler and cat in a Wal-Mart shopping lot in Denver, Colorado. A “grand adventure” had gone awry and left me more homeless than free spirit. My father had recently died. I’d quit a good paying job to escape the stress and grief of his death and recent life changes, and dug my hole of depression deeper. I had become invisible, one of the 3.5 million working homeless in America.

Yet three years later the lowest point of my life was suddenly fodder for a TED talk. I’d just won an all-expenses-paid trip to TED Global 2009, courtesy of Daniel Pink, best-selling author, former speech writer for Al Gore and a professional speaker himself. As an attendee, I was eligible to compete for a chance to talk at TED.

Coincidently, TED Global 2009’s theme was “The essence of things not seen.” It summed up my year of being invisible as a homeless woman. But now that year or more of being invisible to society had the potential to educate and inspire society.

All I had to do was give the “talk of my life.”

How to Write the Talk of Your Life in Six Minutes

Easy? Not really. Not only was I not a speaker, I’d never given a formal, prepared talk to a large group before. This would not only be the first professional speech of my life, it would be about the most emotional and trying year of my life.  I had less than two months to prepare. It was a challenge.

I turned to a variety of sources, including Six Minutes, for help. Here’s what I learned:

1. Distill Your Life’s Work or Experience into a 3, 6, 9 or 18 minute talk

Any of us could fill books with the story of our lives. But how do you narrow your focus and distill a life to mere minutes? Determine your message – is it to educate? Motivate? Persuade? Entertain? Or inspire? I wanted to do all those things.

I had lived in my van for a year with a dog and house cat while working a full-time job.  I was dealing with heat, depression, hassles from police and security guards whose job it was to make sure I didn’t sleep in my van on their property. There was the day-to-day struggle to eat, sleep, work, shower and survive on the streets. There was the struggle to remain true to the vision I had of being a free spirit on an adventure while fighting clinical depression. As I prepared for the talk, I was living in an apartment, and couldn’t decide what part of the van-dwelling experience I wanted to convey.

2. Be Authentic

I kept asking myself, what was my message? Where did I focus? It wasn’t easy to decide. I finally climbed back into my van, closed my eyes and asked myself, “What will the audience want to know? What would I want to know if I heard a similar story?” Simple. I’d want to know how I escaped. What got me out of the van and homelessness and back into an apartment? That was the message, the quality, the focus. From there it just got easier.

“What will the audience want to know? What would I want to know if I heard a similar story? Simple. I’d want to know how I escaped.”— Becky Blanton

3. Convey one strong idea

The theme for TED Global was, “The essence of things not seen.” My talk was about being one of the invisible working homeless – the essence of things not seen. But it was also about the essence of things – like perspectives and judgments, that influence our lives. In this context, my message was clear: “People are not where they live, where they sleep, what they are doing at any given moment. People are their dreams and visions.”

Tip: Take time to focus each idea you want to express, then pick the most compelling, the strongest idea.

4. Tell a story that hasn’t been told before

As a journalist I had an advantage. I’m a professional storyteller. Yet I still had to find a new story, a story about being homeless that hadn’t been told before. So I told my story. It’s easy to hide behind talking about other people in similar situations, with similar issues, but the powerful story, the one people want to hear, is your story.

Once I believed that, I could start looking at how my experience, my journey through homelessness, while the same on many levels, was also new and untold in many other ways. I also noticed that with many stories about the homeless, it’s easy to resort to playing on the audience’s heart strings and going for the pity pull. I didn’t want that. I wanted my audience to be with me emotionally, but to identify with me, not to feel sorry for me. I wanted to come across as authentic, not as a victim.

To do that I focused on the facts, not on the trauma of the pain or the emotion. Own the situation, don’t blame the situation.  Tell the story and let the reader or listener make their own choice about the outcome.

5. Tell and not sell

“People are not where they live, where they sleep, what they are doing at any given moment. People are their dreams and visions.”— Becky Blanton

One of the strongest “rules” that TED organizers establish is to not “sell” anything, or use your time to pitch your book, organization, or business. It’s great advice.

Tell the audience something, don’t sell them something. They want solutions. If you can provide that, the rest will come. I had nothing to sell, so abiding by that rule was easy! If you have a great message, a fabulous idea, or an amazing story or product – people will want to buy. You don’t have to sell them. Focus on being remarkable, not profitable.

6. Stick to the time limit

TED organizers don’t budge on this one. I watched several people interrupted when they breached their time limit. The same holds true for any venue where you talk. Even if you go over your limit, the audience is watching the clock. Their timers will go off and you’ll lose them if you talk too long. Set your own limit and keep it.

Practical Speaking Tips

I also learned numerous practical speaking lessons along the way. In terms of preparation and practice, here’s my advice to you:

  • Memorize your talk where possible and refer back to notes or prompters
  • Get 8-hours sleep after practicing. This helps your brain commit, process, and store the speech, allowing you to remember what you’ve crammed for.
  • Give the speech to a small audience the day before
  • Give the speech to yourself an hour before your actual speech
  • Practice in the venue where you’ll be talking – get on the stage if possible beforehand.

Learn From the Best You Can Access

I also got fantastic advice from some of the best speakers at TED.

From Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO and founder of the Accumen Foundation:(Novogratz is not only a seasoned TED speaker, she’s married to Chris Anderson, moderator for TED.)

  • Give your speech (no matter how often you’ve given it before) to a close friend, or out loud to yourself before you actually get on stage for your real talk.

From Daniel Pink, professional speaker, best-selling author, former speech writer for Al Gore, and TED talker:

  • Remember your audience wants you to succeed
  • Relax and enjoy your time on stage

From June Cohen, TED University Moderator,

  • Stand, move, and walk around on stage, but don’t stand and sway or shuffle
  • Smile
  • Don’t block the TED logo
  • Don’t walk out of the camera range
  • Don’t worry about looking perfect. We edit out all the mistakes and the parts where you forget your place. The video makes you look perfect, but no one gives an error free presentation.

From the guys who ran the sound checks…
From Bruno Giussani (European Director of TED Global Conferences)…
From Sam Martin, TED Magazine editor…
And from all the TED Global Fellows:

  • Breathe
  • The louder your voice, the more you’ll naturally gesticulate
  • Enjoy the ride
  • Be authentic
  • It’s not a competition

The advice I would give now?

“… the powerful story, the one people want to hear, is your story.”— Becky Blanton

Practice, practice, practice – in front of mirrors, in front of friends, in front of small audiences before you make your debut in your final venue. And then relax and enjoy it. You’ll be fine. You may not be perfect, but you’ll be fine.

Honestly? I don’t remember the six minutes at all. It was the longest and the shortest six minutes of my life. But for the rest of the week at TED, I was gratified to find those who heard the talk come up to me to thank me for speaking. I swallowed my tendency to protest (“It was no big deal”) and to just say “Thank you,” and take it all in. I resisted the temptation to compare myself to any other speaker. It would have been counterproductive.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that the best talks of our lives are the ones that focus on describing the journey more than the outcome.