Standing on the dreaded red dot!

Standing on the dreaded red dot!

So we did another TEDxDublin – another big one. On September 14th 2013, the Bord Gais Energy Theatre (doesn’t that piece of corporate titling just trip off the tongue?) was filled to its 2,000+ capacity to see 12 amazing speakers and a selection of TED videos. Six hours of ideas worth sharing.

This post is intended to give you some insight into the effort that the speakers put in and also, perhaps, to help you if you would ever like to give a TEDx (or who knows, maybe a TED) talk. Where to begin? At the beginning – finding great speakers who have great ideas.

Finding speakers

Since September last year when we hosted the first of the ‘big’ TEDxDublins in the BGET, myself and the other organisers have been deluged with “I’d like to speak…” emails. An awful lot of these, no doubt well-meaning, people weren’t really getting it. They wanted to come and give a well-worn speech, usually about what they did as part of their day-job. So we had contact from lots of productivity specialists, lots of GTD wannabes, and lots of middle managers telling us their CEO was a brilliant speaker. In other words, the audience would be ‘treated’ to lots of selling from the stage.

TED and TEDx events are not about selling from the stage. Quite the opposite. Here’s the email we wrote back to all the people who proposed themselves, their boss, or their company:

If you would like to be included for this year – all new names go onto the long list. Make sure you let us know what your ‘idea worth spreading’ is; make sure it’s not selling from the stage; or your usual schtick; and point us to some online examples of you speaking. At that point, the curators will collectively vote for the shortlist and pick the final speakers from that… It’s also worth googling the ‘TED Commandments‘ as a yardstick for your potential talk, to make sure that TEDxDublin is the right place for you to share it with an audience.

There were other balancing issues we tried to address too. We wanted everyone to have a brilliant idea, that’s the raison d’etre of the event. But they didn’t need to be a great public speaker when we first met them. As long as they could talk lucidly, entertainingly, passionately to us about their idea and were happy to ‘give it a go,’ we knew we could help most of them to be stage-ready for the day itself. We always try to get a balance of age, gender and expertise – that’s much harder because we get last-minute drop-outs or schedule changes. For example, this year we had to drop three slots from the programme and finish at 6:30pm instead of 8:00pm as per last year.

Learning from peers

Easkey Britton in Aug 2013 - first run-throughs of her talk and getting used to the Madonna Mic!

Easkey Britton in Aug 2013 – first run-throughs of her talk and getting used to the Madonna Mic!

Now, inevitably, people can’t talk about what they do – their research, their day job, their breakthroughs and discoveries – without some degree of self-promotion creeping into it. I don’t know about you, but I think being asked to speak at a TED or TEDx event is an honour and it implicitly states that you are more than just a ‘solid performer’ in your field. We offer help to all our speakers in honing and rehearsing their talk and we encourage them to come together a number of times to meet each other, and hear each other speak, in advance of the day itself.

The advantages of talk-tweaking and of fine-tuning slides and timing are obvious (more on this below) but something else occurred at those practice sessions, both last year and this year. First, the speakers spurred each other on. After our first gathering in the Paccar Theatre in the Science Gallery, one of the speakers said to me, “Jaysus, I have a shitload of work to do. Those last two were amazing!” (In fact this speaker was having the same effect on some of the other speakers, but that was not his/her perception).

Second, and equally importantly, a number of speakers came up to me after their own practice run and listening to other speakers and said, “I want to change some of my talk – I think it’s too much like selling.” Once again, that was not the team’s perception of their talk, but it was interesting that, having heard other talks, they wanted to dial things back on that front.

The words

We recommend that all speakers start with their talk – the words. Some of them start with a pithy statement that encapsulates what their talk is about. Others start with twice as much material as they could ever possibly fit into a TED-length talk and trim and chop it down to a core talk. Authoring and editing are both much easier if you have that core, that essence, but it’s my experience for TEDx and for other types of events, that very few speakers start out with that tweet-like clarity.

Another value in starting with the words is that you can start to work toward the desired duration. If you speak at 140 words per minute, and the maximum length of at TED-style talk is 18 minutes, a few seconds with a calculator gives you 2500 words – at the most. Time and again, I have worked with speakers who are faced with the choice of having to drop one or more important points. When faced with these difficult choices, (Faulkner’s “you must kill your darlings” was quoted more than once this year), it all comes down to one question – does this point help in getting across my idea-worth-sharing? It was interesting to see a number of talks, that initially looked like they were going to struggle to stay within the magic 18 minutes, get trimmed well below this as the tangents, superfluous examples, or frankly self-indulgent elements, were killed off one by one.

Part 2 – Visuals, talks coming together, and rehearsals