Maija-Liisa N. Adams is an Adjunct Professor of Communication at BYU a TEDx Speaker Coach, Mentor, Professional Presentations Consultant and Speaker from the USA.

Recently she posted online he list of top things that she, as a speaker coach, looks for in a potential TEDx speaker. I was really inspired by the list, and even added a couple of my own at the end.

I myself have been a speaker coach for several TEDx events around the world, and I enjoy it very much. While many people dream of speaking at a TEDx event, they don’t always know what a speaker coach is looking for behind the scenes. Many speakers believe that if they can somehow give a “motivational speech” it will win the day. But the truth is, TEDx is an ideas conference, not a motivational conference.

So, here we have Maija-liisa’s top tips! (and some from me!)

Speaker coaching tip #1

Everyone is looking for something different.

The “X” in TEDx stands for “Independently organised TED event”. That means that each TEDx event is organised by different people, in different ways. Each event is looking for different speakers, and will have a different application process.

Although, to the untrained eye, TEDx events may all look the same, they feel very different.

Some events may have a small, 100 person audience, perfect for sharing intimate, up-close and personal talks. Some events may have thousands in the audience, perfect for bombastic, colourful speakers with broad body language. Some TEDx events may be conducted in a local language, others in a foreign language. Some events may have a focus on issues affecting women (TEDxWomen), children (TEDxKids) or young people (TEDxYouth).

Some TEDx events may have an entire team you must impress before you get on stage, others may be curated by just one person. Some TEDx events allow for an open audition process, some are invitation only.

The trick is to treat each TEDx event as a completely separate, independent, event. Learn what each event is looking for, and how each organisation team works. Don’t make one application and blanket email it to every TEDx event in your country.

Speaker coaching tip #2

A great idea over a great speaker any day.

TEDx events are not a “speaking competition”. They are a celebration of ideas. Ideas can be exciting, controversial, unusual, difficult, or unconventional. If you want to speak at TEDx, you have to have an idea.

It doesn’t need to be a huge idea. It doesn’t have to be world changing. But at the core of your talk, you should be able to explain the key idea in just a few lines.

Remember, we don’t want to hear your life story, we don’t want to hear what your business does. We want to hear your idea.

Speaker coaching tip #3

Be coachable and receptive to suggestions.

A good TEDx speaker should be coachable, and open to suggestions of how to improve.

Depending on who is organising the TEDx event, an average speaker will probably receive lots of comments and suggestions for improvement. Script changes, notes on improving your powerpoints, feedback on your stage presence, rehearsals, pronunciations, fact checking and much more, is all part of it.

When I coach a typical TEDx event, we will spend around 4 to 6 months working on the script and overall performance of the talk. It will go through many changes, and what finally gets presented on the stage is often very different from the first draft.

One of the biggest warning flags can be when a speaker says that they don’t need coaching. That they have given hundreds of talks before, and don’t need any help. Typically we don’t work with speakers who have that attitude.

TEDx organisers know their audience inside and out. They know every word of what all the speakers will say. They know how your talk will fit in with the other speakers. They know what works and what doesn’t. So please, always listen to your speaker coach. It will transform how you talk, and it will push you out of your comfort zone as a speaker.

A good speaker coach will never censor you, and will never “put words into your mouth”. But they will make sure that your voice comes across in a way that impacts the most people possible, and helps your idea spread.

Speaker coaching tip #4

Clear idea-no fluff in application-say it in one-two sentences.

Every day, TEDx Speaker coaches get pitched idea after idea after idea. Every time I check my email, or visit linked in, I have at least 3 new messages from people who are desperate to share their talk with the world, and they are convinced that I am the one to help them do that.

While every event is different, I typically get about 100 applications for every 1 speaking spot on the stage.

If you can’t explain your idea in just a few short lines, keep on working until you can.

A great way to find inspiration is to read the back cover of your favourite books. A book can last hundreds of pages, but the small paragraph on the back of the book tells you everything you need to know about the contents. If you are considering applying for a TEDx talk, write your application as if it was the back cover text of a book about your idea. If we have to read 100 pages just to “get” what you are trying to say, it would be an impossible task.

Also, be wary of sending too little information. Each week I get at least one message that says “Please can I meet with you for one hour to present to you my idea?… I will tell you more when we meet.” It is very unlikely that you will get anywhere close to being considered without revealing the topic and idea that you want to talk about.

Speaker coaching tip #5

Can you explain it in 10-12 minutes?

TEDx talks are famous for being delivered in 18 minutes. But that is a limit, not a target.

Some of the most popular and inspiring talks are delivered a lot quicker than that. 10 to 12 minutes works well.

A shorter time doesn’t mean a smaller talk. It takes a lot of effort to explain something in such a short time. Fierce editing, great script writing and strong rehearsals all help shave unnecessary details from a talk.

Try to take out as much as possible from your talk, so that only the essential elements remain.

A shorter time limit, and streamlined script allows your talk to “breath”. Good speakers spend a lot of time saying nothing! Dramatic pauses, slower pacing, waiting for applause or laughter to die down, all add to the time of a talk, without adding to the content of the script.

If you practice an 18 minute talk, and get just 30 seconds of laughter, you will be galloping through your speech, trying to make up lost time. No one wants to hear you rush through your talk like it’s a race to the finish line.

Speaker coaching tip #6

Does your talk fit our theme?

Many TEDx events have different themes, chosen by the organiser. Themes help tie all the speakers together, giving the audience a consistent line throughout the conference.

When you watch TEDx videos online, you see only a short snippet of the event, but when you attend a live TEDx event, you may find that all of the talks are connected in some way.

TEDx events have speakers from a diverse background. So what connection is there between an architect, a ballerina, a psychologist, a scientist, a teacher, a teenager and a fire fighter? The theme is the common element that ties them together.

Find the theme of the TEDx event you are applying to, and see if your idea fits that theme somehow. Please, don’t change your idea to fit a theme. You should never try to shoehorn your idea into a framework that doesn’t fit. Instead, be mindful of the events theme. If your idea doesn’t fit, don’t worry. Maybe next years theme will be a better fit. Or maybe you will find a better fit for a theme on the other side of the world.

Speaker coaching tip #7

Balance the other speakers topics without repeating them.

Each speaker should compliment the other speakers at the event. Giving the audience multiple different angles and approaches to topics based around the theme.

A good speaker will add something new to the discussion, and not simply echo what previous speakers have said.

It is perfectly fine to present views and angles that are completely the opposite to other speakers. As long as it helps the audience understand a broad variety of approaches.

Speaker coaching tip #8

Deliver your own personality and style.

Every speaker is different, and TEDx events want to embrace the diverse styles and personalities of their speakers. They don’t want every voice to be the same.

Don’t try to “copy” the presentation styles of other TEDx speakers. Don’t watch too many videos of your favourite talks and try to be just like them. Don’t try to fit into what you believe is a generic TEDx style talk. Bring your own personality and style.

If you are funny, be funny. If you are not funny, don’t make a joke just because you feel the need to tell a joke.

If you have a strong accent, if you have quirky sayings or phrases, if you have vivid body language, if you have a wild imagination, let it show on the stage. There is no need to try to be someone else.

Speaker coaching tip #9

Embrace regional ties.

TEDx events happen in hundreds of countries, in thousands of cities around the world. Each TEDx event serves its local community, finding ideas that are important to share based on where they are in the world.

And TEDx events are also part of a global community, a universal conversation.

Maybe there is something special about you that is connected to the city you are speaking in, or maybe your idea is perfectly normal in your country, but groundbreaking in a different country.

Understand what is special about your geography, your culture and your heritage, and embrace and share it with an audience that will value it.

Speaker coaching tip #10

Give a talk only YOU can give.

As you work on your talk, ask yourself “Why am I giving this talk?”

If your script could be read by a colleague, or another person from your industry, and it had the same impact, why are you giving that talk?

Ideally, your talk shouldn’t just explain an idea that anyone in your industry could have, but you should include why it is personal and fascinating to you and your life.

It’s your talk, your ideas, your life. Make your talk as unique and as interesting as you are.

Remember: Every TEDx event is different, and no advice can ever be “One size fits all”. What works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to speaking at TEDx events, flexibility and adaptability are key. Speak to your local TEDx organiser and find out what they are looking for firsthand.


1 Comment

Maija-Liisa N. Adams · October 26, 2019 at 1:42 pm

Thank you for explaining my list of tips and adding the final one! I love helping speakers dig down deeper into their idea. When they are willing to share their idea in a single sentence,, the TEDx attendees walk away with six or eight or 12 ideas that change the way they now see or can improve their world.

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