What It’s Like to Give a TED Talk

15 Unexpected Things I Learned from Giving My TEDx Talk in Venice Beach

Light Watkins giving a talk entitled, “Debunking the 5 Most Common Meditation Myths,” at TEDx Venice Beach in Feb. 2015.

I received an email in December 2014, inviting me to give a TED talk on meditation in February 2015 in Venice, CA.

One of the members of the selection committee for TEDx Venice Beach had just completed my meditation training, and thought that it would be good to include a talk about meditation.

I eagerly accepted and began six weeks of intense preparation, neglecting just about everything else I had on my plate, including promotions for my new book that was just published a couple of weeks before.

Long story short, I had an incredible experience! And here are 15 unexpected things I learned from giving my talk:

  1. The real difference between TED and TEDx. My talk was actually a part of TEDx, which means it’s an independently organized TED event. I knew about TEDx, but I didn’t realize that anyone could organize a TEDx event. All you need is a license from the TED organization to do so. You still have to abide by the TED guidelines, but other than that, you too could host a TEDx event in your corner of the world. Regular people have organized TEDx events in just about every imaginable location, from high school gymnasiums to prison cafeterias. Feeling inspired to host a TEDx event? Start by applying here.
  2. There are some incredible TED talks out there. One of the first things I imagine everyone does when selected to give a TED talk is watch a ton of other TED talks on the TED archives. I must admit, watching all of those talks was not only inspiring, but incredibly intimidating. It makes you appreciate the skill it takes to deliver a talk that is memorable (for all the right reasons). I listed some of my favorite talks at the end of this article.
  3. There are some extremely helpful books on how to give an engaging TED talk. Something else I did, aside from watching TED talks, was download and study Talk Like TED, by Carmine Gallo. Gallo analyzed over 150 hours worth of TED Talks, and did an excellent job of breaking down the various components of an impactful TED talk. Chapter titles include: “Find out what makes your heart sing,” “Teach something new,” “Add a jaw-dropping moment.” He also cited plenty of moving TED talks to view as examples.
  4. It’s all about storytelling. When researching the best practices for giving an engaging TED talk, one word kept coming up again and again (especially in Gallo’s Talk Like TED): storytelling. The best TED talkers tend to use storytelling to get their message across. Even when citing statistics, if you can deliver them in story form, the audience will respond more favorably.
  5. Your idea needs to be unique, and worthy of sharing. I assumed that giving a talk on meditation would be easy. There’s so much I could talk about — or at least I thought. But as I began digging in the TEDx archives, there were already talks on nearly every aspect of meditation. It was harder than expected to come up with my unique idea worth spreading. In fact, my topic changed 3 times, and I didn’t settle on my final idea (Debunking the 5 Most Common Meditation Myths) until about a week before going on stage!
  6. It’s generally not an off-the-cuff talk. TED talks are rehearsed. A lot. Typically, you want to have six months to a year to prepare for your talk. Since I was a last-minute add-on, I only had about five weeks to prepare because you must rehearse your talk in front of your TED or TEDx team a few times a week or two before the event — and also sign an agreement that you will deliver your talk as rehearsed. No going off the rails while on stage. Also, there is no teleprompter, so your talk must be memorized.
  7. Making it sound off-the-cuff takes a lot of practice. This is public speaking 101, but you have to practice your talk a lot, and in every kind of situation. I wrote my entire talk out and rehearsed it while going on long walks around the Venice canals. People who saw me probably thought I had mental problems. I knew I was ready to perform it in front of others when I could recite my talk verbatim four times in a row without dropping a single word. I then recorded myself on video multiple times so that I could rehearse my body language and pauses.
  8. You’re under the gun. I never realized that there was a time limit to TED talks. 18 minutes is the maximum allotted time. When the other presenters and I rehearsed our talks, the team assigned some of us, me included, less time for our presentation. I had 16 minutes. During the actual event, someone in production got the times mixed up and accidentally set my stage clock to only 10 minutes. So for the last 6 minutes I had no idea how long I was talking, and apparently the producer in charge of time contemplated pulling me off stage. I’m glad that didn’t happen. My talk ended up being just 12 seconds under the 18-minute mark.
  9. Using slides was harder than I thought. Because I’ve never used slides before while public speaking, doing so with my TEDx talk was initially challenging. In my rehearsals, I kept forgetting to advance the slide. It’s not as intuitive as one may think, and took a lot of practice to sync up my talking points with my slides. I was also concerned about having to turn around to see which slide I was on, because otherwise I kept forgetting about them. Thankfully, there ended up being a floor monitor showing me the current slide, so I never had to turn around to see it.
  10. The pressure is high. The fact that a TED talk lives forever can be a good thing, or a bad thing. If you knock it out of the park, your talk can potentially lead to a successful speaking career. This is not lost on any of the speakers.
  11. You can’t see anything when you’re up there. Of course, all venues are different, but when I walked on stage, I thought I would see the faces of my friends and strangers in the crowd. On the contrary, with the spot light, I couldn’t see anything except the silhouettes of people’s heads. In many ways, this made it far easier than anticipated to give my talk. I just pretended that I was rehearsing by myself in my living room, and that played a large role in my ability to stay relaxed.
  12. Afterwards, you only see what you screwed up. I nearly tripped while walking up on stage, and my talk ended up being only about 90% of what I wrote and rehearsed. When I watch it now, ironically, all I see is the 10% of the talk that I screwed up on. I can’t help it.
  13. You can edit out the bad parts. The hard-working TEDx team sent me a rough cut of my talk and asked if there was anything I wanted to remove. Thank God for that, because I was able to remove a few small portions of my talk that I didn’t think translated as well on video.
  14. It may take longer than you think for your talk to be released. I thought my TEDx talk would be released within a month of the event. But it took nearly 4 months for my talk to come out. Considering that the event is produced by an all-volunteer team, and that they have to submit each talk to the TED headquarters for approval, it was easy to be patient.
  15. You might get another shot. Apparently, there’s no rule saying you can only give one TED or TEDx talk. Since TEDx is independently organized, you can be invited to give a talk by multiple event organizers. In my research, I discovered some speakers who had given two or even three TED or TEDx talks, which was good to know because it meant that this didn’t have to be my one and only shot.

Here’s my talk. Please share and comment on it if you like it — or even if you don’t like it (smile).

Here is a list TED talks that I discovered through my research and found incredibly inspiring:

A foie gras parable (Dan Barber)
How sampling transformed music (Mark Ronson)
We need to talk about an injustice (Bryan Stevenson)
How I hacked online dating (Amy Webb)
A guerilla gardener in South Central LA (Ron Finley)
The opportunity of adversity (Aimee Mullins)
Every kid needs a champion (Rita Pierson)