How I Wrote a TED Talk

The focus: the value of our individual efforts in effecting societal change

Joseph Labriola
Ascent Publication
Published in
9 min readJun 24, 2020

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Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

Joe Labriola is a professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University in New York. His recent TEDx Talk, “Beach Cleaning to Make a Difference,” was released in May 2020.

Inception

Last summer, a professor/poet friend texted me that she was hosting an open mic at a local writer’s conference. Never one to turn down good company, good drinks, and good writing, I texted right back: “Sweet! I’ll be there!”

I’ve read various works at open mics over the years: poetry, fiction, essays. My choice of material is often influenced by what I’m writing at the time — and this time I happened to be finalizing my latest project: The Beach Cleaner’s Guide to Getting Trashed.

This guidebook was born out of my passion for cleaning local beaches — a form of community advocacy developed in recent years, quite simply, by noticing and then picking up one piece of trash after another after another.

But the more I cleaned, the more that people asked me about tips, and tricks, and general experiences regarding ocean pollution. As such, a simple yet insightful guidebook seemed like a useful way to organize and publish my “expertise” for everyone interested in learning more about what we can all do to help.

Since the point of this project was to help get the word out about this cause, I naturally figured, Well, why not read an excerpt to what’s surely an open-minded, writerly crowd?

Choosing a text is always the easy part. The real challenge is to figure out what to read from that work. I faced the same puzzle when deciding what short story to share from my thesis for my MFA graduation. I didn’t have enough time to read a full story — which raised the concern that any excerpt might be confusing, or much worse: boring to an audience forced to sit through over a dozen other makeshift vignettes. My solution? Just pick the ten best lines, one from each short story. “This won’t make much sense either,” I briefly explained to the crowd. “But at least it’ll be entertaining.” I was very satisfied with the concluding applause.

The Beach Cleaner’s Guide was a bit easier to choose from — as the style was purposefully geared toward a sort of ‘reference’ format. Choosing a 3- to 4-minute snippet was as simple as choosing from one of the many 3- to 4-minute blocks of text already there. Open with some context about the full piece, throw in a few jokes, then read my list of the ‘Top Ten Summer Time Beach Cleaning Tips’. And voila! Writing Conference open mic success!

To be honest, I’ve never been one who likes ‘too much’ public attention (which is certainly a professional bane as much as it is perhaps personal virtue). When people thank me, or congratulate me, or — Gods forbid — praise me for my work, I feel the tsunami of impostor syndrome swallow over me.

But I do like to share interesting ideas — especially important ones, like the need for massive environmental advocacy resulting in change at every socio-political stage from the local to international level.

And so when a conference attendee approached me after the open mic to share how much she enjoyed my reading, I was humbled to say the least. But she had an idea of her own too, an idea that would set me off on a nearly year-long course of brainstorming, writing, editing, and practicing. “I think this would make a great talk for our local TEDx event!”

Preparations

Unlike an open mic or classroom lecture, this was a different sort of stage — one that could be seen across the world. I had watched TED and TEDx Talks before (the latter, which I was recruited for, are often localized programs in order to cover niche community topics, like beach cleaning). But I had never considered crafting one, let alone performing my own.

And so I began considering: with a two-hundred-page guidebook, various social media advocacy, and years of beach cleaning experience, what to focus on for a ten minute TED Talk?

The first step was to review speakers who covered related topics. This research, however, quickly revealed that there were as many styles to deliver a talk as there were performers. What then could I do similarly? What could I do differently?

I mulled all these considerations for several months before beginning my first draft. The key seemed — to me at least — to identify a simple yet pivotal goal: what did I really want my audience to learn? I didn’t have the answer outright, but I sure as hell knew my subject well enough — and sometimes just knowing what question you need to answer is a good enough place to jump off from.

This ‘purpose’ of my TED Talk, therefore, shifted through the writing and then revising processes. I give great credit to the writing conference audience member — who not only had the genuine spirit to recruit me for this event but (among other organizational roles) became my editor (and a damn helpful one at that).

I regularly tell students how vital it is to share their writing with others. In fact, such collaborations are a key aspect of my freshmen writing composition classes for various reasons — perhaps the biggest being to help suss out what the point of your work really is and whether that idea is clear to your audience. You can (and should), of course, try to conceive of this audience awareness as you write your piece, but you can never know for sure whether or not anything makes sense without actually asking those to whom you’re writing for.

In the end, I decided for my talk to focus on the value of our individual efforts in effecting societal change — how it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that you can make positive impacts at the local level while fighting to raise larger awareness in helping to solve global issues. This ethos applies to any well-meaning advocacy — beach cleaning being just one example. As with most causes worth fighting for, such progress takes time, dedication, and perspective as our understanding grows both as individuals and as one people.

And so, with this rhetorical goal established, I felt ‘ready’ by draft three. But only ‘ready’ to begin rehearsing my script.

Obstacles

By March, students and teachers alike were beginning to suspect that this semester was winding into uncharted territory. When classes moved online following spring break, it became apparent that any sized public gathering planned over the next several months would be cancelled.

I quickly lost any hope of performing my TED Talk — a greatly disappointing change of events even if a highly understandable one. Like so much else during this tumultuous time, our paradigm-altering situation permeated decision-making at all levels — whether personal, professional, or academic. The environment of a TED Talk was perhaps a worse-case virus-spreading environment, and was rightly cancelled — government shutdown or not.

And so that was that then — at least until (through the persistence of key organizers), we were asked about our interest in some sort of “alternative” forum to record and share our talks. As my presentation was all about getting my crucial idea out — I quickly responded that I “was in.”

Presentation

We had a brief Zoom meeting to discuss the specifics of recording and publishing of our TED Talks via YouTube, TED’s main site, and other platforms. Having initially given up on presenting at the aforescheduled event, the next couple of weeks were indeed a whirlwind of attempting to memorize my speech whilst managing the ongoing issues of having transferred my college courses online.

It’s amazing — in my opinion — that I was able to pull off a TED Talk that appeared anything close to ‘competent’ (cue the impostor syndrome tsunami). I prerecorded myself reading from my script and would listen on loop during my morning jogs. Even so, when the deadline date for submitting my talk arrived, I was only pseudo-confident that I would look somewhat coherent in what I was saying.

Despite not having to perform in front of a live audience, recording a speech comes with its own considerations and challenges. Even seemingly menial details like ‘what the hell do I wear?’ bore perhaps unreasonable time among my preparatory calculations. (I nailed the outfit, apparently — I mean, of course I did, at least according to several viewers).

I chose what seemed like an appropriate space, backdrop, and recording setup given the inhibited circumstances. My experience podcasting and recording beach cleaning videos via my YouTube channel certainly provided me with both technological and experiential advantages. There’s tons to be said about the value of ‘feeling comfortable in front of the camera’. And equally useful is ‘feeling comfortable speaking into a microphone’, which I’ve also extensively practiced.

I was able to use a clip-on mic wired into a Zoom recorder. I then ran my audio files through some software before overlaying these tracks with the cell phone video. How did I know how to do this all? By being a nerd, Googling, failing, and learning over the past several years while podcasting. Much like my beach cleaning, ironically, I only seem like an ‘expert’ on this topic from simply struggling over time to figure out how to do it.

Nuances like pacing, gestures, volume — all the visual-vocal considerations that you can imagine, should and must be taken into account — somehow gauged yet simultaneously not overthought. No surprise I did several recordings — interrupted once by the local ferry’s cartoonishly booming ‘SET SAIL’ foghorn.

In the end, though, I had two pretty solid takes, both of which I uploaded to my computer and sent on over to the people at TED to do their editing magic. Always one obsessed with ‘getting it right’, no surprise that I literally emailed my files at 11:59 pm before the midnight deadline.

Feedback

As of today, my TEDx Talk has been viewed over 700 times. It’s only been a couple of weeks since publication, but I’m excited as more and more see and share my story. The whole point, after all, was to show the value of individual efforts leading to a sort of ‘critical mass’ of awareness — and so I indeed like to think of my video as just another small (yet important) step on this stairway to needed change.

The reception has been genuinely positive and intensely heart-warming to say the least. With all the terrible things in our world, it’s so difficult to focus on the good that often seems drowned out by the nasty. Many people have told me that my video brings them a sense of ‘hope’, which itself means that my talk is a success.

I’m equally excited by those who say that they’ve been inspired to beach clean themselves. On the surface, my TED Talk is about how everyone can and should take such initiatives — almost as a way of ‘de-stigmatizing’ the notion of beach cleaning being ‘a whole thing’. Even just picking up scraps you see adds to our collective growth.

But the larger idea does indeed come back to this ideal of ‘hope’. As I say verbatim in my talk, “Beach cleaning is just one example.” I can’t think of a more valuable perspective today than being able to recognize the positive work you’re doing on the local scale while striving toward our larger societal goals.

Lessons Learned

I’ve definitely gained some valuable rhetorical lessons from this experience — tools of growth that will surely influence my teaching both in and outside the classroom. Every experience is an educational moment — whether you see it this way or not. You only fail when you think you’ve run out of things to learn.

I also have a sick selfie stick (supplied by the fine folks at TED) that I’ve begun to use as I continue to create beach cleaning videos via my own YouTube channel mentioned earlier. This item initially seemed like not much more than an entertaining curiosity, but quickly became a vital instrument in recording my talk and in subsequent content as mentioned.

More broadly speaking, there’s another philosophical takeaway to be gleaned here: that while unforeseen, adverse situations sometimes arise, there are often ways to adapt — especially if you’ve identified a key goal worth pursuing. Even a generation-defining pandemic can’t stop an important enough message from getting out into the world.

TEDx offers an amazing opportunity for all sorts of people to tell their stories. I’m truly honored to have been given the platform to share mine with the world. For all my impostor syndrome, the fact that I still went through with this experience is proof enough to me that my message is one that needs to be heard.

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Joseph Labriola
Ascent Publication

Professor, author, beach cleaner, etc. currently studying “Life” at “the University of the Earth” https://professorlabs.podbean.com/