Behind the scenes of a TED Talk: Lauren Parsons explains all
Your name is called. The audience applauds. You walk out onto the red dot, under the blindingly bright lights, heart racing, about to deliver your first TED talk.
Can you picture it?
That scene had been a dream of mine for several years. And, after hundreds of hours of preparation, it finally became a reality on the 14th September, 2018 at TEDxOneonta, when I delivered my talk: “Snack on Exercise – Boost Your Brain, Body & Mood”. If you’re an avid TED fan, you’ll know how brilliant the talks can be and I wanted mine to be right up there with the best of them. Captivating, entertaining, thought-provoking and most of all something that would inspire action.
I will now take you behind the scenes and show you how I created my talk, prepared to deliver it and managed the inevitable nerves on the day. I hope it might inspire you if you dream of one day speaking on the red dot yourself, or assist you with any presentations you give, throughout your career.
1. Start with the End in Mind
Preparing for a talk of this importance was a roller coaster of emotions. My mood frequently went from optimistic and excited, to sheer panic, and back again. It felt as if I was on railway tracks hurtling towards this deadline, with no way to slow it down. When I felt overwhelmed I realized I needed to start with the end in mind and picture the best possible outcome. I imagined standing on the red circle saying my final words, having the crowd erupt into applause and feeling proud and elated.
Neuroscience shows us that we are more likely to achieve the things we have first pictured and prepared for. If you have a presentation coming up or are pitching an idea in a meeting, picture it going well, ahead of time. You might even want to spend time in the room itself and practise your opening and closing lines so that you’ll feel more confident when it comes to the actual moment.
2. Stories are the Star
The biggest challenge in preparing for a TED talk is the time limit and figuring out what to leave out. I worked with my coaches Lisa and Teri back and forwards through 17 iterations before confirming the final content. There were many stats, stories and phrases that I’d spent hours researching and crafting, which ended up not making the final cut.
One of the keys was focusing on stories. The human brains love stories. We find them captivating and they’re often the best remembered part of any talk. Without stories we are left with facts, figures and statement. Stories allow us to draw striking analogies and connect on an emotional level that will stick with people long after the talk itself.
Whenever you speak – whether in a small meeting, to a large group, or one on one – conveying your message via a concise, compelling story will have far more impact than just stating the facts, regardless of how important they are.
3. What’s in it for the audience?
Understand how your presentation benefits the listeners. If there’s no “what’s in it for me” factor, they will quickly lose interest. To connect directly with the audience, it’s important to speak as if to each individual person in the audience. You can do this by avoiding saying “ladies and gentlemen” or other collective nouns and by using “you” statements (rather than “we” statements, which dilute the impact). I had to change several “What if we…” lines to “What if you…” lines and it made such a difference, as the “you” statements call people to action, on a personal level.
In Nancy Duarte’s TEDx talk “The secret Structure of Great Talks” she explains the formula for a phenomenal presentation. She shows how great orators will start by connecting the audience to the status quo, then flip back and forth from the negatives of the present to the benefits of a new status quo, and finish by describing the ideal outcome or what she calls the “new bliss”. I only came across her talk two weeks out from T-day (TEDx-day) and was apprehensive about potentially having to go back to the drawing board, but fortunately, I realised that my speech did exactly that. I contrasted the benefits of snacking on exercise (both for individuals and as a society) with the downsides and challenges of sedentary lives, flipping back and forth with stories and examples. My biggest hope was that people would walk away inspired to take action and try the concept out in their own lives.
Before you plan any presentation, consider your audience and how they can benefit from it. By creating an audience-centric message, you will have a much greater impact than if you start simply with what you want to share. Decide how you want people to feel and what you want them to do differently after your talk, then structure it with that in mind.
4. Preparation Pays Off
The other key to a super-successful presentation is to practise, practise, practise. I recorded myself delivering the talk over and over, watching it back, sometimes with the sound on, with the sound off and just listening to the audio, so I could focus on each aspect of my verbal/nonverbal communication.
Three weeks from T-day, I attended the International Toastmasters Convention in Chicago, they’re an organisation focused on creating better leaders and communicators. I delivered my talk to several groups and got insightful feedback. What I had thought was a fairly good version went through several more changes. I worked on where to stand within the red circle for each story and practised gestures that would add impact.
In the final weeks I recorded and reviewed my delivery daily, often wearing my full outfit (including jacket and heels which I had chosen intentionally to highlight my message of getting moving anywhere, even in a professional setting). I used a countdown timer and clicked through my slides so that it was as close to “the real thing” as possible. I also delivered the talk live to four toastmaster clubs. All of this meant that when it came to the actual event, it felt so natural that I was able to deliver my message virtually word for word.
Next time you have an important message to share, take the time to practise it out loud to yourself, to your smart phone (and watch it back) or at a local Toastmasters club, so that you can have much more impact when you deliver it for real.
5. Routines Rule
When we face high-stake situations, having routines in place that we have used beforehand is really key to improve performance.
On T-day, after a final session with my coach – going over my opening and closing lines – I went out for a walk in nature. I actually ended up getting somewhat lost in the woods so it turned out to be a longer walk than planned, (but that’s another story!) The idea was to relax and ground myself. After a good lunch – because I knew I wouldn’t eat dinner – I set a timer and had a 45 minute lie down. I didn’t sleep, but just focused on diaphragmatic breathing, thought about how grateful I was for this opportunity and pictured it all going smoothly.
I arrived at the venue at T-minus-3-hours, which allowed plenty of time to bring everything in and have a final tech check. I put on a calming essential oil called “serenity”, and drank a delicious “throat rescue” tea blend which I’d been using all week to keep my vocal chords in check. I listened to my favourite Ed Sheeran songs while I sat and did my makeup. All of these familiar things helped me stay calm and focused.
Once the show started, I went into a private green room planning to practise my talk one final time, but got cut slightly short in the end, as my time slot was moved forward at the last minute. Expect the unexpected, right!? So, after a final dash to the bathroom I managed to slow down and collect my thoughts backstage.
Waiting in the wings for those final few minutes, I practised Amy Cuddy’s wonder-woman power pose, focused on diaphragmatic breathing and reminded myself to speak clearly and pause. Being a fast-talking New Zealander, it was important to start out slow to give an international audience a chance to catch my accent.
Before I knew it, I was delivering my first line. The crowd were wonderfully engaged. From the moment when I asked them to raise their hand if they brushed their teeth every day, they were quick to laugh. I got them up and moving so they could feel what a difference a short amount of movement makes to your body and brain. I had moments of internal panic when I remembered that my husband and children were watching the livestream back home, but somehow the words kept coming and it all worked.
Overall it was an exhilarating experience. After my final words, I walked backstage with jelly legs, and burst into tears, enveloped in such a sense of relief. I had done it! All without fainting, going blank or falling off the stage. I was on an absolute high!
6. Just Be You
While practice and preparation are vital, the biggest challenge with virtually memorizing an entire speech, is not to sound stilted or dry on the day. Moments before stepping out on stage I reminded myself to be present, in the moment, to connect with the audience and to have fun! As Brene Brown shares, it’s our vulnerability and authenticity that truly allow us to connect. “Strong back, soft front.” Always let people see the real you.
Maya Angelou said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. I don’t know exactly how each person felt during my talk, but the only thing I could do was to be me, to be authentic, vulnerable and real and to share my message with all the passion, love and skill that I could.
Not everyone will have enjoyed it. You can never please everyone. But I’m pleased I gave it all that I could. I just focused on being me, being in the moment and connecting with my fellow human beings who I love and care about. That is all we can ever do.