I spent the entire end of February talking to a PB& J pillows with eyes.
In the beginning of March, I gave a speech at Ted x Roppongi, titled The Risk of Playing it Safe. It was based on the blog post I wrote last year.
I am, by no means, the pinnacle of a presenter. I’m not the guardian of quality TED talks, nor a speaker-training virtuoso.
But I had a message that I urgently wanted to burn into peoples’ minds – Don’t waste your life taking the safe route – and I put my whole body and soul into preparing this talk.
So I want to share the things I learned while putting my talk together, in case you want to emulate how I prepared.
1. Picking a topic
Pick a topic you are both knowledgable and passionate about. You need both.
Knowledge without passion is boring:
“If you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million times correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate.” -Werner Herzog
Facts, by themselves, aren’t interesting. The strength of your sentiment you put into the presentation makes the facts interesting. Your emotions come out in the form of energy, body language, tone of voice, and interesting stories. If you’re not passionate about the speech you’re giving, then you’ll never captivate. And, regardless of TED, any good speech is about captivating the audience on an emotional level.
Be careful, though, because:
Passion without knowledge is a waste of everyone’s time.
At TED, novelty is the status quo; you’re expected to give people a unique insight. If you haven’t put in the months and years to become an expert in the topic of your talk, then don’t be on stage.
For me, I picked a topic that I strongly felt passionate about, and something I’ve written about in the past. Blog posts are great MVPs (Minimum Viable Product) for talks, because you’ve already organized the idea in writing. Sending the event producers the pitch for my talk was as easy as sending a link to my blog.
2. Preparing the script
A great blog post and a great speech are completely different monsters.
Speech is more layman.
Don’t overuse beautiful vocabulary and long words, because it doesn’t come across as genuine. Speech has more tacky segues that you’d usually condemn in writing. Here’s an example from my presentation with the segues underlined:
But then I thought, if playing it safe is decreasing my life satisfaction, can taking risks increase it? It sounds ridiculous, I know, but some of our favorite figures, like Helen Keller, wrote “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” […]
But rewriting my post to be more layman wasn’t enough for me. I wanted my speech to grab the maximum amount of attention and gain maximum memorability. So, I started emulating the format of the most popular TED talks.
I quickly began to notice that the trend of the best talks was to mention a quick personal story that foretells the conclusion of your idea, and the remaining talk is breaking down why this conclusion is true.
Example of the popular TED talk outline:
Part 1 – Short story: “My friends and I used to go do stuff for the sake of fun, but now we go out for the sole purpose of posting what we did on Instagram, and make it look fun even if it wasn’t.”
Part 2 – Problem and introduction of new idea: “Technology is souring our real life relationships in subtle ways. But what if we could [idea].”
Part 3 – Facts of the problem: “[Fact 1]…Not only that, but…[Fact 2]…This means that…”
Part 4 – Reintroduction of the new idea: “But imagine if we implemented [idea]? This changes everything.”
Part 5 – Facts that support the new idea: “[Fact 1]…Not only that but…[Fact 2]”
Part 6 – Conclusion: “So the next time [problem] think about [idea]. Thank you.”
This format is popular, because it’s a recipe for attention grabbing. It’s like a magic trick where you tell the audience what you’re going to do, which in turn, grasps their attention on trying to figure out how you’ll do it.
Breaking down popular talks into bite-sized segments really helped structure my script. Obviously I didn’t want to emulate the format completely though, as it’d lose a personal touch.
Finally, whenever I had writer’s block, I’d force myself to read it out loud to someone.
Reading it out loud is the key to perfecting your speech, because you’ll find yourself correcting the speech as you talk.
Make sure to read it to people whom you trust to have clear judgement. Run through the whole speech, and then ask them if they thought any particular part, especially the part that you’ve been stuck on for the last week, felt weird. More often that you’d think, they’ll tell you that weird part is totally fine. They’ll also tell you what part they did think was a little unfriendly, and its usually something you didn’t even realize.
3. Do you really need slides?
Since the moment I started planning my TEDx talk, I knew that I didn’t want to use any slides. I wanted people to focus on my words and body language, alone, so that they wouldn’t miss any content from looking over to the screen. Looking back and forth to the screen and the presenter is distracting.
My topic also had key themes like “risk”, “career”, “stress”, “journey”, and “desires.” Every person attributes different imagery to these words, and I wanted the audience to fill in the blanks with their own projections, not to the projections that I showed them. This gives them the feeling that I truly understand their problems on a personal level.
Most visual depictions of quotes, lists, and even graphs are surprisingly unnecessary. Instead, describe how important the numbers you’re saying are. Here’s an excerpt from my talk on how I presented statistics with only words:
The Ministry of Health in Japan reported in 2015 that nine percent of all suicides are work-related. Nine percent is a lot, but that doesn’t even reflect the real number. They also report that 51% of suicides are due to health problems. Now, this is highly misleading because the majority of “health problems” is under the category of depression. Well, the Japanese depression community platform U2Plus conducted a large poll and found out that the top 3 causes of clinical depression were all work induced.
I could have shown a piechart for this, but why bother?
Ahh, memorization. The part that scares us all. Some people use slides just because they fear forgetting their lines in the middle of the presentation.
Trust me, it’s not that hard. Here’s what to do:
The goal is not to remember your script verbatim. That would make it tremendously harder, and it would sounds less genuine on stage, anyway.
Instead, take the strongest keyword for every paragraph, and write it on a notecard. Then, try to memorize the order of the keywords.
Once you get the order down, look at one keycard, and try to recite that paragraph by memory. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to get your main point across. Do it until you feel satisfied with that paragraph. Only look at your script if you blank out.
4b. Practice on someone
Force yourself to practice on people, without any notecards. You’ll do horribly the first couple times. But this is really the step where your brain will feel the pressure to memorize. When my girlfriend was over, I would follow my girlfriend around my home, wherever she went, and recited it to her. I’m surprised she deals with me. If there was nobody, I’d prop up some PB&J cushions and give them the speech of a lifetime.
4c. Give yourself ample days to do 4a and 4b
The best way to memorize anything is repetition over many days. Never cram, or you’ll be a nervous wreck. Commit to practicing 1-2 hours a day, two weeks before the talk.
4d. Have a fail-safe plan to keep yourself calm
Fail-safe plans aren’t just for backup; they will help keep your sanity for the days leading up to the talk.
Keep the notecards in your back pocket. Or, if you forget what you should be talking about, joke about it to the audience and ask them to remind you what you were talking about.
5. Presentation tips
However fast you talk, cut the speed in half. Then, cut it in half again. The slower you talk, the more confident you seem.
Unlike writing, it’s good to repeat yourself at times to convey the importance of that sentence. It’s more convincing, and memorable:
1. I became the main author of my life; the sole architect of my narrative. My path was my own to narrate, and every month was a different adventure.
2. But all of them, every single one of them, looked tired, depressed and hollow.
Use body language excessively
Don’t hold back. An over-the-top, theatrical level of body language is the right amount. Especially with your hands:
Language is an odd thing. We hear communication experts telling us time and again about things like the “7-38-55 rule,” first posited in 1971 by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian: 55 percent of what you convey when you speak comes from your body language, 38 percent from your tone of voice, and a paltry 7 percent from the words you choose.
Lastly, here is a clip of comediean, Anthony Jeselnik, talking slowly, being redundant, and using great body language with his hands and facial expression:
Have a great TED talk!
I'm on Twitter @shoinwolfe if you ever want to talk.