10 Steps to Create a Standing Ovation Worthy TED Talk

Updated: January 8, 2014

Lorena Knapp

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TED brings together some of the most remarkable people from around the world to share “ideas worth spreading” in 18 minutes or less. A TEDx event is a community hosted version designed to bring a TED-like experience to the local level. TEDx events have been held in over 7900 times in more than 130 countries. Find a list of upcoming TEDx events here.

Speaking at TEDx is the opportunity to share the “talk of your life,” get involved in your community and connect with others. Here’s how to craft your own standing ovation worthy TED talk.

1. Start Before You are Ready

I was inspired by Scott Dinsmore to get involved in TEDx. I had planned to volunteer at TEDxAnchorage, but when I was reviewing the website, I saw they were still calling for presenters. I was nervous, but thought, “just submitting an application will be a success.” I wasn’t selected, but I was asked to be an alternate. I shared the news with Scott, he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get in, I was the second alternate.” He was right, two weeks later, I was in.

You’ll probably never feel like you’re “ready” to be a TEDx speaker. Everyone (yes, that means you) has a story worth telling. Each TEDx event will have a process for accepting speakers but there are four guidelines:

  1. no selling from the stage
  2. no political agendas
  3. no religious proselytizing
  4. only good science
Turn in your application and sign up to be a speaker, you have a valuable message to share.

2. What’s Your Message?

If this is the “talk of your life,” what do you want people to walk away with? What do you want them to do? What is your call to action?

I wanted people to be inspired, let go of their somedays, and take action toward creating the life they wanted to live today. Develop a tagline or sound bite that people can take away from your talk. I repeated “Get Uncomfortable” several times during my talk.

3. Review resources

When I first started preparing for my TEDx talk, I watched some of the most popular TED talks. I noticed three things: The best talks share an inspiring or interesting idea often in the form of a story, often include personal stories of connection or triumph, and combine amazing visual images.  Find talks that are in the similar vein as your own.

Sharing a cool project? Check out: Hannah Brencher: Love Letters to Strangers or Candi Chang’s: Before I Die I Want To…

Have some great research? Watch: Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight or Dan Ariely’s: Are We In Control of Our Own Decisions?

Have a personal story? Watch: Amy Webb: How I Hacked Online Dating or Thandie Newton: Embracing Otherness, Embracing Ourselves

I also reviewed Nancy Duarte’s book, Resonate. Nancy makes a compelling case for the structure of an inspirational speech. She also has an interactive iBook version or you can get the gist by watching her TED talk on The Secret Structure of Great Talks.

4. Start Crafting Your Talk

Crafting your talk will help clarify your message. Many TED talks have transcripts available. For an 18ish minute talk, the word count will be somewhere between 2800 and 3800 words. You’re talk doesn’t need to be 18 minutes, often less is more, but this will give you a place to start.

When you first begin crafting your TED talk, it is going to be terrible. Don’t worry, just write it down. Create the shitty first draft. If you are more visual, start with making sticky notes of the key points.  I’m more verbal, so I wrote the draft first and then wrote the key points on colored squares of paper to represent the different parts of the talk. I used yellow for the personal story and green for the main points. Move them around on the table. Play with different concepts. Duarte has a similar process.

5. Practice Your Talk Out Loud

Read your talk out loud. It seems silly, but you’ll hear the parts that don’t make sense. You’ll hear the sections that still need work. Keep crafting. When you come up with a solid draft (no memorizing or slides yet!), share it with your team.

6. Enlist a Team to Help

You could pay for a speaking coach, but there are also plenty of low or no cost options for getting feedback: Toastmasters groups, trusted colleagues, or previous TEDx speakers. Ask for help.

I chose friends involved in theater because I knew they’d be familiar with how to share a story but I also knew they’d tell me the truth and give honest, constructive feedback. We met once a week for two hours.

Amanda Palmer’s delivered a fantastic talk on the  The Art of Asking by enlisting help from friends and colleagues. Don’t share your talk with too many people in the beginning, wait until you feel it is close to done before sharing with a group. Otherwise you might hear many conflicting ideas about how to improve it.

7. Add Images

By not allowing yourself to add images until the end, you’ll ensure they support your talk rather than act as content for your talk. Some of the best slides don’t have any words at all and are just a compelling visual image. Many noteworthy speakers don’t use any slides at all. Putting a blank or black slide between images will keep the audience focused on you rather than on the screen.

8. Clean it Up

Often the most powerful messages are incredibly simple. Weed out everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Take out the “ums.” Instead, be silent while you gather your thoughts. Stop the distracting movements. Add in gestures, stage movement, or voice modulations that enhance the talk.

9. Practice, Practice, Practice

Make your practice as realistic as possible. Rehearse your timing to ensure your talk isn’t too long. Think of ways to chunk your speech into sections. Memorize a section at a time. Record yourself and watch the video to find areas to improve.

While I was still memorizing my talk, I talked along with the video allowing it to act as a prompt when I forgot what was next. Add in some distractions. Sit in your car and deliver your talk in a parking lot. The people walking by will help prepare you for any audience distractions.

Often TEDx events will have practice sessions prior to the event. This allows you to get used to the stage and the audio/visual equipment. Practice shifting your gaze to all sections of the auditorium.

10. Set Your Intention and Be You

Identify what you are worried about. Losing your place? Not remembering what to say? Visualize yourself delivering an inspiring talk with ease, but also have a plan for how to help yourself if you get off track.

My two goals for the talk were to the message “land” and to be relaxed enough to enjoy the experience. I succeeded on both counts. I noticed friends and family while I made eye contact with members of the audience. I also noticed that audience was incredibly still. At the time I wasn’t sure what that meant. Later, I realized they were completely engaged in my story.

We don’t want to see perfection. We don’t want to see a perfect talk. We want to see you. Stop trying to be perfect. Stop trying to convince people. Stop trying to inspire. Just share your story. If it is well crafted, the message will land. Get personal and be authentic. As Brene Brown said in her Listening to Shame TED talk, vulnerability is courage.


After weeks crafting, feeling like I had a black hole of anxiety in my stomach, practicing, worrying, rewriting and rehearsing, it was time to step on stage and deliver. Although still nervous, my message to “Get Uncomfortable” resonated with the audience.

The part I hadn’t practiced? What to do after I finished my TED talk. When I finished, I said thanks and walked off stage. I heard the audience applaud but I had no idea I’d gotten a standing ovation, until several people told me later.

Stay. Enjoy your standing ovation. You’ve earned it.


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