3 Things I Learned Speaking at TED

noah zandan TED 2

Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

In August of 2015, TED invited me to speak on the main stage at TED2016 in Vancouver. I was elated and honored, but I also realized I was in for a ride. TED, which stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design,” is a global set of non-profit conferences with the slogan, “Ideas Worth Spreading,” The cutting-edge TED Talks are delivered live in front of an audience of 2000 global leaders—including the likes of Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg — and filmed for distribution on TED.com.

I was asked to speak on the subject of How to speak like a visionary, and I would be presenting in the Lifehacks section of the program, along with great speakers like Adam Grant, Tim Urban, Brian Little, Kio Stark, and John McWhorter. My talk was a data-driven analysis of what differentiates the communication styles of the world’s top visionary leaders — firebrands like Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, and Richard Branson — from the average executive leader.

As the co-founder of a company that uses data and analytics to improve communications, I’m intimately familiar with the process of speech preparation, feedback, and coaching. But this was TED, one of the world’s largest platforms for public speaking. And this wasn’t a client. This was me.

So as I look back on the experience, I wanted to share the three lessons I learned about presentations from speaking at TED. And these are lessons that certainly apply to preparing for and delivering any speech, presentation or communication.

1. Learn how to handle feedback.

One of the joys of preparing a talk about talking, for people who are experts in talking, was that everyone had an opinion.

From my friends and family, to the experts and PhD’s on my team, to my company’s advisors, to the TED team of editors and coaches, I got feedback from over 55 people on my concept, script, and delivery.

And some of the feedback was incredibly helpful. The longer you’ve been working on something and the more intimate you are with the material, the more difficult it is to step back and really see it, so I appreciated feedback about bigger picture things, like where to add more substance, where to boost the research, and how to bring certain examples to life.

One important lesson I learned about feedback is that timing is critical. No matter how trusted the advisor or how talented the coach, the night before your talk is not the right time to ask someone to critique your script. At a certain point, those last-minute changes do more harm than good — for your script and your stomach.

And the last minute isn’t the only time it’s okay to avoid (or ignore) feedback. Over the eight-month process I learned that while some feedback is crucial, your speech will become muddled, impersonal and inauthentic if you tailor it to satisfy every single critique. Sometimes, it’s more important to filter out the noise, lock down the script, and own the preparation yourself.

2. Know how to rehearse

Preparing for a TED talk is a fairly structured eight-month process (in case you’re curious, I’ll outline the calendar in the notes[1]). While it’s impractical to expect to devote the same time to every speaking engagement, the truth the TED schedule highlights is that the best communications take time to create and time to prepare.

As one of our coaches, Briar Goldberg, says, “I don’t care how good you think you are, you can’t wing it.”

Behind closed doors in the speaker’s green room, even Al Gore was practicing like crazy, debating every word with his on-site communications team and refining his delivery right up to Go Time.

But just how does one go about preparing? Every speaker will have favorite exercises and strategies, but here are four tried-and-true principles that served me best:

  1. Talk the talk: We write in one style, but speak in another. So as you write your speech, read it out loud as many times as possible to make sure it’s in your speaking voice rather than your writing voice.
  2. Stand up: Non-verbal communication makes up for at least two-thirds of a speaker’s success, so it’s important to rehearse the way you’ll be presenting. Practice on your feet. No matter how straight you sit, or how much coffee you’ve had, it’s impossible to muster the same energy and passion from a chair.
  3. Power through distractions: There’s always that one guy who forgets to turn off his cell phone, and everyone would blame that guy if the incessant ringing derailed your speech. But it doesn’t have to. The more familiar you are with your talk, the more likely you’ll be able to keep on going no matter what distractions arise. Rehearsing alone in a quiet space is great, but once you think you’ve got it down, start changing the game: can you deliver the talk to your friends? Can you deliver at two times the speed? Backwards?
  4. Memorize in chunks: If you’re memorizing your speech (the preferred method at TED), break it up into small blocks rather than memorizing from start to finish. First, our brains process smaller bits of information better, so it’ll be easier to memorize 10 small chunks than one long one. Second, if you do find yourself distracted or tripping up on stage, it’s easier to jump to the next block and start over than it is to find your place in a long string of memorized text.

3. Balance preparation time between content and delivery.

Most speakers dedicate over 75% of their time to drafting and revising their content. It’s easier to iterate and easier to get feedback. Often, it feels less personal, too.

But in reality, audience research indicates that the taste you leave with your audience — even an audience as knowledgeable as the TED audience — is less about what you say, and more about how you say it. TED allows notes or notecards (no teleprompters), but we know from our research that any sort of crutch can significantly detract from nonverbal communications, such as eye contact, that allow a speaker to build a relationship with the audience. So I focused on locking down my content and leaving myself enough time to prepare, ensuring I could be confident enough in the material that I could leave the notes behind.

That way, once I got on stage, I could focus on building that relationship, interacting with the audience rather than simply talking at them.

 noah-zandan-TED-2.jpgPhoto: Bret Hartman / TED

Those are the three biggest lessons I learned in the countdown to those few crucial minutes onstage. But what about the overall experience of speaking at TED? Another speaker from my session, Tim Urban, hit the nail on the head in his blog, Wait but Why:

“The fear and dread of public speaking is almost always much worse than the actual experience of doing it.”

Speaking at TED was terrifying, exhausting, exhilarating, and glorious. I’ve gained much greater empathy for speakers — like many of our clients — who give talks to large audiences on a regular basis, and a greater appreciation for the power of candid feedback and great coaching. TED may be upheld as a pinnacle of public speaking, but I’m confident that the lessons I learned there are applicable to all settings, from company presentations and university lectures, to stadium-sized auditoriums overflowing with visionaries.


TED Preparation and Coaching Calendar:

  • 8 months before TED – Invitation to speak at TED
  • 6 months before TED – Script outline with TED team
  • 4 months before TED – Full script development with edits from TED editorial team
  • 3 months before TED – Video/In person readout with TED team
  • 2 months before TED – second video rehearsal
  • 1 month before TED – content finalization
  • 4 days before TED – Onsite dress rehearsal
  • Pre-TED talk – continued rehearsal with TED’s onsite coaches