Behind the Scenes: My TED Talks Experience

TED By Numbers

Earlier this year I had the great fortune of speaking on the mainstage at the TED2016 conference, surrounded by some of the most innovative thinkers, leaders and speakers in the country. Since then, I’ve had a ton of conversations about my TED Talk with my family, friends, colleagues, and clients.

So we thought it would be fun to offer a deeper view into the experience, from the selection process to what it’s really like to stand in that daunting red circle.

How were you selected?

My selection process dates back over two years. In early 2014, I partnered with the education division of TED, called TED-Ed, to create a lesson called the Language of Lying. Fortunately, with some great help from the TED-Ed team, the lesson has proven to be quite popular, with almost 4 million views to date.

Based on the success of the TED-Ed lesson, I started a conversation with the TED team about a broader application of our unique analytics to another “communication situation.” After going back and forth on ideas for a few months, we landed on a great one (more to come on that later), and the official request to speak came in August 2015.

How did you pick your topic?

Like so much of the TED experience, I received a lot of guidance and input from the content team at TED as I searched for a topic. I worked closely with TED to brainstorm an idea that we both thought would be relevant, interesting, and applicable for the diverse TED audience.

One of the greatest benefits of the research we do is that it is very widely applicable, and we always have plenty of ideas we’re researching. The downside is that going into depth takes a ton of research, analysis, and preparation time.

Very few people know this, but I wasn’t always planning to speak about visionary communications. Here is my original topic:

“How to improve arguments: how to use language and non-verbal communication to improve the way we handle disagreements in our intimate and family relationships, work environment, and friendships.”

After a few months of preparation and research, I went to the TED office in New York City to present my draft talk in front of about 20 members of the TED team and a few other TED2016 speakers who were rehearsing on the same day.

The in-person rehearsal was, frankly, a struggle for me. I got quite a bit of feedback on the direction I was taking the talk, and, through the next round of rehearsals, TED continued to push my thinking and evolve my topic.

This presented one of my greatest challenges in the TED experience. When and where to take feedback.

After another round of edits and another video rehearsal, we decided the talk just didn’t feel right, so we switched the topic completely.

The shift was very difficult.

This was a talk like I have never given before, on a huge stage, and filmed with every word going into the permanent record. And such a major change came as a blow to the confidence I’d built up in the months I’d already spent preparing and rehearsing.

But, despite my own nerves and frustrations, this was an opportunity to trust the TED curation and coaching process, and to really think about what the audience (both live and on could take away from my point of view.

After another round of discussions and brainstorming we landed on a topic that TED and I were very excited about:

“How to speak like a visionary: using language to motivate people and change the world.”

Fortunately, we had a ton of internal research on the subject, so my analytics and coaching team, with the help of the TED Editorial team, was able to help me move quickly to prepare the new talk. But I will say, I now have a much greater sense of empathy for our clients as they prepare for their own public speaking engagements.

How did you go about preparing?

The TED preparation journey is a long one. Anyone who thinks they can get up there and “wing it” is not a fit for TED. I’m a data guy, so it should be no surprise to you that, as I prepared for my 10-minute talk, I kept careful track of the numbers:


All in all, I dedicated over 300 hours to writing and preparing my 10-minute presentation. And, after fully submitting myself to the TED process I learned just how tough it is to give a world class talk. The greatest takeaway form this experience was learning how balance content preparation versus delivery presentation. From a speaker’s perspective, it’s easy to fall into a trap of sweating through scripts get every word perfect, but from the audience’s perspective, it’s more about the energy, passion, and engagement a speaker brings to the stage.

What did it feel like to speak at TED?

In the moments leading up to my TED Talk, and the days and weeks immediately following, I gave a standard answer: Speaking at TED is an exciting and overwhelming experience. I felt both extremely lucky and extremely intimidated.

I was being honest, but general.

In truth, I was still processing the experience. However, in the months since I gave my talk, I’ve had time to reflect more deeply on the experience, considering what has stuck with me most, and what common threads contribute to the incredible success of the TED organization.

TED is a prestigious platform, with consistently interesting speakers and a riveted, supportive audience.

So what’s the magic of TED?

Here’s my theory: Everyone who speaks at TED is obsessed with what they are doing.

These obsessions have inspired the persistence, innovation, and excellence that have prepared each speaker to present on the TED stage. These obsessions have inspired the TED team to create an amazing and fascinating platform of free content.

As an analytics person, if I had to break it down into a formula it would look like this:


One of the biggest pleasures of the experience was getting to know the other speakers, who are definitely obsessed.

Take photographer Stephen Wilkes, for example. If you ask him about a single photograph, he’ll launch into an amazing 15-minute story about exactly how he got the shot. Or Joe Gebbia, designer and co-founder of Airbnb: his passion was more than evident in the six variations he’d prepared of what turned out to be an incredible talk on how design influenced the creation of Airbnb. Or Adam Grant, whose workplace productivity research has evolved into an obsession with helping others achieve long-term success. Or Tim Urban, whose obsession with complex, long-form writing online directed him to create one of my obsessions:

Getting to know this group was one of the highlights of my TED experience, and there’s definitely a bond with fellow speakers that develops through the shared experience of giving a TED Talk. Many of us have stayed in touch, and the organizers of TED are consciously helping create a network of previous TED speakers.

It’s all driven by obsession — the ideas that are shared, the TED Talks, the whole experience.

TED’s slogan is “Ideas worth spreading,” but the beauty of this platform is that it attracts speakers who’ve nurtured those ideas and grown them — through energy, research, and laser focus — into obsessions.

This kind of obsession may be underrated as a key factor in success, but it’s the element that enables TED speakers to entwine big ideas with their personal stories. It’s the element that truly engages the audience, inviting them to participate in the message and to take a little bit of that obsession away with them once the conference is over.

It’s that contagious focus and passion that make these speakers’ ideas truly worth spreading.

And it’s not just the speakers — the staff is obsessed, too.

What TED does for you, as a speaker, is help you tell those stories, to spread those ideas. From the editors to the coaches, TED’s staff is incredibly helpful and involved in every step of the way. Kelly Stoetzel, TED’s content director, personally helped me work through at least 65 versions of my talk. And while Chris Anderson, who runs the show, could have spent all his time at the conference entertaining high-profile guests, he was more likely to be found in the rehearsal room with speakers, working through sticky or controversial portions of talks until the wee hours of the morning.

Ask me again: What was it like to be at TED?

What I learned, ultimately, is that the people at TED — the speakers, the staff, the audience — have wildly different backgrounds and fields of expertise. They’re not all celebrities or actors; they’re not all Mensa-level geniuses. But there is one trait that links each and every one of these dynamic characters: they’re all obsessed. And as for me, well, maybe you can guess.