Treating your talk as a gift
In a few weeks, Chris Anderson's much awaited book on TED Talks comes out. I've just finished reading it, and it's well worth a pre-order. When Chris took the leap 11 years ago and published the first online TED talks, he fundamentally changed the way we consume (and thus give) presentations. Today, it might seem obvious, but sharing these talks online the way he did was a very big leap, and a brilliant idea.
The bullet point, long endangered, was now dead. Even if you're not planning to give a TED talk any time soon, his book will give you a structure for how we present to groups today. It masterfully weaves and connects lessons from hundreds of talks, including speakers from every walk of life and just about everywhere in the world.
For the last 13 years, TED talks have punctuated my career. It's a privilege and a challenge to be given that platform, and I'm grateful (and a little awed) by the opportunity. The biggest concept in Chris's book is essential: Every talk is a gift.
Here's a quick look back at the five I've given…
My newest (and shortest) TED talk is still in the vaults. I had three minutes on-stage, and discovered that the 45-slide (one every three seconds) bangbang approach that I had practiced was going to be impossible. With two days to go, I called an audible, and spent 48 hours brainstorming and developing a new talk just before I gave it. I turned it into this blog post.
When you haven't grooved the mental pathways by giving a talk a hundred times, the experience of giving a talk to an esteemed audience is, at least for me, enervating and energizing at precisely the same time. I feel like I'm using my sinews and ligaments, not just my muscles, digging deep to remember what comes next, while simultaneously watching the clock and my audience.
This is a high risk/high reward approach. The best talks work when they open doors and turn on lights for the audience… it's about them, not the speaker's experience. A gift you took the time to create.
My favorite TED talk has never been featured on the TED site. It has no slides, and I gave it exactly one time. This is my version of flying without a net, of being totally present onstage, because it's fresh for me and for the audience. (The first riff is totally improvised, it occurred to me as I walked on stage). The rest of the talk represents more than a few hundred hours of research and practice.
I hope that every teacher and every parent has a chance to argue about this one, that's why I wrote Stop Stealing Dreams. The book is free and so is the talk, below:
My funniest TED talk wasn't even given at TED. I did it for Mark Hurst's fantastic GEL conference, and like the Stop Stealing Dreams talk, I have only given it once. It's hard to describe the mix of fear and thrill that happens when they're recording a practiced talk that's brand new to the world… sometimes it doesn't work, but in this case, the audience really came through for me–and yes, the audience matters. I'm not crazy about my haberdashery choices here, but that's what happens when you're busy focusing on something else.
My most popular TED talk is the first one I gave, in Monterey, before TED videos were a thing, when the audience was much smaller and I had no idea I'd be on camera (In Chris's book, Barry Schwartz remembers doing his talk in a t-shirt and shorts. Yes, it turns out that revolution is being televised). This is a marketing talk for an audience that actively resisted the idea of marketing, and it was very early in my career as a speaker. I think many of the ideas hold up well here, and I won't make any apologies about it being my first TED…
The best TED attendees are doing work that's worth sharing, that's worth talking about. My mission in this one (and the next) was to talk directly to the people in the room and say, "look, if it's worth devoting your life to, and it's worth changing the world for, perhaps it's also worth stepping up and saying, 'here, I made this' in a way that spreads."
And my most polished TED talk almost didn't work. Walking onstage, I discovered that Herbie Hancock's piano was sitting right where I was intending to stand. I'm a bit of a wanderer, but hey, it's Herbie Hancock. Meanwhile, the big clock is ticking, and there's not a lot of free time to consider options. A few minutes into the talk, you'll see that I pull out a light bulb. That bulb was actually a custom made magic trick, a 200 watt bulb that was supposed to light up when I touched it. There was no reason at all for this to happen, it was totally irrelevant to my talk, but I thought it would be fun, so I found a guy to build it for me. Alas, when I touched it, it didn't light up. Live theatre!
One thing I'm proud of is that many of these talks, particularly this one, make people uncomfortable. I'm trying to create tension between what's there and what could be, between what we do and what we could do. Thanks for watching. Even better, thanks for leading.
Time for you to give your talk. The stage doesn't matter, the gift does.