Speaker Studio
 

So you wanna be a TEDx Speaker?


Great! There’s nothing more exhilarating than standing on a red dot & sharing your big idea.

Below is my step-by-step guide on how to become a TEDx speaker.

It includes all the insider secrets that I’ve learned after years of working in the TEDx world and interacting with tens of thousands of wannabe TEDx speakers.

Once you’re confirmed to speak at TEDx, I’ll be waiting right here to coach you.

But before we get to the guide, a disclaimer:
I am not a TED staff member & cannot speak on behalf of TED or TEDx Organizers. This guide is simply a compendium of my experience.

 

Step 1. Decide What to Speak About

 

Wanting to be a TEDx Speaker is not a good reason to speak at TEDx. I know it sounds paradoxical, but you must have something to say. An idea worth spreading!

Ideas worth spreading can be big or small.

  • Schools kill creativity - Ken Robinson on the future of education.

  • Embrace vulnerability - Brené Brown on human connection.

  • Plan for the very long term - Ari Wallach on business strategy.

  • Duration doesn’t equal impact - David Baron on solar eclipses.

  • Leaving a gang is easy; staying out is hard - Gerardo Lopez on MS-13.

You don’t need to have alllllllllll the details worked out when you apply, but you should have a basic idea of what you want to speak about.

Here are some questions that’ll help you determine what to speak about:

  • What’s my specific area of expertise?

  • What makes my work / life experience unique?

  • What do my friends find interesting about my work / life experience?

  • What do I wish people understood about my work / life experience?

  • How is my work making a difference in the world?

  • What is the talk that only I could give?


If you’re really stuck, let’s do a Power Hour and I’ll help you figure it out.

 
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Step 2. Find a TEDx Event

 

Great, you have an idea worth spreading and you’re ready to find a TEDx event. First, there’s one thing I need you to understand:

Not all TEDx events are created equal.

TED licenses folks around the globe to hold events in their style. Per TED, “A TEDx event is a local gathering where live TED-like talks and videos previously recorded at TED conferences are shared with a community. TEDx events are fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis.”

Because they’re fully planned and coordinated independently, TEDx events vary wildly.

  • Some TEDx events have 100 attendees, some have 5,000.

  • Some TEDx events have free tickets, some charge $250 a person.

  • Some TEDx events are in Opera Houses, some are in art galleries.

  • Some TEDx events hire professional speaker coaches, some don’t.

  • Some TEDx events have a $50,000 marketing budget, some have an eager team of volunteers.

It’s this variety that makes TEDx awesome! No two events are the same.

And to make things even more complicated, there are different types of TEDx events -- standard, university, youth, ED, library, business, salons, and so on.

But here’s why I’m telling you this: If you’re serious about speaking at TEDx, you should do a tiny bit of research first and then apply to TEDx events that suit your goals. For example:

  • Maybe the nearest TEDx has a university license (like TEDxUSC) and they only accept student, faculty, and alumni speakers. If that describes you, perfect. If not, look for a different event.

  • Maybe you dream of speaking to 150 people in an intimate room, but the nearest TEDx is in a stadium. Look for a different event.

  • Maybe you want to speak about space entrepreneurship, but the nearest TEDx is an ED event (like TEDxPhiladelphiaED). ED events focus on the future of education, so your space entrepreneurship talk is a bad match. Look for a different event.

Bottom line -- don’t waste your time applying for a TEDx event that you’re not qualified for. And don’t apply to a TEDx event and get accepted, only to find out that it’s not what you wanted!

Research TEDx events first, then apply.

But don’t use research as an excuse to procrastinate. I’m not saying research TEDx events for a month; I’m saying research on a Tuesday afternoon and then move on with your life. I see you, master procrastinators! I know your sneaky ways.

 
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Here’s a step-by-step guide to researching TEDx events:

 

1. Go to the TEDx Homepage.

2. Type in the name of your location & click enter. For this example, let’s use California - not too broad, not too specific:

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There are so many advantages to speaking at a TEDx event in your hometown, region, state, or province. (That’s right, province. Welcome, my Canadian friends.) You won’t have to pay for travel, you’ll get extra TLC from your TEDx organizers, and you’ll become a part of the local TEDx community.

3. Below the map are upcoming events sorted by date:

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You’ll notice that below the name of each event is its license type. To reiterate, if you’re not a “youth,” don’t put a Youth event on your shortlist.

4. You can click on each event for more information:

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5. When you find events that interest you, search for them on YouTube and Flickr. All TEDx events are required to put their videos on YouTube and their photos on Flickr. It’ll help you get a sense of their vibe -- what the venue is like, how big the audience is, video production quality, etc. Obviously, if this is a brand new TEDx event, you won’t find anything yet.

6. Make a shortlist of TEDx events you’re interested in.

 

Step 3. Audition, Apply, or Pitch

 

Alright, so you’ve found a few events that suit your goals!

Different TEDx events have different methods for finding speakers. The most common are:

  • Online calls for speaker applications

  • Public nominations - yes, you can nominate yourself

  • Auditions - either in person or submitted online as a video

Look at the websites & social media accounts for the TEDx events you’re interested in. Do they have a call for entries, nominations, or auditions? If yes, apply!

If not, you can email the TEDx event or organizer directly and pitch your talk to them. Do not do this unless there is no online speaker application.

 
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Why Most TEDx Pitches Fail

 

I’ll use the term “pitch” generically, but the advice below is useful whether you’re applying online, nominating yourself, applying to audition, or emailing the event directly.

1. You focus too much on your resume or CV

“Dear TEDx Organizer, here’s a long list of my credentials. Let me speak. Thanks, Bye.” Do you know how many successful people reach out to TEDx Organizers on a daily basis? A lot.

Your long list of credentials only matters if you have something interesting to say!

So first and foremost, what’s your big idea?

2. Your idea is generic or cliché

Even if an idea feels fresh to you, there’s a good chance it’s cliché in the larger TEDx world. Download my free guide, “The Top 10 TEDx Clichés and How to Avoid Them”. Read it before you apply.

3. You insist on speaking on a specific date

“I want to speak at your event that’s in two weeks!” Great, but the organizers have been working on that lineup for a year.

When you find a TEDx event that interests you, don’t get married to a particular event date, especially if it’s soon.

This is one case where it helps to be generic -- instead of saying, “I’d like to speak at TEDxABQ on October 20th,” just say “I’d like to speak at TEDxABQ.”

Unless you have the most timely topic in the world (hint: you probably don’t), there is no real advantage to speaking ASAP. And waiting a year or two so that your work & research can mature is often a huge advantage.

Patience, grasshopper...

4. You fixate on the event theme

TEDx events have broad themes, such as “Ideas in Action,” “Humankind,” or “New Frontiers.” They’re purposefully broad to encompass a wide range of topics.

It’s the curator’s job to curate a speaker lineup that suits the theme -- not the speaker’s job to shoehorn their idea into the event theme.

In other words, do not - I repeat do not - change your topic just to better suit the theme of a particular event. I’ve seen many an email that says, “Hey, I saw that your theme is Truth & Dare, and I want to speak about how to tell your truth & be more daring!” That reeks of desperation.

If you’re interested in an event, apply regardless of what their current theme is. Maybe it’ll work, and maybe the curator will want you for their next event.

 

How to successfully pitch a TEDx Talk

 

So, here’s the #1 thing I want you to remember from this page:

TEDx Talks are idea-centric. You’re not pitching yourself to give a talk. You’re pitching the idea & then explaining why you’re the right person to talk about it.

With that in mind, here’s what you should do in an application or pitch:

1. Lead with 1-3 sentences about your “big idea.”

Be specific. Most applicants say something like, “I want to talk about virtual reality.” That could mean 1,000 different things.


What specifically do you want to talk about?

If you can’t answer this question, you shouldn’t be giving a TEDx Talk (sorry, not sorry).


A better pitch is something like, “I want to talk about how we use virtual reality in our hospital to improve patient recovery. When we place a burn victim in a VR simulation of a snowy field, their brain is tricked into believing that their body is cold. It reduces their pain by 38% and we can lower their dose of mood-altering drugs.” Bingo!

2. Write 3-5 sentences on your background & experience as it’s relevant to your idea / topic.

I don’t care if you have a Masters Degree in Biochemical Engineering if your talk is about foster parenting. It’s irrelevant. But I do care that you’ve adopted three special needs children through the foster system.

Curate your bio so that it’s clear to the TEDx Organizer why you are the right person to give this talk.

3. If you have a well-worn topic, explain how your angle is new or unique.

A simple search on YouTube for “TEDx” + “your topic” will tell you if it’s common. If it is, don’t fret. Just explain what makes your talk unique. Often, it’s your experience, research, stories, or examples.

4. If your topic is especially timely or relevant to the local audience, say so.

For example, if your big idea is about forest management, do mention how wildfire ravaged the local community last year.

But don’t try to make your topic seem timely just for the sake of it - you’ll come off as clueless or desperate.

5. Include links, but only if they show that you’re a good fit.

It’s better to have no links than crappy ones.

  • Cool website that shows off your work? Link to it.

  • Landing page that says, “Coming soon!” Skip it.

  • Glowing article about your research? Link to it.

  • Casual mention in the local paper that you volunteered on Thanksgiving? Skip it.

  • 240,000 Twitter followers? Link to it.

  • 240 Twitter followers? Skip it.

  • A video of your keynote speech at a professional conference? Link to it.

  • A choppy 2-hour long Facebook live video from a local town hall meeting where 86 minutes into it you read a short prepared statement? I suppose it proves you’re capable of public speaking in the sense that there is sound coming out of your mouth. But it makes you look worse than if the organizer was left to their own imagination. Skip it.

6. And finally, don’t be cocky or pushy.

Some organizers might disagree with me on this, but I’d rather work with a nice speaker who has a decent pitch than with an asshole who has a great pitch.

Organizers aren’t just deciding whether to put your talk on stage; they’re deciding whether they want to work with you for months leading up to the event. So be polite.

Good luck!

 
 

Yay, I was accepted!

Congrats! Do you want speaker coaching?

In the meantime, check out my blog for tips now that you’re a TEDx Speaker, including:

7 questions to ask your TEDx organizer

How long should my TEDx Talk be?

Pre-event marketing tips

 
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 Why was I rejected? :(

 

Oh no! It’s just like high school prom all over again!

My advice: don’t panic and don’t lash out. I’ve seen many emails along the lines of “F*ck you! TEDx is stupid and everyone knows it!” Which makes me wonder, “Why did you apply to something that’s so obviously stupid?” Hmmm. Writing such an email will only ensure that you never get accepted. The TEDx community is small; if you’re a dick to one TEDx organizer, word will get around.

There are many reasons why you may have been rejected or indefinitely waitlisted -- some are within your control, some are not. You can politely ask the TEDx event how to improve your application, and they might respond, depending on how busy they are.


Here are the most common reasons for rejection:


Probability

One of the TEDx events I work with has 12 speakers slots and they receive about 2,000 applications. In other words, only 1 in every 167 speakers is accepted. Wow. In this case, you can improve your application and/or apply to a different event.

Curation

Curating a TEDx event isn’t as simple as choosing the best speakers that apply. Imagine that five amazing speakers auditioned talks about dinosaurs. If you only have 12 speaker slots, it would be pretty weird if 5 out of 12 talks were about dinosaurs, right? Unless you live in Jurassic Park. Then fine, that works.

This is a common reason why speakers get waitlisted. It’s possible that the curator loved your talk, but that it’s too similar to another one at the event. In this case, you can wait or apply to a different TEDx event.

Event History

Let’s say you auditioned to speak about healthy school lunches. But just last year, the TEDx event you auditioned for had a talk about healthy school lunches. Your talk could be amazing, and you still probably wouldn’t be accepted. In this case, you can wait or apply to a different TEDx event.

Business Pitches

If it sounds like you’re selling your company, organization, product, or services, you’ll be rejected. TED has a no business pitch policy. But this is easy to fix.

Hell, there are thousands of great TED talks that showcase businesses and products without going into pitch territory, like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, or this one. It’s totally doable. If you think you were rejected because you were pitching your business or product, let’s do a Power Hour before you re-apply. I’ll help you re-shape your talk so that it’s not a pitch.

Pseudoscience

If your talk is about crystals, pyramid power, reiki, energy fields, free energy, perpetual motion machines, alchemy, time travel, vaccines as a cause of autism, or any other claim not supported by science, it will be rejected.

You can’t improve or apply your way out of this - TEDx events do not accept pseudoscientific talks, period. If they do, TED will revoke their license.

Your audition, application, or pitch just wasn’t that great ¯ \_(ツ)_/¯

This is the most common reason for rejection. Revisit my suggestions above for How to Successfully Pitch a TEDx Talk .

And if you want extra help, let’s do a Power Hour before you re-apply. I’ll interview you about your topic, and we can find a wonderful, specific, unique angle that’ll make you shine.

It probably feels like a huge setback that you were rejected. I get it. But doing a TEDx talk as soon as possible isn’t the goal here. The goal is to give an incredible talk that you’re proud of. If that means waiting a year or two and improving your talk, so what?


Like everything in life, persistence is the key.

If you want to be a TEDx speaker, and you keep trying, you will be accepted.

 
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FAQs

 

Do I have to be a professional speaker to speak at TEDx?

I’ll defer to TED on this one: “A TEDx event is not a platform for professional speakers, such as motivational speakers and professional life coaches. Its purpose is to give a platform to those who don’t often have one.”

In other words, no. Being a professional speaker can actually count against you.

Are TEDx speakers paid?

No. It’s a TED rule. You can complain about this, or you can recognize the fact that giving a great TEDx talk can open doors to tens of thousands of dollars or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased business from additional speaking gigs, book deals, product exposure, and so on. Your choice :)

Can I pay to be a TEDx speaker?

No. It’s a TED rule. Isn’t it nice that some institutions are still meritocratic?

Can I organize a TEDx and speak at it?

No. It’s a TED rule. Stop trying to be sneaky!

 
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