TED talks: a speaker’s-eye view


Back in February, I asked you to tell me about your favourite TED talks. I had been invited to give a TEDx talk about my year of reading the world at an event organised by Procter & Gamble and I was keen to pick up some tips. It was very useful to hear about the speakers you found particularly inspiring.

In March, I flew out to Geneva to give my talk and had a wonderful time, appearing alongside such inspiring people as former Olympian Derek Redmond, sculptor Alex Chinneck and Luvuyo Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s great-grandson.

Although our talks from that day were filmed, they weren’t posted online. However, a few weeks after the event, I got an email from the organisers with some exciting news: the European director of TED, Bruno Giussani, had asked to see the footage of my talk. Not long after that, I spoke to Bruno on the phone and he invited me to speak at TEDGlobal>London this September.

That was when the hard work really began. Because of the precise timings of TED events, I had to get a draft of my talk to him in a matter of weeks – and find a way to cut the presentation I was used to giving (which can sometimes last as long as an hour) down to just eight minutes.

This was a new experience for me as I never normally write out what I’m going to say, preferring to talk without notes from a range of visual prompts. Still, I stuck to the brief and a few drafts flew back and forth between Bruno and me as we worked on tightening and focusing the presentation.

In the end, eight minutes proved a little too restrictive, so we settled on 12 minutes. We also agreed that I would do without my usual visual-prompt slides and hold up some of the books from the quest at relevant points instead. This meant that I would have to do what I had never done before and memorise my presentation pretty much word for word, finding a way to deliver it that hopefully wouldn’t make me sound like a robot.

Practice was the only way. And so from mid-August onwards, I went over my talk almost every day. I repeated it in the shower and in front of the mirror. I set a timer on my computer and rehearsed delivering it within the time limit over and over, until I stopped feeling stressed by the numbers counting down. I muttered it to myself as I walked down the street (I got some funny looks).

In early September, I had a rehearsal over Skype with Bruno and his colleague, Katerina. They stared out of the computer screen at me as I delivered my talk. It was quite a challenge to keep smiling and enthusiastic in the face of such intense scrutiny, but they seemed pleased. Barring a few last-minute tweaks to the opening, they thought it was ready to go.

The day before the event, I attended a rehearsal at the venue, the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London’s Green Park. I stood in a room facing around ten members of the TED team, including two performance coaches, and gave my talk. The team was generous and warm, applauding enthusiastically when I had finished. The coaches shared some advice on eye contact and movement on stage, as well as flagging up a few phrases that I could emphasise more carefully.

That evening I went with the other speakers, among them social progress expert Michael Green and Norwegian journalist Anders Fjellberg, to a dinner at the house of Bond producer and photography collector Michael Wilson. It was a great chance to unwind, mingle and reassure each other about how our talks would go – like me, many of them had found the experience of letting go of their normal speaking props a challenge.

The day of the event was a blur of make-up, microphones and meeting people. Backstage, most of us sat without saying very much, going over our talks in our heads and nibbling nervously on the snacks the team brought to the green room.

My presentation was in the second half, so I sat in the audience for the first session, willing on the people I’d chatted to the day before.

Then the interval passed and the speaker two slots before me was onstage. Then it was the speaker before me. Then me.

I heard Bruno announce my name, took a deep breath and walked forward into the red circle. The timer began the countdown and, well, you can see below how it went from there…

Photo: Courtesy of TED

28 responses

  1. I ran into your TED talk by accident a few days ago (I’d heard of your project but never read anything more about it) and I thought your speech was great. I only wish I could’ve heard the hour-long version as this is a subject that would no doubt be interesting to listen to. Good job in any case!

  2. Brilliant presentation!! You’re amazing project continues to fascinate me. My first opportunity to hear you speak, as opposed to the blogging, your warmth, passion and gratitude towards the collaborative nature of the endeavor truly raises this story beyond the academic. As Niina replied, we need the hour long version now.

  3. Have been following your blog for a while as I am passionate about reading for 75 years ! And communicating a la TED on any platform! School, stage, courtyard, room,a hospital…
    Had no idea TED talks were honed and polished to deliver the gems i hoard and cherish

  4. I saw this by chance a couple of days ago (I think someone tweeted it) and wow, I was so impressed!! I keep thinking, did she have to memorise this entire talk? And now I know. 😉

    But big congratulations on it! So eloquent and confident and interesting!

    • Ha! Thanks – yes. There’s more of a safety net now as though don’t stream them online live anymore, but they still require a level of fluency and accurate timing that you simply can’t get by winging it on the day. I didn’t memorise it verbatim – some of the sentences always came out slightly differently – but I knew what the content of each one was before I spoke it!

  5. Congratulations, Ann! Great presentation. I believe that one day your project will become a special subject at schools and universities. Greetings from Azerbaijan.

  6. Hey Ann, I found your blog through your Ted talk. You gave a great talk and your project is really amazing and very inspirational! Will use your list of books to widen my horizon and was particularly pleased to find that you have written about Valeria Lyiselli:) Greetings from Denmark:)

  7. I had no idea that preparing for a TED talk was so long, involved, and complicated, but now, thanks to your detailed and honest description, I will never again take a TED talk for granted. Yours was so smooth, so natural, and so intriguing that I would not have guessed what went into it! We translators and our foreign authors are especially thrilled that your reading the world project has met with such enthusiasm. Keep it up!

  8. I have enjoyed this compact version of your talk as much as I did the fuller version in Edinburgh in August. I am not convinced about TED,, though, as the art of making a presentation to a live audience is different from the art of speaking to a camera. This is not a criticism of you but of the format within which you had to operate. Very best wishes from Scotland.

  9. Wonderful presentation. Started reading again after quite a bit of time and your talk has got me thinking outside the box for the next read. Thank you!

  10. You’re whole talk was wonderful, but your closing statements were powerful! Even though I’ve been following your blog for a few years, I feel like I’ve also finally noticed the reading rut I and other readers can get into. Sure, we have our favorite authors and genres, but sometimes it feels so… similar. I’m looking to be more diverse in my reading habits this new year, so I’ll browse through your list for inspiration!

  11. When I’m on my elliptical I usually try to watch something educational and sometimes turn to TED talks and there you were! I really enjoyed your adventure traveling the world through books and the learning of tales that are alike those I know in the English language yet in different settings. Sometimes we wonder what people are saying in another language around the dinner table or at the game but in so many ways we have the same desires and hopes. So thanks for sharing and even more venturing on a unique adventure that matched so well your God given gifts in writing, reading and encouraging.

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