Becoming a TED Speaker

Nothing really prepares a speaker for the TED conference, an annual four-day meeting in Long Beach that's a marathon of science, technology, art, music and ideas, and has inspired a growing number of related programs. Experience usually means years of presenting to college students or professional colleagues in mostly 45- to 60-minute formats, often using bulleted (metaphor not entirely accidental) PowerPoint slides, behind the protective armor of a lectern.

Just as Bauhaus furniture needs hours of hand craftsmanship to get that machine-made look, a TED talk demands endless improvement to look natural.

TED speaking is the opposite. It's just 18 minutes, on a small circular stage, ideally without a lectern and without any notes. That's exposure. It's long enough to make it possible to condense the essence of a long-form keynote -- but that means painstaking selection of points and examples, not hurrying through the same ideas. And it's also too long to memorize verbatim and still deliver from the heart -- at least it was too long for me. So to me it meant memorizing a sequence of points, usually tied to images, for the right balance of logic and spontaneity.

Just as most Bauhaus furniture needs many hours of hand craftsmanship to get that machine-made look, a TED talk demands endless improvement to look natural. And to make things even more challenging, your fellow speakers include people like Roger Ebert, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and especially the National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen. Nicklen displayed some of the most amazing nature images I've ever seen. Diving with leopard seals reputed to attack humans in their waters, he charmed one female enough to be offered one freshly killed penguin after another -- projected in high definition 1900x1200 format. Try following that.

Fortunately for speakers, the audience is supportive. I worried about listeners, since my message was partly encouraging but also insistently cautionary, and TED is strong on technological enthusiasm. I spoke about unintended consequences, considering how even safety technology could lead to new disasters, but also suggesting that disasters can lead to breakthroughs if used creatively. In discussions before and after my TED talk, I discovered how many participants were familiar with failure in one form or another. My job was to add a long-term dimension to what people already understood.

The TED staff is also generous, patient and understanding of speaker jitters. It's a miracle that such a small group can create such a complex event. They help establish the right tone by sending the TED Commandments on a plaque -- worth reading by all speakers and all teachers.

My new book-in-progress has a chapter on the power of constraints. The challenge and strict time limit of the TED Talk genre eventually can bring out ideas that were formerly submerged or not even explicit. Eighteen minutes or so may also be the optimum time for presenting an idea memorably; TED 2011 seemed always to be running just at the edge of the brain's ability to enjoy a flood of new ideas, images, and sounds. My efforts to rise to TED's challenge were  a milestone on my continuing education.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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