Want to Give a TEDx Talk? Here’s What You Need to Know.
My guest is Ajit Mathew George. He is the Organizer of TEDx Wilmington in Delaware. Over the last seven years, he has had 29 different TEDx events.
Ajit, welcome. I’m so happy to talk to you.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
We’re going to talk about a subject that is very near and dear to my heart, which is TEDx Talks. One of the first things I want to ask you is TEDx promotes themselves as ideas worth spreading. I want to ask you why are ideas worth spreading important today?
Today, more than at anytime, ideas matter because there is so much unfiltered opinion in this world. People share opinions as if they’re facts when in fact it is purely a judgment call on their part. For that purpose to be able to listen to an idea worth spreading in five minutes, ten minutes, twelve minutes, and no more than eighteen minutes using a TEDx curated format, it makes a world of a difference. What we need is more sources of information and knowledge. In a world where there are less newspapers, less curated news, these kinds of ideas give hope and potentiality for people to have useful information to make some decisions.
People often say to me they want to do a TEDx talk. When I asked them why, a lot of people tell me it’s because they want it on their resume. Do you think that’s a good reason to do a TEDx talk?
That’s a horrible reason, and if people say that to me, that’s almost a guarantee that I would never pick them to give a TEDx talk. It’s okay to put it on a resume, but that’s not the reason to do it. The reason to give a TEDx talk is because you have come up with an idea, a created an idea or are able to share an idea that potentially could be transformational. It doesn’t have to cure cancer, but it needs to have some impact to some people around the world and it needs to be interesting and thought‑provoking.
[Tweet “A great storyteller with a great idea is the best TEDx Talk.”]
One of the things that you and I have talked about is the importance of TEDx Talk is really one idea. I have done a TEDx Talk and it was fine. Looking back on it, the next time I do a TEDx Talk, I would narrow it even further because I realized in hindsight, I had three or four ideas. Can you talk a little bit about the power of having one idea in a TEDx Talk?
We often ask people who are particularly smart and well educated, “What are the different things that you would like to talk about?” and people will list four or five ideas. Then what I would say is “If there was only one idea you could share in the world today, what would that be?” People struggled with that one idea. What I say to people is “You can come back and give additional TEDX Talks.” Learn how to have the focus of having one message that you can leave behind. If you left no other message in this world, what would that be? That requires a disciplined approach of making sure people can prioritize which one idea do they want to be associated with first and then if they get another opportunity, they can give a second talk. One of the greatest challenges of training, coaching, advising, and curating speakers is making sure that it is only one idea and not more than one idea.
Why does that matter? Why does having only one idea matter in a TEDx Talk?
For people to listen to the talks, one of the great challenges of listening is that if you have multiple ideas and given the fact that no TEDx Talk can be over eighteen minutes, you ended up not having enough time to go into depth into more than one idea, and so what you get is fragments of ideas. Fragments, like anything, never can be put into a puzzle. A good puzzle needs to be completed. I would say that having a short talk of that is what a TEDx Talk is, requires you to be able to complete the jigsaw puzzle of that one idea in one talk.
How important is storytelling to TEDx Talks?
A great storyteller with a great idea is the best TEDx Talk. Because storytelling in many ways is our classic way of communicating. Before there was a written word, when they were just campfires, how we shared information was storytelling. We have lost the art of storytelling because we don’t need it to communicate or share stories or leave our legacy behind. We are now learning, again, partially through TEDx, but the other kinds of mediums to learn how to tell stories. Stories need to be entertaining. They need to be interesting. They need to be informational and they need to be hopefully factual because then it can stand on its own.
Not everyone is a natural storyteller, so how does someone who’s not a natural storyteller but they might have a great idea. How do you help people bridge that gap between not necessarily being a great storyteller but having a great idea to do a TEDx Talk?
Chris Anderson, who is the Head of TED, wrote a on how to give a good TED Talk. It’s TED Talks. This book, because he is the Head of TED and curates all of the TED global events, is a required reading if you get chosen as a speaker, but there is a section called Throughline, a whole chapter on throughline, a word that perhaps I wasn’t as familiar until I read the book. He specifically makes the point that there needs to be a throughline to your story from beginning to end. That’s number one.
Number two is rehearsing. For most people who don’t give talks all the time, particularly at TEDx Talk, the rehearsal is what surprised them because there are no notes and there is not a podium and there’s not a teleprompter. Learning how to give that talk without notes requires repetition and focus and being sure that you have gotten the message right. Generally most speakers would not dispute this. After they give a TEDx Talk, they say they will agree with my statement that a good TEDx Talk requires 50 hours of rehearsal. That’s a lot of rehearsal time. That’s a lot of repetition and you got to find dogs, cats, friends, family, and others to listen to your talk in the process.
When you come to us, among the many requirements is that you have to share your talk twice at the minimum in video format with us before you come on our stage, so we get to know your talk well beforehand and we have a curating committee that’ll give feedback to the people who are giving the talk so they get the benefit of feedback. We get to see. They write an outline upfront so that we see that before they give the first video. The combination of repetition, combination of getting feedback, combination of practicing, and also the distillation process of that idea and so people often start with thinking they know what they want to say, they know what the title of the talk is, invariably two weeks before the event when we are ready to go to print on a program guide, that title will change because the talk has evolved. What we encourage people to do is to have the talk evolve as their ideas evolve.
I can so relate to what you’re saying again, because I had done a TEDx Talk. It is far harder than people think it is. It is not like giving another speech.
It surely isn’t in part because you have to rehearse, you have to video it in our case and send it to us. You have to get the feedback. We can tell by the second video, which is generally due three weeks or two weeks before the event if they are ready for a talk. Our invitations always are conditional that we can withdraw the invitation at anytime. That’s done deliberately because we want to make sure people have the ability to know that they will not go automatically on the stage just because they got invited. They got to go through the pieces and prove to us they made significant progress from when they applied to the time they give the talk.
I would think that that’s one of the reasons you’re highly successful in your TEDx.
Success is a function of showcasing the speaker to bring the best out of them. We are only as good as our speakers. It’s like going to a restaurant. You want the chef to be the very best at that night that you are at that restaurant. The idea is to bring the best out of the speakers, so we are orchestrating behind the scenes to get the speaker to deliver the very best talk they are possibly able to give. That’s what we try to do with each one of our speakers.
Do you ever recommend that people have a speech coach for a TEDx Talk?
If it were up to me, everyone would have a speech coach of their choice because some people work with men, some work with women, some work with people who are top-notch professionals, others work with people who are life coaches. It doesn’t matter to me because if you don’t have a coach, the best example to this is professional athletes are always telling us that even though they are the best in their field, they always have a coach. If you are a professional and you get paid millions of dollars in the professional team and you have a coach, why should somebody who gave a TEDx Talk need a coach? They absolutely need it. People often don’t want to spend the money because it’s not cheap if you get a good coach. They also don’t think they need it until it’s too late.
Our first acknowledgement now in 2018, we send to them to say “Thank you for applying. We strongly recommend that you hire a speaker coach of your choice. Here are three coaches that other TEDx Wilmington speakers have recommended, but feel free to use anybody you want.” We do that intentionally so that the crafting of the message and particularly the storytelling that is an art form. You cannot go draw a portrait if you haven’t practiced. Storytelling requires a coach to help you to put the story in context.
[Tweet “A through line at the end of the day is the single most important thing that you can talk about.”]
You were talking about a throughline. Can you talk a little bit more that? A throughline is one of the most important things to have in a speech.
A throughline at the end of the day is the single most important thing that you can talk about. You have to think about why something matters, what’s the question you’re trying to answer, the problem you’re trying to solve, the experience you’re trying to share. Through a throughline, you flesh out each point you make with real examples, stories, and facts. This is why a throughline is thinking about that single underlying message that runs through your entire talk because you want to begin and end, you want to connect it. You’re not repeating words for the sake of repetition. It is that you want to make sure that you want to be clear, so at the end of the talk, people say “Ha-ha, that’s what she or he meant to say,” and that’s the message I’m getting for it. That’s a real discipline. I always tell people that if you don’t have time to read any other chapter in Chris Anderson’s book, read Chapter Four, which is the throughline. It’s the subheading on that chapter, ironically which is “What’s your point?” If you don’t know what a throughline is, the question that you must answer is “What is your point?” People are amazingly surprised how hard it is to answer if you have haven’t thought it out well.
Besides the not having a throughline or not telling the story well or not having a single point, what are some of the other biggest mistakes you’ve seen people make in TEDx Talks? Not in your TEDx because you make sure they don’t make those mistakes, but in other TEDx’s.
We have literally sometimes major battles with speakers on PowerPoints. People think a PowerPoint is a Word document when it’s not. A PowerPoint is not meant to be everything that you said in your talk written in words. They should have images, maybe some words, but you should never have a PowerPoint where the viewer or the audience is so busy reading what’s on your PowerPoint that they are not listening to you. The less is more theory applies in that point. Graphically interesting to stress or to underline your talk is important, but we have people who have tried to do 60 PowerPoints in a talk. It literally is my mind-numbing the speed by which it goes by and you feel dizzy by the time you watch it on the first step. We get to see all of the PowerPoints beforehand. There’re at least two versions of it, and again we refused to approve it unless it makes sense.
It’s funny, when I did my TEDx Talk, one of the things I did was almost 100% photographs and it was mostly photographs that I had taken. It was satisfying to not have text but to have images.
As we all know, one image can say what a thousand words cannot say. It’s making sure those are stated clearly and the images have also connect to the story. Sometimes people put very beautiful images or interesting images, but they don’t tie to the actual talk. There’s the cutesy part where people try to be cute, and the problem with that is if people said “How does that image connect to the talk?” It’s always interesting how this happens. It is the need to make sure that your talk and your PowerPoint are always connected and that there is a link between the two.
That’s an important point. What are some of the other biggest things that you end up battling over potential TEDx speakers with?
A part is people think that they can pull anything off the internet and it is legal to do so and use it. We are very clear about copyright requirements. We are clear that they got to get rights from people. There is this common mistake that people make that if it’s available on the Internet, it must be free and you don’t need legal rights. These are from intelligent people. We have gotten so used to getting stuff off the Internet without having to pay for it that when we require people and say, “Show me the permission to use this video clip, show me the permission to use this picture.” People say, “What do you mean?” Even though we explained it upfront in writing in the agreements, it is always a question mark. Because we now require two drafts, the PowerPoints before they ever get to the talk. We are now able to short circuit some of this early on so that every talk, every image has to have a written consent or a source which is royalty-free, so there’s no confusion as they get towards the event.
Those are some of the things that people do and then just paying attention to what you’re wearing and to make sure that if you’re a female, not to wear jewelry that clangs if you have a lavalier mic, so that it doesn’t bang with the microphone because that stuff can be exceptionally distracting. This is not a fashion statement that you should look very good, but making sure whatever you are wearing works with the microphone. Long earrings for example sometimes clash and it sounds inappropriate on a video.
You’ve done your TEDx Talk and it’s gone well, and you’ve got a throughline and you’ve done all that, once the TED Talk is done and it’s up on YouTube, is your job over as a speaker in your opinion?
Absolutely not. We used to not pay much attention to this because we frankly thought our job was done, but what we now know is the amount of time and energy, time, talent, and resources speakers invested in the talk, we try to nurture them and say, “Here are some things that you should think about doing once this talk has been approved and on YouTube.” By editing your TEDx Talk and having a professional do it where you take 30 seconds of your talk, which is the maximum allowed by TED to do a promotional part of your talk. You can then promote it on social media, LinkedIn, Facebook, on your website, and elsewhere so that you encourage others to watch the talk. This is how you can increase your viewership significantly.
You said that it’s not about putting it on your resume and I couldn’t agree more. That’s not the reason to do it, but it does shape people’s brands to do a TEDx Talk. How do you think it shapes someone’s brand to do a TEDx Talk?
If you do a good TEDx Talk, it shapes your brand and it’s very quick to know. If somebody watches your TEDx Talk and says they loved it, and often people, if they’re applying for a job, they’re applying for a promotion, or they’re applying to become a speaker somewhere else and they have given a TEDx Talk, the person on the other side will watch the talk. If the talk is compelling, it will give them a head start in more ways than you can imagine because people get to see you in a professionally produced video of your TEDx Talk how you came across. If you don’t do a great job, it doesn’t matter how much you put it on a resume, you’re going to appear not as professional as you’d like and it hurts you. Unfortunately, whatever your talk is, that’s what will remain on YouTube forever and ever and we don’t have the capacity to delete it. One of the interesting challenges is to make sure you have a good talk. It doesn’t have to be great, but if you don’t have a good talk, it’ll come back to haunt you.
I wanted to ask you about that because I was going to say there is no way to get those talks off. Once you do a TED talk and it’s on, that’s it, right?
Once you do at TEDx Talk and TED approves your talk and posts this on YouTube, it is forever there as long as it exists. The other part of it is I also remind people because Google owns YouTube, often when they search your name, your TEDx Talk will show up high on the algorithms, and so it becomes essentially your calling card, so make sure if you’re going to give a talk, you would take it seriously and do the very best that you can, but if you don’t do it, you’ll come back to regret it and it’s unfortunate that there’s nothing I can do to delete it out from the system.
Good for people to know that. Let’s say an audience thinks “I have a great idea and I can do this work and I’m willing to do the homework” and they want to do a TEDx Talk, how do people locate places where they can give TEDx Talks? Not just yours, but how do people locate where they can give a TEDx Talk and then how do they apply to give a TEDx talk?
You can go to TED.com, which is the parents’ site. TED licenses all the talks. There’s a global map of old TEDx events that have been approved and have a date. There are 3.000 communities in 170 countries that have TEDx Talks. .If you go there, you then can connect to the website of that TEDx event, and in some instances they invite openly speakers to apply, and others they’d say it’s by invitation only. That’s a very personal decision of each organizer. I believe in a very open process because otherwise I’m limited to who I know or who I know who knows somebody I know, so we invite anybody to anywhere in the world to apply, no guarantee that you’ll get selected. It’s a very rigorous questionnaire application form, an online application form, so we fall in the group that welcomes online applications from anywhere and as long as you have a great idea, we’ll connect to see whether we can connect with you, but you can basically look at this map which shows all the TEDx communities that are having TEDx Talks on TED.com.
[Tweet “If you do a good TEDx Talk, it shapes your brand and it’s very quick to know.”]
How many people apply to TEDx Wilmington?
Last year we had over 400 applications and we selected about 165 people to give their talks, so that means that 235 people did not get selected. That’s not because necessarily they were bad or that they didn’t have good idea. Sometimes we get four people who want to talk about a particular subject during the course of a year and we obviously cannot choose everybody who wants to talk about a particular subject, so that’s one reason. The other reason is we may not have a right event to place them in. We also look for diversity in women, in gender, diversity in race, diversity in age, so all that matters.
It is a hard thing to reject essentially what is almost three applications for everyone we pick. We hate to disappoint people. We don’t go into a long explanation why they didn’t get. We simply say “We’re sorry.” Invariably we disappoint people and people are not happy that they didn’t get selected, but the reality is it’s a very subjective process, so investing time in a good application makes a huge difference. In our case, I take some time to fill the application, but more importantly, there is one to two-minute video where we ask you to produce for this application which outlines your idea worth spreading. We want to hear you summarize and distill your idea worth spreading in one to two minutes. If we didn’t look at your application and just looked at the video, are you compelling enough that your idea is worth spreading?
You got a TED license to organize TEDx Wilmington in 2011 and you’ve done 29 different TEDx Wilmington events since then. Is that correct?
That is absolutely true. It is hard to believe I have done that many, but that is the factual truth.
It was 397 speakers from all over the world and they’ve given 375 TEDx talks at TEDx Wilmington. That’s quite a lot of people. You’ve had over 7 million views, right?
That is correct. We are at 7.4 million plus views. That’s a function because it’s not a one-person operation. TEDx Wilmington is a large group of volunteers. We are very blessed to have a good team that does it. There’s no way any one human being could do all that, so I’m very blessed to be the conductor of a great orchestra or a great team. We call it the TEDx Wilmington tribe. I get the credit often, but in reality it’s a team effort. Our ability to pull off the number of events and great speakers is a function and we give personalized attention to every speaker. Every speaker gets personalized attention.
One of the things that I do on this podcast, because there’s some themes that I’m very committed to exploring and one of these days, I might even turn these into a TEDx Talk. There’s a couple of themes that I explore. It’s a question I ask everyone because it’s something in my own life I found to be valuable and it’s something that’s useful in the world we live in. One of them is something I call the joy of missing out. People have this huge fear of missing out today. What is it that we have a fear of missing out on in terms of speaking and public speaking and giving speeches and TEDx that we shouldn’t? What should we have a joy of missing out on in regards to this subject we’ve been discussing?
I would say the greatest challenge is speakers wanting to be perfect. I tell everyone that you will never be perfect until you keep doing it over and over again, so start and have fun. People forget to have fun. Those who have fun and those who are willing to be imperfect give the best TEDx Talks.
The other thing I like to talk about is what I call living beyond the script. There’re a lot of scripts that we have today, prevailing scripts about how we’re supposed to do things and how we’re supposed to live our lives, and what we’re supposed to do. There is a prevailing script as it relates to TEDx and I’d love to know from your point of view what do you think that script is and how do you think we should go beyond it?
The opportunity to have your talk or your message heard in 170 countries, and I tell speakers when I go to rehearsal, is to remember that the audience that is listening to your talk, while very important and critical because without them there wouldn’t be a TEDx event, the real audiences is those who go and watch on YouTube around the world and then I remind them that most of them, for them English is perhaps the second language, so we have perhaps viewers in South Sudan, Kazakhstan, Brazil, and of course at places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and elsewhere. My point is that recognizing that you have a global audience requires you not to use acronyms and to be able to make an impact globally.
You want to impact a young woman who’s listening in South Sudan for whom your message might resonate or somebody sitting in a place in Brazil feeling hopeless and here’s the message you have and say “That matters.” It’s that incredibly ability that has made TEDx possible is to be able to share the message at no costs worldwide using YouTube channel. That is what makes giving a TEDx Talk different than if you spoke in front of 10,000 people in the stadium and auditorium because that’s a one-time event, you spoke to them, that message rarely gets beyond that group.
The other theme that I talk about on this show is what I call the everyday artists because I think everyone in their own way is an artist. What part of what you do do you consider art versus science? How do you consider yourself an artist in the work that you do?
I’m an artist because I tried to bring out of people what they have, but they didn’t realize that they had, which is the ability to give a talk on the red carpet with three cameras running and to be engaging. That requires people to often come out of their comfort zone. Some people are professional speakers and speak all the time, most people aren’t. I enjoy working with somebody who is terrified of public speaking, getting them in there after rehearsal onto the stage, because I do the introductions myself, make them feel comfortable and let them be transformed and transform others in the process.
That’s wonderful. Where can people find out more about TEDx Wilmington?
Our website is fairly simple, www.TEDxWilmington.com. We’re halfway between New York and Washington. On our website, we have a place where you can nominate yourself as a speaker, which is the application process. A play list of all of our talks are there. I would strongly recommend anyone considering applying to any TEDx Talk to look at the blogs. One of the things that makes us different is we require every speaker to do three blogs. One early in the process, one about two weeks prior to the event, and one at two weeks after the event. They share their experience. I wanted to create a book out of the blogs because it’s the best way to learn the journeys of the speakers as they went through the process. If they are truthful and honest, which most of them are, you will get a remarkable insight into what may they experienced going through the talk. All the blogs are also on our website, and it’s fun to read. It’s emotionally, sometimes gut wrenching, what they went through to get to the talk or why it is important, why it is inspiring, why it is transformational.
That’s wonderful. Ajit Mathew George, thank you so much for joining us.
You’re most welcome. Thank you for having me.
My guest has been Ajit Matthew George. He is the Organizer and Executive Producer of TEDx Wilmington where for the past seven years, he has organized 29 different TEDx events with over 397 speakers from all over the world.
Thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you, Karen.
My guest today has been Nilofer Merchant. She is the author of The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.