How to Land a TEDx Talk

Originally Published in the Huffington PostAshley Stahl

When I stepped onstage at TEDxBerkeley, the bright lights momentarily blinded me from seeing the audience of 2,000. Like so many other people, I had dreamed of this opportunity for years but wasn’t sure if it would ever become a reality.

In fact, the professional path I’d been on for the previous few years didn’t lead me to the TEDx stage in any evident way. I’d been deeply entrenched in the world of national security, where I worked long days preparing high-ranking military officials for their deployments to war zones. The role came with minimal public speaking duties, and the speeches I did deliver tended to be quantitative recitations of facts, numbers and recommendations that would help public officials adjust to their new lives overseas.

And yet here I was, alone on stage with thousands of eyes watching me as I prepared to achieve my goal of inspiring thousands of strangers to find their purpose in the workforce.

My impressive day job played a role in shaping the message I was onstage to deliver, but having the Pentagon listed on my resumé wasn’t what got me there. It was the personal realization that my message, which had been a lifetime in the making, was worthy of being shared, and the curators at TEDx thought so too.

With that said, I’ll jump right into answering the question that everyone asks: how did I convince the TEDx curators to pick me?

For those of you who don’t know, TED (an acronym for Technology, Entertainment & Design) is a multi-issue conference featuring the world’s leading thinkers. While TED occasionally features well-known individuals, it is more focused on finding new voices and new messages to bring to its global audience.

Thanks to recent technological advancements, TED’s talks have been viewed online over 1 billion times. In response to this growth, the organization has built on its principles of openness and participation by expanding into various TED-affiliated events around the world.

The TEDx Program, which is just one example, is focused on facilitating connection and idea-sharing at the local level using a TED-granted license.

TEDx speakers have shed light on just about every topic imaginable, and have added new layers of complexity and consideration to frequently discussed ideas. Those of us who have been asked to take the stage do so with an awareness of the responsibility before us: to authentically share ideas worth spreading.

Since giving my own speech, I’ve been contacted by hundreds of individuals who want to know how I gained access to that prized podium.

If you are serious about giving a TEDx talk, here are some tips to help you get selected:

1. TED and TEDx are about ideas, not individuals. TED’s content developers are wary of anyone who might use the platform as a tool for self-promotion, and thus they are especially skeptical of service providers. I used the story of my evolution as a career coach to communicate my idea, but I tried not to refer to my business by name or talk about my practice in qualitative terms, because the speech wasn’t about me and my success, it was about the message that helped me get there.

Focus on a story or experience that changed your life, and try to offer actionable takeaways for the audience. It’s about helping people think differently.

2. Being a referral is always a powerful position to be in, and landing a TEDx talk is no different. TEDx accepts nominations and applications year-round and because they seek groundbreaking ideas, they review every single application. However, if they get a referral from someone they trust (particularly a past TEDx speaker) they will be more inclined to give your application a closer look. Think about everyone you know – are there any former TEDx speakers or curators in your network? Do your friends or family members know anyone who works at TED or TEDx?

Hint: Reach out to TED’s curators four months prior to the scheduled event. Any time before that is too early and you’ll slip their mind, but if you wait too long after that, there is a good chance they will already have selected their speakers.

3. Have a stellar speaking sample. TEDx curators will want to get a sense of your stage presence, so give some thought to your sample and have it ready to go upon request. If you don’t already have one, schedule a speaking engagement on your topic and recruit a friend or family member to film it for you. It doesn’t have to be an impressive venue or audience (speaking to a college class is fine), nor does it need to be professional videography – TEDx curators regularly review iPhone video footage.

4. Be articulate and concise! Your technical presentation ability is important, but so is your communication style. Anyone can explain an idea if they are given an hour or two to lecture from a podium, but making a lasting impression with only 9-18 minutes is a whole different ballgame.

5. Align your suggested topic with the theme of the TEDx event. They want you to fit them, not the other way around. This means you should share with the curators how your message will align with their event.

Your value as a TEDx speaker isn’t dictated by your college degree, your annual income, or how many languages you speak… As Brene Brown (one of TED’s most loved speakers) famously said, “worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites.”

Consider the following anecdote: a lady saw Picasso doodling on a paper napkin in a restaurant and asked if she could buy it from him. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll sell it for $100,000.” The woman stared at him for a few moments, a shocked look on her face, and stammered, “but it only took you five minutes to draw it!” Picasso shook his head and said: “You’re wrong. It didn’t take me five minutes; it took me my whole life.”

Thanks to TEDxBerkeley, I was able to share the message that I’d spent my entire life unlocking, developing, and fine-tuning.

If you are confident in your message, and if you have the courage to deliver it authentically, TEDx is a possibility for you, too! What are you waiting for? If you venture nothing, you gain nothing, so the time to share and be vulnerable is now. The world is ready for your message.

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