If public speaking can be compared to a 100 metre sprint, then speaking at a TED event is like running a marathon while wearing a tutu. Unlike the average three-minute speech required of most public speaking competitions, or the six-minute speeches required in debate, TED speeches – talks that explore everything from science to business issues – can run upwards of 20 minutes. Not only that, but you have to engage the audience. Delivering such a lengthy speech is why TED is considered a challenge even for seasoned lecturers. Most teenager speakers at TEDX events manage to do fairly well. I was not one of them. Here are five of the lessons I learned after delivering a disastrous TEDx speech last year.
1. Choose your topic wisely
The first idea you think of isn’t necessarily the best one, or the easiest. Two months before the event, I decided I wanted to write about artificial intelligence. However, as I slogged through hours of research, it dawned on me that I wasn’t as much of an expert in the topic as I had thought. Memorisation in the delivery of a speech is important, but if you have not mastered the content itself, you won’t get very far. Just like in test-taking scenarios, as soon as your memory slips up, and you don’t have the knowledge as a foundation, you will find yourself in a situation that is hard to bluff your way out of. If you don’t know a single thing about what you plan to talk about, it would probably be more useful for both yourself and the audience to just study the material online.
2. A trial run is vital
Because I spent so long writing my speech, I did my slides at the last minute, and ended up missing my rehearsal time to run through the presentation. Eventually, when the actual performance time came and I was standing onstage, both the audience and I were faced with the worst slides imaginable. The slides were mixed up, the text layered on top of each other, and the images I had carefully positioned on my original slideshow were shrunken and layered on top of each other.
As I stood there, I realised that these technical difficulties could have been avoided had I simply attended the rehearsal, and seen the problems with the presentation. But even if the slides had not been messed up, I still struggled with my body language on stage, as I had not practised how to hold myself or interact with the audience. In essence: run through your presentation to avoid technical difficulties, and practise the body language you will use onstage.
3. Laugh off disasters
Because I realised that my presentation was a disaster when I was already on stage, there wasn’t much I could do. The only thing I could do was to make a pointed joke about the slides and continue, acting as if everything was perfectly fine. It sounds clichéd, but there is nothing more important than cutting your losses and going with the flow. When things mess up, move on.
Although a well-rehearsed speech will always be better than a finished speech, a finished speech is still better than a speech you didn’t finish because you burst into tears on stage.
4. The joke is on you
When writing my speech, I had deliberately included some jokes. I thought they would make it sound more fluid and natural. I was wrong. The time taken to get to the punchline, and the awkward laughter that followed, only slowed down my speech and heightened my sense of awkwardness. If anything, the planned jokes made my presentation worse. If given the chance to redo my speech, I would take out all the jokes, save perhaps the occasional pun. After all, the audience is there to listen, not for a comedy show.
5. In conclusion, the conclusion
By the end of the presentation I was privately in despair, and I just wanted it to end. Yet despite my stuttered content, warped presentation slides, and the poorly delivered jokes, I knew that the only way to salvage my speech was to provide a solid conclusion. I clearly restated the points that I had made, and in the end, I finished smoothly and ended with a bow.
No matter what happens, understand that your speech is not the final verdict on your character. One mediocre speech is just a single moment of your life, and doesn’t reflect your future potential. If you ever find yourself giving a speech that has gone horribly wrong, my advice is to simply shrug it off. Encourage yourself, and act as if you have no choice but to succeed. You most likely will.