This post by Dorie Clark first appeared at Forbes.
The TED conference, with its high-powered speakers and thousands of viral videos, has become a cultural touchstone. Professionals with big ideas and big ambition want to know: how can I become a TED speaker, or at least sound as good as one? Often, John Bates is the man they call. Bates, an independent consultant not employed by TED, has become a go-to expert for many TED and TEDx speakers and organizers, running a speakers bootcamp with his colleague Michael Weiss.
His mission, like TED’s, is to help great ideas spread. “There are people with mediocre ideas who kick the pants off people with great ideas who can’t communicate them,” he says. “That’s just not OK with me. I think the world needs people with great ideas to have the communication skills to match, because we need those ideas more than ever.” Here are his insights about what it takes to become a TED – or at least TED-worthy – speaker.
First, Live Your Great Idea. “If you don’t have something special to share, it’s not going to be a TED-worthy talk,” says Bates. “The key to getting onto the TED stage is to just go out and be great in your life. Not a lot of people walk up on the TED stage and it’s the first time anyone’s heard them talk; they’re out there [already] making a difference.” If you want to get tapped as a speaker, “The #1 thing is to go do that thing you’ve been putting off that will make a difference. Go be great in your life and if you’re already doing that, go talk about it and inspire other people whenever you can. It’s great practice for when you get noticed and asked to speak at TED – and even if you don’t, it’s a phenomenal way to live your life.”
Find Your Superhero Origin Story. If you’re not sure what your big idea is, or you’re pulled in multiple directions, Bates advises getting in touch with your “superhero origin story,” which helps explain the source of your passion. “Just look where you spend your money and your time, and that’s what you’re giving your life to,” he says. “When you look into why you chose to do this, and where did it come from, that’s probably a great angle into something that may be worthy of being shared with a lot of people.”
Embrace TEDx. The ultimate TED fantasy is to take the main stage at the annual gathering (until recently in Long Beach, California, and in Vancouver for 2014). But Bates advises aspiring speakers to embrace TEDx, the independently organized local gatherings that take place across the world. “Among the most popular TED talks of all time, a pretty good number of them are actually TEDx talks,” says Bates. “Simon Sinek spoke in front of 500 people maybe, and now millions of people have seen it. Don’t worry so much about being on the TED main stage; go give an unbelievable talk at a TEDx event in your neighborhood and then use social media to make it go viral, with or without TED [putting the video on their site].”
Face Your Fears. There’s no shame in being afraid of public speaking, says Bates. “Evolutionarily, getting noticed by the group doesn’t always work out well – Jesus, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, JFK. If you get noticed by the group, it can go badly, which is why we have such a hard time showing emotions onstage, and being free onstage. We don’t want to show weakness or be authentic, but that’s exactly what the best speakers and communicators do.” In his coaching work, he’s noticed that “when these fears come up about public speaking, it’s usually the same issues that block [people] in other places, in their management or leadership.” He cites the example of one healthcare executive whose stage fright brought back memories of being the new kid in school all the time, as the result of his family’s frequent moves. “We had a conversation about it, and how it applied to this situation, and all of a sudden, he had a whole new level of power and freedom and being present in his delivery.”
Mind Your Neuroscience. Humans are biologically wired to receive information in certain ways, says Bates, and it’s important to be aware of that when you’re delivering your speech. For instance, “When I say to you, ‘Let me tell you a story about that,’ the part of your brain that lights up is the same part that lights up when you expect to get a reward, and from an evolutionary perspective, that makes total sense.” Another biologically-based strategy he adheres to is encouraging his clients to speak more slowly. “There have been plenty of studies that show that when someone onstage is talking fast, people will say they’re lying, they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they’re low status. But with the same information and someone delivering it slowly, people say they’re an expert, they know what they’re talking about, and they’re trustworthy and high status.”
If you’ve dreamed of taking the stage at TED or TEDx, following these tips will help bring you closer. How do you hone your presentations? What’s worked for you?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.