On March 24, 2018, I crossed off dream that had been on my bucket list for years. On March 24, 2018, I gave a TED Talk at TEDxBirmingham on writing, feminism, and how sharing your story can change the world. You can watch it here.
I think all writers should add “Deliver a TED Talk” to their list of goals and not just because it’s something I’ve done. The work that goes into composing a TED Talk can sharpen your writing skills and the preparation that goes into successfully delivering a TED Talk will improve your public speaking skills, which will come in handy when you’re asked to speak at a writing or blogging conference or when you’re doing a reading to promote your latest book.
Before you can deliver a good TED Talk you have to write one. I’m going to help you do just that with this post. And while the tips I’m going to offer you helped me write a strong talk, these are also steps that could be used to write a strong op-ed or personal essay.
Step one: Write your throughline. For my fellow English lit nerds, a throughline is basically a thesis. You should be able to sum up what your talk is about in one sentence, a sentence short enough to be a single tweet (that was an added challenge by TEDxBirmingham organizer Matt Hamilton). My throughline: Writing can be a feminist act. I was confident that my message was clear after I delivered my talk before a focus group back in January. When the audience was asked if they could guess what my throughline was they knew it exactly!
Step Two: Write an outline. Despite my clear and succinct throughline, my vision for my talk was a mess at first. I went to Matt and told him I had three different talks in my head and I needed him to tell me which one to do. One idea was to talk about See Jane Write. Another was to talk about this idea of writing as a form of feminist activism and another was to discuss how to create a feminist classroom. “These are just three different acts of the same talk,” Matt said. And he was right. I highly recommend dividing the body of your talk into three subpoints to help you organize your thoughts and for each subpoint consider what anecdotes and examples you’ll use to convey your message. When drafting your outline don’t forget about ethos, logo, and pathos. You need to establish your credibility (share something that shows why people should listen to you), appeal to logic (including some facts will help with this) and appeal to emotion (personal stories always help with this).
Step Three: Write a shitty first draft. My first draft was awful. The beginning included too many mundane details, the middle was completely unfocused and the end simply fell flat. I felt stuck and was so frustrated that I started to regret ever agreeing to do a TED Talk in the first place. But as Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird you have to write that “shitty first draft” to get to the good stuff.
Step Four: Revise, revise, revise. My talk went through a total of four drafts. What helped me get to a draft I was actually proud of and excited to deliver on stage was getting feedback from Matt, my focus group, and a few trusted and talented friends and watching a few of my favorite TED Talks for inspiration.
Side note: As you’re writing your talk remember that this is a talk. It’s something people will hear not read. I actually recited lines aloud before putting them on paper as I was working on my drafts and I recommend you try doing the same.
What are your tips for writing strong speeches?
What’s your favorite TED Talk?