This is a follow up to my first guide on How to Get a TED Talk (and what to do when you get there). As I am getting ready to present my fifth TEDx talk, I wanted to share some of the best practices I've learned along the way on preparing for a TED talk. Of course, these are just general ideas that work for public speaking as well.
1. Don't practice. Rehearse instead.
In my book, Music Business Hacks, I argue that bands shouldn't "practice," they should "rehearse." Speakers should do the same. Practice is usually what you do in isolation, to prepare for rehearsal. A rehearsal tries to replicate the same conditions as the actual event.
Once you get the general feel for your talk, you should mimic stage conditions as much as possible. For example, don't practice reading from a screen sitting down - stand up, and learn how to deliver the talk without notes. If you're using a slide show, present without speaker's notes (most events have PowerPoint on mirror mode, not speaker's view). Practice with a countdown timer for the time you've been allotted. Here's the official TED speaker timer that you can use.
Also, most TEDx events don't want you pacing back and forth; rather, they'll often have a red circular carpet on stage that you're supposed to stay on. Keep this in mind as you get used to your movements.
2. One hour or more for every minute.
As you're setting time aside for your talk, schedule at least one hour of rehearsal for every minute of your presentation. For example, a ten-minute talk should receive at least ten hours of straight rehearsing. That means you'll run through it at least sixty times.
Try it in different conditions; for example, while you're commuting to work or in the shower. Try different times of day, like when you wake up or right before bedtime.
3. Get used to the rhythm, not the specific word choice.
The audience doesn't know what you're going to say, they don't have a transcript of your talk that they'll comparing you against. In reality, they probably won't know if you change your phrasing or accidentally skip a point. However, they'll be paying attention to your cadence, flow, and presentation style. If you break your natural speaking rhythm because you're grasping for the exact script, it'll throw some people off. Learn how to speak in a predictable, comfortable rhythm - and only break it when you need to deliberately emphasize a point.
For many people (especially those who get nervous), there's a temptation to let the mind wander, to almost have an out-of-body experience. Repeated rehearsals train your body to take over through muscle memory even if you have a momentary lapse. And training to a specific rhythm keeps the tone of your talk consistent as well as stay on time.
4. Setup mile-markers.
Often, how things go on stage end up slightly different timing-wise than rehearsal. That's because we often fail to account for audience reaction or the terrible combination of increased talking speed with decreased thinking/memory recall abilities due to nerves.
If you rehearse with a countdown timer, you'll be less likely to get nervous as you see the minutes fly by. But you'll want to take it a step further: have specific points (and corresponding presentation slides) for specific times so you know you're on track. For example, know that when there's only one minute left, you should move to your conclusion or final anecdote even if you have to skip a sub-point. When you're outlining the talk, figure out how much time is needed for the most important points, stories, or one-liners - and know when those should be taking place along the countdown timer.Listen to yourself...
5. Listen to yourself...
One of my favorite ways to prepare is listening to the talk over and over again, as if it were a song or a podcast. Not only does it help with memorization, but I can also listen for my tone, the dynamics, changing word choice, and get used to the sound of my voice delivering the talk. About two to three weeks before an event, I'll often record myself reading the talk. Then, I listen to the files when I'm driving, riding my bike, riding the train, etc.
6. ...And watch yourself.
I also highly recommend you taking a video of yourself delivering the talk too so you can monitor your gestures, awkward body movements, your posture, and if you can deliver your talk without flickering your eyes to a screen where your presentation is being projected. Again, try and mimic stage conditions as much as possible - use a laptop in the place of a confidence monitor (but check with the event to see if one is being provided).
7. Get a crowd
Rehearse in front of others as often as you can. Not only can they help give you some advice about your presentation style, your movements, and your story, but rehearsing with a crowd also helps you gauge timing for audience reaction, overcome nerves, and learn how to work a crowd as well.
Bonus tips: Learn from singers
Most speakers do not take care of their voices enough. Learn about the kinds of foods/drinks you should avoid, especially in the days before your event so that you don't end up straining your voice. Learn how to hold a mic (some events only have a wireless or handheld mic) - in other words, get comfortable "kissing" the mic and holding it as close as possible. Use vocal warm ups before you speak and stay hydrated to avoid drying out during your talk.
In conclusion, preparation pays off, but you want to prepare the right way. As Vince Lombardi famously said, "Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect" By no means have I perfected this myself yet, but I definitely more with each event that I do. Want to see my TED talks? Here's a playlist. Notice the upload dates - the talks get more comfortable each time, as I learn to apply the lessons learned above.
Here are some other resources to help:
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