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5 Tips for Speaking at a TEDx Event

My TEDx talk covered our road to becoming underwater explorers and documentarians, where marine biodiversity comes from, and how species and systems interact. Included are some nice underwater videos, as well as insights into a few chosen species. You’ll learn about moray eel protection rackets, fish that are sheep in wolves clothing, the extraordinary importance of fish poo, and how to become an underwater explorer yourself. Here’s the video of my talk:

 

I’m driven to get our marine awareness and conservation message out there—beyond the usual networks of the converted and the sub-aquatically informed. I’ve had no trouble finding choirs to preach to, but when it comes to reaching a larger and more diverse audience, there is no better stage than the one with the big red TED on it. Personally, I consider the opportunity to speak at TEDx to be the highlight of my career so far, and I’d like to shed a bit of light on the process for others interested in sharing their ideas and wondering how TEDx works from a speaker’s point of view. Here are my top five tips:

Josh Jensen speaker at TEDx Noosa

Holding your hands together limits nervous “flappy arms” (I almost achieved flight during the rehearsal). Photo: Sarah Keayes

1. Acknowledge the hugeness of the opportunity you have been given

So what is TED? TED is a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading” on topics from science to business to global issues; this is done through short, live talks that are recorded at TED events around the world. TEDx is the same idea, but done on a smaller and more accessible stage, although with the same slickness and wide appeal as its bigger cousin. For the uninitiated, I thoroughly recommend subscribing to TED’s weekly or daily emails, which include links to newly curated selections of some of these talks.

Watching these videos is a great way to start your day off well, they are universally inspiring. I have seen amazing people from every background imaginable, from all over the world doing or discovering incredible things. TED is the global forum where they get to spread their ideas, in their own voice, without an editor or journalist distorting or truncating their truth. The TED stage has been graced by world leaders, Nobel laureates, and experts in every field and from every corner of the planet.

So when someone calls you, introduces themselves as being from a TED event, and invites you to speak, you should feel honoured and take the whole thing pretty seriously.

Josh Jensen public speaking about marine biology and marine biodiversity

Can you spot my crib notes written along the inside of each finger? You only need the first word of each paragraph to prompt you if you freeze up. Photos: Sarah Keayes

2. Take every opportunity to spend time with everyone involved

The volunteers and execs that organise the TEDxNoosa event (and I bet all TED events) are a rare collection of people dripping with what can been described as “the right stuff”. Through the community talks I’ve done in recent years, I’ve had the good fortune to meet a lot of local do-gooders, but nowhere have I met a collection like the TEDxNoosa team. If I had to put my finger on the one thing they all had in common, it is what I would like to call “information enthusiasm”. These people are enthusiastic listeners who want to understand and help you refine your message.

I suppose TED’s basic premise that good ideas need spreading is what attracts these people. But as a speaker, they are collectively the single biggest ego booster and personal assistant you will ever find. Every person involved—whether exec, volunteer, fellow speaker, or audience member—all just want to be informed and inspired, offering you their fullest support and encouragement.

In short, the whole thing feels like a big group hug.

Josh Jensen public speaking at TEDx Noosa

Working the “red dot” in front of a terrifyingly large crowd. Photo: Sarah Keayes

3. Prepare for a long journey to the TEDx stage

In my case, it was a ride that began on the 28 January 2014—that’s 486 days before the event.

Without any specific thought on the matter, Liz and I had chosen to live in the only regional area in Australia to host a TEDx event. TEDxNoosa volunteers—the amazing breed of folk that make this annual event happen—spread their ears and eyes all over the community. Carol and Lucy heard me plead my case for local marine research and an underwater cleanup (our self-funded NUBA project), during presentations to the NICA board and later to the public at the Noosa Parks Association’s Friday Forum. These two ladies were the people who got the ball rolling for me.

Here’s what I remember of the journey leading up to the Big Day:

486 days to go Carol (Noosa Integrated Catchment Association) first suggested TEDx as the perfect forum for my “Every Species Matters” presentation.
402 days to go My name was suggested to the Exec in an email by Carol as a possible speaker.
203 days to go Am spotted by second volunteer Lucy at a community talk—another suggestion of TEDx.
66 days to go Offered a spot on the 16-speaker TEDxNoosa 2015 lineup headlined by one of my heroes Sea Shepherd founder Capt. Paul Watson.
53 days to go First read through of my presentation to the Exec Producer and Curator at the Noosa Regional Gallery. This is when the enormity of the thing hits me: stopwatches and word-by-word critique from people that know how to help. This was a huge boost and stressful as hell.
46 days to go I am announced publicly as one of the speakers and learn of the other speakers sharing the stage. I realise I could be waaaayy out of my depth, and surmise that I must have been cast as comedy relief or “fluff piece” in between the real TED speakers.
42 days to go First review with the Curator and the TEDx Licensee. My presentation is coming together. This is where I get my first big dose of proper encouragement for my efforts. I learn now that some others haven’t kept on top of the work, and the organisers are relieved that at least a few of the speakers aren’t waiting until the last minute.
27 days to go Second review. My talk is pretty much in final draft at this stage.
10 days to go Total rethink of my talk! I am questioning and second-guessing. I make minor changes to accommodate a whole new video segment.
9 days to go Speaker workshop. A speaking coach gets us ready for the big day with warm ups, techniques, and another big dose of encouragement.
8 days to go I learn what a “run sheet” is, and my slot for the Big Day: I’ll be speaker #5, the last one in the first wave (there are four waves during the event). I reckon I scored the best slot possible: even though I’ll miss the first few talks (I’ll be waiting in the green room for my turn), at least I’ll get my talk done early on before my nerves are totally shot, and I’ll then be free to enjoy the rest of the day.
6 days to go Event day instructions: what not to wear, post-talk interviews, and other commitments lined up for us on the day.
2 days to go Send the final script to the backstage crew so they can prompt you if you freeze! Along with a sequence of four backup plans in case something goes wrong technically!! These thoughts never crossed my mind until now… yee gads!!! I give up trying to sleep.
1 day to go I finally get to meet all the back-stagers that will help me through my bit. It was my first time on the actual stage, with a team of people wearing headsets and talking to each other making the whole thing happen, and telling me where to be, what to do, and when to do it. I did a full rehearsal of my talk on stage in a nearly empty theatre with lights and audio and people mostly doing other urgent things.

So, prepare for plenty of work and commitment on your part. Thank everyone you meet for all their efforts in helping you share your idea. And no matter how your practice run goes, just power through it.

The audience at TEDx Noosa

I hope they were laughing *with* me. Photo: Sarah Keayes

4. Take every bit of help on offer

There are lots of feedback sessions along the whole journey. While criticism is often hard to take, it will make your talk more understandable and therefore better.

A speaker workshop was offered and, incredibly, less than half of the speakers attended. It was probably only the terrified/concerned/nervous of us that signed up, and no doubt a few just couldn’t make it that night. Personally, I was going to take every bit of help I could… rain, hail or shine. The confidence you gain from a good speaking coach like Mary Eggleston was worth every minute of the session. But more importantly, this was the best opportunity to meet a few of my fellow speakers. They were amazing. It isn’t often you get a chance to meet these kinds of people, and that was the real bonus of the workshop. It was also comforting to learn I wasn’t the only one quietly thinking I was out of my league.

I was surprised to learn that a lot of the emails to the speakers went unanswered. Considering all the helpers are volunteers and there to assist us, I can’t understand why this would be. So my advice here: Always reply to emails, and do so promptly.

I also highly recommend the free online edX course Introduction to Public Speaking, offered by University of Washington and Dr. Matt McGarrity. This course which just so happened to pop into my inbox the same day as the invitation to speak. This kind of serendipity couldn’t be ignored. The course proved to be an enormous help.

Josh Jensen TEDx talk

Talking through one of my videos. Photo: Sarah Keayes

5. Practice, refine, practice, refine… and cheat

In the last two months leading up to the event, I spent the first hour or two of every day working on my talk. I had a lot of short videos to edit so that took a lot of the time at first. But the last few weeks were spent just running through my lines and making sure I didn’t ramble or run overtime. My 16-minute limit was strict because the day needs to run exactly to schedule.

Practice with the timer running so you know where you are after each block or paragraph. If you need to catch up or skip bits you can—but don’t plan for it. The only ad-libbing I allowed myself was when my nerves had me speaking too fast, so I had a few seconds up my sleeve; my fear of long silences had me throwing in some jokes (most had been practised in the previous months and edited out due to time restrictions).

In the last week’s run up, and on the day itself, I wrote one word on the inside of each finger using sweat-resistant Sharpie ink. Each word was the trigger for a paragraph, serving to prompt me before I got stuck. Is that cheating…? Not really, a few of the other speakers used cue cards, too.

Every sentence and every word should be carefully chosen to make sure you don’t waste any of your precious time allotment. Every speaker invited to the stage could easily talk about their subject all day; fortunately, the organisers make us refine our message down to its very essence. Choose your words well, but make sure it is still your voice: it’s you and your passion that got invited to the stage.

Be brave, put yourself out there, and make sure the audience gets the very best you have to give.

TED events are carefully designed to encourage audience and speakers to mix, mingle and share ideas

Great food and great people in between each of the day’s “waves”. TED events are carefully designed to encourage audience and speakers to mix, mingle and share ideas. Photo: Sarah Keayes

Please share my talk with your non-interested friends, it might just open their eyes and minds to a whole new world right under their noses. And substitute a TED talk for the nightly news at least once a week, you and the world will be better for it.

—Josh

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Thom Pace

Great talk! Eye-opening, entertaining, educational and FUN

Todd Ruston

Well done Josh! Great presentation, and fun write-up about the experience. Good on ya, mate!

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