How to practise a TED talk

It's time to talk


I had the perfect draft (or so I thought). Now it was time to learn it. Both the TED books (
listed in my first TED blog) suggest that you should know your speech as well as you know the song "Happy Birthday To You", and you should be able to recite it whilst doing something else, so it becomes second nature. A 15 minute talk has about 2500 - 2800 words, depending on how fast you talk, so it's quite a chunk to remember.

Now I have a photographic memory, and partly got through my Latin GSCE by memorising word for word the English and Latin translations of the set pieces. I was going to enjoy this! The TED books also suggested that you should practice it in front of as many groups of people as you can find, to get lots of feedback.

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Initially I had looked at a couple of breast cancer TED talks online, and thought I should watch as many as possible to see what I was up against. But after seeing 2 or 3, I stopped. I didn't want to get influenced by what I saw, but this had already happened. I'dd added a bit to my talk that I had seen on someone else's, because it really resonated with me and my story (or so I thought). But when I started practicing, it came as across as fake, and so I cut it. No more looking at TED talks until I'd done mine.

If you've never seen a TED talk,
this is a great parody of what a lot of them are like…

Setting the scene


Ideally, you deliver a TED talk without notes or lecture cards. You stand (still) on a red circle of carpet, with a big screen behind you that shows your slides (if you're using any). You're not meant to turn and look at the screen. Instead, at your feet, you have 2 monitors. One is a countdown for the time you have left, and the other shows the slide that is on screen at that time.

Crazy, me?


In the beginning, I started to practice my talk whilst driving, whilst sitting in coffee shops, and whilst walking the dog. People must have thought I was mad (literally) - who is that crazy woman who keeps talking to herself…? We went to visit my brother and his family in Switzerland, and they kindly agreed to hear me talk. And it was a real eye-opener. It's completely different standing up and giving a talk, compared to running through it on a dog walk or in the car. Jihane, my sister-in-law, told me that I actually silently gulped between sections, and she could see me mentally turning over my notes in my mind before moving on. Not good. No more talking to myself in the car.

Skype rehearsal


With 2-3 weeks to go, I had my first Skype rehearsal with
Ross, and was really nervous beforehand. It's quite artificial, talking to a computer, and I didn't have my slides sorted. By the way, the slides are the LAST thing you do when writing a talk, and only then if you really need them to enhance what you're going to say. To quote Ross, in an ideal world, the maximum number of words on any slide is zero. I was planning on showing some photos, but hadn't finalised the details.

Firstly, as soon as I started talking, Ross started scribbling in his notebook, which was really off-putting. Have I really gone that wrong in the first 5-10 seconds? Once I was done, he gave me some great advice.

Top TED Talk Tips



1) Don't memorise the whole thing. If you lose track and forget what comes next, you can end up going blank in front of the audience, with no idea what comes next.

2) Don't practice it in front of lots and lots of people. You'll get too many different opinions, most of which won't be helpful. He told me to trust in my story.

3) Do memorise the beginning and the ending word for word, so when you get to them, it's like coming home, and you can relax and enjoy those bits.

4) Don't rehearse it reading from a script. Go from memory, and then check to see which bits I'd forgotten.

5) Don't worry if you forget a bit. The audience doesn't know that you've gone wrong.

6) Slow down. Aim for a 13 minute talk, as you'll be even slower on the day. The last thing you want to do is to run over. (Mine was 13 minutes, but took 14 minutes on the day).

7) Finally, learn the links - the words than join the different parts of your story. And they will help you remember what comes next.

Back to the beginning (again)


It's the links that I was missing. When I started presenting it, standing up and taking it seriously, it didn't flow. My talk was a lot of different parts that weren't joined up. Ross said that the more I rehearsed it, the more I would see that things needed to be moved around. Basically, my 'perfect' draft would need to be turned upside down and inside out, and that was OK. He gave me the courage to go back to the beginning again (sound familiar?), and get creative with it. I also realised that I still didn't have a killer hook of an opening, and my ending was a bit woolly. My take-home message, my call-to-action, was still hiding from me.


I ended up killing a few more darlings, and suddenly, the beginning appeared. I had another rehearsal with Ross, the week before, and he gave me a few ideas that led to one of those "Bingo!" moments, and I had my ending. He also gave me the courage to swear during my talk (sorry, Mum). Suddenly I was excited - everything was coming together nicely. Just the small matter of a prop to sort out, and that's where
Nico came to the rescue. She was going to get what I needed to save me carrying it on the plane, but I wouldn't see it until 3 hours before the show. Nervous? Me…?

All I had to do was make my slides, and the amazing Alex from
Muse Portraits tweaked a photo of me from a photoshoot I had at the end of chemotherapy, and I was good to go. Unless you count the small matter of what to wear (when you're going to be on YouTube forever), and what to do with your hands.

What to wear…?


We were given
guidance on what to wear, which was really helpful. Firstly, no stripes or fussy patterns as they don't look good on camera. You want to be a little more dressed-up than the audience, but not too dressed-up. The aim is to have a converstaion with them, not a lecture, so no ties. It's that old chestnut 'smart casual'….

Regarding my hands, Ross told me to stop worrying. They would move naturally. I'd have the slide clicker in one hand, and then there would be my prop. As long as I kept them above my waist (which is more friendly and interactive than keeping them down by your side), I'd be fine. Easy for him to say. He's already done it.

There was nothing for it but to pack my bag, and fly out to Stuttgart. Onwards and upwards!


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