The Truth Behind giving a TEDx Talk – What no one warns you about

Secrets to giving a Powerful TEDx Talk – How to score one, what to expect once you do and more.

You may be one of those people who wishes you could give a TED talk or perhaps you just enjoy listening to them. Either way, let me share a little bit about my experience giving the 2017 TEDx talk, “ALIVE AND COUNTING.”

It all started with an idea. Yep, sound cheesy? It’s true. A simple but profound idea that struck me about changing perspective. An idea I felt could impact the world in some small or potentially large way through a shift in thinking. It did not in my case start with the title, “Alive and Counting,” however. The original title was, Spelling It Out for Your Funeral. I planned to share some simple but profound details about how planning your funeral could shift your perspective in such a way that effortlessly caused you to begin living your life to the fullest, moment by moment. Seemed reasonable to me but part of the premise of this topic, meant also living in the moment, and not ever faking any aspect of life. Sounds easy enough. That is until you score yourself a TEDx talk and find yourself repeating your speech over and over again in a state of stress and worry.

I began submitting proposals to some of the TEDx venues that I knew were looking for speakers. I quickly got the attention of several committees who were willing to further explore my topic. From there, I flew out to two of three of those venues and had a phone conversations with the third. I was paired with a coach for one location but after working with him for a moment, they narrowed their choices down to 12 speakers and they phoned me to let me know they were very sorry I was # 14 on their list, thereby not making their cut. One location I flew to, had a room full of about 50 potential speakers. They too were looking for only approximately 12 speakers. However, after having high hopes I might make their cut, they had some changes in plans and ended up scrapping the event entirely.

The final of the three venues who took interest in my topic, asked me to meet with their committee in person. Upon my arrival to their out-of-state meeting, where I expected to again be greeted by a room full of potential speakers, to my surprise, I was the only speaker they had brought in, on that particular day. I walked into a room full of brilliant committee members to be considered for an upcoming event over a year out. A truly wonderful group of people with incredible questions about my topic that on the spot, I was completely unable to answer. They literally stumped me with genuine thought provoking questions. The best I could do was promise to return home and explore their questions further. I just didn’t have the answers.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the committee put me and my idea to a vote right then and there, in front of me. To my surprise they agreed to slot me in to be a speaker a year out. Elated and somewhat stunned that they wanted me to give my talk, I returned home unwilling to really accept the decision. I was too shocked to suggest to people that I might have gotten slated to give a TEDx talk. Yet, I had this feeling in my gut, that I should begin thinking about some of the questions posed during that meeting.

A few weeks went by, during which the thought came and went many times, that I should begin thinking about this talk, in the event their decision was real. Instead I procrastinated, thinking I had plenty of time to prepare later. Suddenly, my phone rang, and to my surprise I was asked if I’d like to give my talk in two weeks. It turned out they had a cancellation and although there was no pressure for me to accept, as they had plenty of speakers they could turn to if I declined, I was given the opportunity. I said, “YES!” and then hung up before panic set in. What was I thinking? A TEDx talk that most people take six months to a year to prepare for, and I would be giving it in the next two weeks. Was I insane?

So here’s what they don’t tell you about a TEDx Talk. You are expected to not only have an amazing idea and prepare a grand talk, but moreover, you’re expected to rehearse it over and over in front of a coach and/or committee prior to giving your talk. Not only that, but you should be so well memorized that you can seem completely natural as you give this talk verbatim time and time again. On top of that, as if that weren’t enough pressure, in some cases, you could be the only speaker that the entire event is set up for, as was the case in mine, which was a TEDxSalon, meaning only one or two speakers would present that evening. Whoa! Hault! Are you kidding me?! No, not kidding. But then compound all of that with less than two weeks preparation time and here’s what you get. A whole lot of awful rehearsals.

The first rehearsal had to take place within about 3 days of my acceptance of the speech. Which meant I needed to not only write an amazing talk, but memorize it faster than my mind could comprehend. So I faked it a bit, and taped my written speech on multiple papers around my computer to give the first rehearsal by Skype for the committee. As you can imagine, I was horrible. The skype connection came in and out as I attempted to grab my words off the page and deliver them into my camera on my computer. I was able to see the faces of this entire room of committee members staring at me blankly. Then came time for feedback. Well without getting into details, you can imagine, there were a lot of suggestions and a fast next date given for another rehearsal.

The next rehearsal was not better. Though I was a little more familiar with my own talk, I was still not able to rehearse it twice in a row verbatim. Nor was I able to present it in a seemingly natural way while jumping back and forth between the written words and my delivery into the camera. Once again, I was awful and already it was almost time for me to leave Los Angeles by plane, to head to a tech rehearsal.
Now the great news is, the committee offered amazing feedback and suggestions. The problem was that everything depended on my memorization of this intense talk I was about to give that had just been written. At any normal speaking event, you are not typically expected to memorize your speech verbatim. That is reserved for actors with scripts. But with a TEDx talk, you’re expected to be a speaker and an actor all rolled into one, while delivering an idea that is supposed to change the way people think, AND it’s highly regarded as one of the most prestigious opportunities in the speaking world. Again, no pressure. On top of that, you need to ensure your talk does not exceed 18 minutes or it will likely never get aired online.

In an effort to prevent myself from exploding from anxiety, I eased my stress by reminding myself that I was going to be able to lean on my slides for talking points. But then the time came to give the talk just one more time prior to the actual show, at a tech rehearsal in front of more people who had seen it done badly already several times prior. The pressure just never seemed to end. Only that time, they decided I should scrap my slides all together, and just give the talk without them. They did not feel the slides were significant enough to truly enhance my talk, given the nature of it.

“WHAT?!” I thought. “Are you kidding me?!”

I of course, nodded and agreed as I had done several times before, such as when I had accepted the talk two weeks prior to the show date. Only deep down feeling as though a rug had just been yanked out from underneath me.
At this point, I had no choice but to resign secretly, to scrapping all my preparation in exchange for giving a talk completely from the heart. There was no other way I could overcome my fear of completely disappointing all the people who were there, to hear me speak. Here were all these incredible people, putting on this event, dedicated that evening, to my talk which had now been renamed, “Alive and Counting.”

Nighttime came and it was time to show up once again to the venue in hopes that I could spit out a candid but rehearsed, and fully engaging talk, expected to get across an idea that was worth sharing.

Not only was the venue completely class act, with attention to every detail from lighting and sound, to branded TEDx cookies, but the place completely packed out. The time came to stand up, take a deep breath, and just let out whatever was going to come out. And so I did.

Now you know and here it is. Enjoy…  TEDx TALK, ALIVE AND COUNTING with Julieanne O’Connor

By the way, two known little facts about giving a TED Talk…  They say, 1) Don’t wear “BLACK” — OOPS!  2) Never talk about “DEATH” — OOPS AGAIN!

Can your made up or imaginary prediction of your own potential death date determine the quality of your life?

Massive gratitude to the TEDxYakima team for having faith in me and for giving me this opportunity. Thank you to all of the incredible people who showed up that evening, on faith that they might be entertained, moved, even inspired. And to those who shared with me after the event, their beautiful feedback, stories about life and death, and their incredible personal journeys. And to the sponsors. Thank you.


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