Writing my TEDx talk was one of the most stressful, and useful, writing exercises I've ever done. If you're lucky like me, you'll get assigned an amazing co-conspirator who will help you structure and edit your talk, but ultimately the writing is up to you. Here's what I learned the slow way, so you don't have to.
1. Write in three acts
Writers are familiar with pacing their work into three acts. With TED talks, whether the organizers like it or not, there is a “successful” structure that has emerged, and is now recognized to be uniquely TED-like. I started to see the model as three acts, and that is what finally helped me organize my talk.
Personal story - 60-65%
Analysis - 25-30%
Call to action - 10%
PS: a great app for organizing these “acts” on three “boards” and then dragging and dropping your points around is Trello.
2. Know your ideas - then change them
You know to start with the end in mind. Write your three main ideas (or, with TED and TEDx, less than three main ideas) on a recipe card and build everything around them, making sure that everything you write is going to back up those three-or-less ideas.
But also keep in mind that with TED and TEDx, you have a unique structure to build your ideas around (see the three acts above) and unique limitations (10-18 minutes is NOTHING for your big, badass idea) and so you are going to have to get comfortable with: being very bold and to the point; being very illustrative; and being very sad about all of the stuff you wish you could say, but can’t.
For people like me who would like to live and breathe wordiness and nuance, this is so tricky. Your ideas may not look much like your ideas anymore, by the time you’ve put them through the TED wringer. This is OK, if you can accept that the point of TED is to share an appetizer of an idea. A tiny hors’devoir covered in personal-story-sauce, stripped of its methods, limitations, and caveats. Basically an academic cringe-fest. But on the other hand, an incredible platform. Can you feel that dialectic.
3. Do nothing
Don’t do what I did: crouch in front of my computer screen for hours, days, pulling my hair out over the order of two sentences, both of which I ended up deleting in a later edit.
I’ve stopped believing that the more time and stress you pour into writing equates better results. When your brain is fixated on solving a problem, it thinks that it is doing you a great service, working hard, and finding solutions. But according to the book Do Less, Be More (which, of course, I read immediately after the TEDx conference), your task-positive (fixated-on-doin’-stuff) brain is actually the least intelligent version of you. Task-positive mode shuts down all of the possible connections you could be making with your best, most problem-solving brain. That particular rich, creative network of neurons comes alive when you’re doing, ah, nothing. All of my best ideas and edits came to me while staring out a bus window. Obsess less, take more public transport, and take good notes.
4. If it seems wrong, it’s probably not right
Perhaps you do this, too. I anxiously write out my “maybe” ideas and phrases, then get attached to them, and later have to kill them off when a better idea comes along. I knew, all along, that I wasn’t overly convinced of their place in the script, and yet I wrote them - just in case I didn’t have any better ideas! This is a huge waste of time. Follow your good and beautiful instincts, even when completely freaked out by the pressure of TED or TEDx. Which leads me to ....
5. Find your images
You will find the right ideas and ways of communicating your ideas - take a walk, meditate, clear your head and talk out loud to yourself or a friend. Ask, out loud or on paper, to see the main essence, and most suiting images. Let them surface when you’re daydreaming, walking, or doing the dishes, and write them down. You know when you’ve hit the right metaphor - you can practically hear the “click.” Center your writing on those most helpful and powerful images, examples, and metaphors. Don’t waste your writing space and time on anything less.
My next post will be about the many counter-intuitive things I learned about public speaking! Stay tuned.