Preparing a TED talk: a journey to the essence of my work

Preparing a TED talk: a journey to the essence of my work

For the past two weeks, I have been busy preparing a TED talk that will take place on March 22 in Delft, The Netherlands.

Several times in the past, I have been approached about possibly speaking at a TED event, and I have never pursued the opportunity until now. Among the reasons for my hesitation is that I consider the format a tricky one, at least for me.

While I have been speaking in public for many years, and in a wide variety of venues, I am rarely asked to fit my remarks into such a limited time. TED talks are meant to be about 15 minutes in duration, and certainly no more than 18 minutes.

The 18 minute constraint is a particular frustration for speaker-lecturers like myself. In my university career, or in my various seminars and workshops throughout the world, I have long been a partisan of using examples and narrative extensively. In almost all cases, I enjoy taking my time when I tell a story. In addition, I have found that when I speak this way, audience reactions are almost always positive.

Consequently, one might say that my approach and experience do not lend themselves to the TED-style venue, where one must think constantly about trimming one’s stories and images. Shrinking down these aspects of a speech is simply not what I usually do.

As such, for someone like me this is an absolutely fascinating exercise. One of the things I discover—or rediscover—about myself is that I probably should try to get better at culling out all the nonessential elements of my discourse.

The title of my session is “How we can use our life stories to change our world.” Since this is a topic I could go on about for hours—even days—it is quite a task to decide what to say in such a short speech, and how to structure it all. Of course, this means cutting out many things I would normally consider important to the subject at hand.

As it turns out, this is something of a classic problem, even for some of history’s most renowned speakers.

Many years ago, I heard a quotation, supposedly from the acclaimed former US president Abraham Lincoln, where he states that he needs no preparation time for a two-hour speech. However, if he is to speak for 10 minutes, it would take him two weeks to prepare. However, the website “Quote Investigator” writes that the attribution of these words to Lincoln may not be accurate.

Stories around the concept—that it is simply far more challenging to prepare short speeches than long ones—have been in circulation for hundreds of years. However, there are not many direct quotations with reliable sources that corroborate the precise origin of the words. Here is one of the few I have found, attributed to former US president Woodrow Wilson.

According to the same website cited above, the following exchange appears to be authentic. When a friend asked how long it took him to prepare one of his speeches, the president responded: “That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

Whatever the origins of the words or the idea, it appears that even the most illustrious of orators needed far more time to craft and practice a speech of short duration than a longer one. This is precisely the issue before me today, and I am indeed discovering that speaking in a forum such as TED requires more preparation and attention to detail than I had previously imagined.

In that vein, I will cease immediately writing this post, and head back to the project of preparing the talk.