In the last decade, the TED Conference has transformed and revived the art of public speaking as a platform to share ideas in an engaging and influential way. TED Talks are immensely popular, with the videos having been view more than a billion times online.
The speakers are elite: including Nobel Prize, Pritzker Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, Tony winners, and MacArthur "genius grant” recipients.
TED also seeks out all kinds of experts from artists, musicians, poets, to scientists, philosophers, and thinkers. Sometimes, it’s their TED Talk which launches them into the mainstream which opens a whole new world of opportunities, from book deals to Hollywood movies.
The good news is that there is no age, nation, or niche barrier for being a TED speaker, and anyone has a shot at the big stage if they have an idea worth spreading.
The bad news is that it is not an easy feat. The TED Conference curators consider about 10,000 applications for only about 65 slots on the main stage.
Let’s get into how to get on the stage.
Spreading ideas: Your intentions matter
Before we dive into how to find the perfect topic for your future TED Talk, we need to talk about intentions.
There are so many speakers clambering to get on the TED stage to advance their reputations, and while this is not surprising, it is a turn-off for the organizers (and the audiences).
If you are looking to get on the stage to sell something, promote your business or organization, or increase your fame and influence, the TED organizers are going to see right through it and bypass you.
And while dozens of people might have told you that your story is inspiring, unless your story is going to change the world, this is probably not the platform for telling it.
There is a good chance that someone somewhere has already told a story about overcoming adversity, meeting challenges, and excelling in their life. What is it about your story that is different that can change the world?
Are you TED-ready? Here is a quick checklist:
- You genuinely want to help others.
You have a big, original idea, worth spreading around the world.
You have something to say that is truly extraordinary: your story is really a remarkable journey, you are one of the top experts in the world on your topic, your passion for your hobby or occupation can inspire thousands of people, or you have insights into something that no one else in the world does. Basically, you have something big to say.
You know how to be authentic and vulnerable. You are ready to reveal your failures, weaknesses, or setbacks with everyone in order to show how you got to your big idea.
You are coachable. If your TED coach says, “No, you should cut this or that. It will make your talk stronger.” you can accept the advice and work with it.
It’s not you. It’s your idea.
We are not really inviting people. We are judging the idea. It has to be something we have never heard of or a new way to present something.”
-Denis François Gravel from TEDxQuebec.
First things first: TED is all about ideas. Specifically, ideas worth spreading.
You need to have something original and important to say to the world. It doesn’t really matter what your experience or expertise is. You need to have a message that is innovative and world-changing.
What is the idea that you have to share?
What makes your idea different from what has already been shared?
Is your story truly intriguing?
“We’re looking for people who are doing something really important or thinking of something in a new way, and can communicate it really clearly, directly, with passion, and authentically.”
-Kelly Stoetzel is a content director for TED
Does your message meet an unmet need?
Are you saying something new?
Does your idea help the world?
These are the factors which set the difference between a talk and a TED Talk.
As for the idea, you’re on your own.
Getting on to the TED stage isn’t easy, and for good reason. It’s a venue for exceptional, revolutionary thinkers who have ideas that are meant to change the world.
Too many speakers are keen to get on the TED stage and are willing to talk about anything to get there, but saying, “I can talk about anything. What would you like me to talk about?” comes off as though you actually have nothing important to say. Having one crystal-clear idea you want to share will help you get a lot further than broadly saying, “I can talk about anything.”
Get on topic
So, where do you start when it comes to finding that great, spreadable idea?
Start with what you are genuinely passionate about.
Then look at where that passion overlaps with your expertise: figure out how it connects with your profession, education, or experience.
Now, you are starting to get into your niche. Figure out what you have to offer that no one else does.
Once you’ve got a general idea for your topic, you’ve got to spend some time refining it and building your social proof.
Start building your talk and influence, now.
Even though you believe your idea for solar-powered transport ships can transform the world, without a background in transport ships or renewable energy, or experts from those fields who agree with you and back you up, unfortunately, its going to be challenging for you to get on the stage.
Spend some time getting that social backing and influence if you don’t have it already.
(Want to go more in depth on this idea? Becoming a thought leader in your niche)
Once you have your topic, you need to refine the idea until you can get it across in one succinct sentence that explains it clearly.
The sentence might not include all the points, it might not be the catchy title, or have all the stories you will tell, but you need to figure out a way to get your idea down that is short, intriguing, and clear.
Once you’ve got your topic and succinct sentence, don’t wait until you are on stage to start talking about it: build a blog, create a website, and get active on social media to start spreading the idea.
Start giving talks, free or paid, and get in front of audiences to refine it. Look at these talks as an opportunity to test out your ideas, stories, facts, and insights on an audience to see what resonates and works the best.
Note: there's also a chance you might attract the attention of a TED curator, team member, or organizer who will then invite you to give a talk. Don’t be afraid of getting in front of as many audiences as you possibly can to increase your chances of the right person being there.
Once you’ve got your idea, you’ve practiced talking about it, and you’ve built some influence, it is time to start applying.
Start with TEDx
There are literally thousands of TEDx events happening every year around the world, and being on TEDx is the perfect launch pad to get on the big TED stage.
The TEDx Talks are made into videos which are posted on the TEDxTalks YouTube Channel. This not only gives you great exposure but, additionally, all the videos are reviewed by the TED team once they are uploaded. That means your video might give you the chance to be discovered by the TED curation team.
Also, if you link to your TEDx video in your TED application, this might help get you on the shortlist.
So, how do you get on TEDx?
Start by researching future TEDx events. Start with your area or language and start following them.
Figure out when the events are and what the topics are going to be.
Get involved with the community and organizers.
Keep your eye on their website or social media pages. They may announce when they're accepting applications for their next event.
Some TEDx events will even put out an open call for speakers—so keep your eyes open.
(Check to see if there are any TEDx open calls right here on SpeakerHub)
Make sure you start this at least several months before the upcoming event. If you are reading about the TEDx in the newspaper, (or whatever major news feed source you follow) you are far too late to become a speaker—they will have chosen their speakers months ago.
Look at your key TEDx’s editorial calendars, see what the topics are and figure out how you can fit into the topic. Don’t pitch a topic that would have been great at their last TEDx conference. Be ahead of the curve and pitch an idea that fits perfectly into their upcoming one.
Keep in mind that you will likely have to apply many months in advance of the actual TEDx event.
Three places to find out which TEDx Conferences are accepting applications:
Once you have one or two TEDx events you think your topic would be perfect for, it’s time to apply!
Each TEDx event organizer creates their own application process, so while one application may require you to submit a video, another might need you to answer some essay questions. Make sure you know what is required for the particular TEDx you are applying for.
The organizers will want to know who you are and what your idea is, so you can start formulating these ideas immediately, even if you don’t have an upcoming TEDx Conference you can apply for.
When applying, remember:
Pitching yourself as a motivational speaker.
Pitching your business or organization. Remember: TED and TEDx Conferences are all about the ideas.
Offering the same presentation and talk you’ve been doing for years. A new spin or a fresh idea will be more attractive.
Thinking they will want you simply because you are an expert. It has to be about your new, world-changing idea.
Cutting and pasting your speaking proposal from another application or any other information already floating around about you; including bios used on social media or other websites.
Using a ghostwriter or assistant to apply for you. Your voice is unique: use it.
Using jargon or overly-complicated, industry-specific language. While you might want to sound like an intelligent expert, if the organizer cannot understand your ideas, you aren’t going to get past the application phase.
Make sure you:
Present an idea that is worth spreading. What makes your idea unique and transformative?
Are authentic and kind. Once again, you are the conduit for your idea. They are not interested in your ego.
Put your passion, excitement, and energy at the forefront. Get them as excited about your idea as you are.
Show how your idea can impact the lives of others and the world.
Once you’ve finished your application, had it proofread, and it is ready—be courageous and press submit. Remember, everyone has a shot at the big-stage if they have an idea worth spreading.
That being said, even if your application was perfectly written, sometimes your proposal won’t be accepted. There might be other speakers whose ideas fit the goal of the conference better or another speaker whose topic is very close to yours who has already been selected.
But, don’t lose hope. There are thousands of events every year, and some cities run TEDx Conferences multiple times a year. Just keep applying.
From TED.com: A few things to know before you apply
- Set aside some uninterrupted time to think and really be thorough in filling out the application.
- You can save and return to the application at any time if you’d like to take a break in the middle. Simply save your responses using the button at the bottom of each page and access the form again through your TED.com profile.
- Pay special attention to your favorite websites and your personal references. We love to see what you share about yourself through these, and we follow up on both. If you would like to share links to your presence on social media, make sure your profiles are set to Public.
- Read up on our registration policies. We actively seek new members who are leaders in their field and who can make a strong contribution to the TED community through their energy, influence, and connections to change the world.
Ready to get started? Nominate yourself or get someone else to nominate you here.