Recently I was invited to give a TED talk, and I accepted without fully understanding what I was getting myself into. I knew it would be a great opportunity to spread a message around the world, but I wasn’t aware how much work—and stress—would be involved. Nor could I foresee that delivering this talk would be one of the best professional experiences of my life.
TED—which stands for technology, entertainment and design — is a nonprofit organization founded in 1984 that has become renowned worldwide for the compelling talks that it sponsors. TED’s reputation is simple to explain: The talks are short, cogent, focused on one relevant topic—and thoroughly prepared, down to the smallest detail.
For starters, nobody at TED calls these talks “speeches.” The distinction is important. In a speech, we tend to talk to a distant audience. But a talk is much more intimate, almost person-to-person. Connection and tone are key.
The Argentine scientist Gerry Garbulsky invited me to give the talk. He guided me with endless patience and infectious optimism through the circuitous, fascinating process of the TED talk. This year, for the first time, TED included Spanish talks at its annual conference. I was honored to share the stage with musician Jorge Drexler, peace activist Ingrid Betancourt, physicist Gabriela González, primatologist Isabel Behncke and artist Tomás Saraceno.
I spent three months in preparation—choosing the topic, writing nine drafts and memorizing the final version—before finally delivering the talk in an auditorium in front of hundreds of people (and a potential virtual audience of millions).
It wasn’t easy. Because of my work as a journalist, I give a couple of speeches a month. But with a TED talk, nerves and expectations multiply exponentially.
Gerry and other people generously gave me advice about how to give a successful talk, and I want to share some pointers with you:
— Say what you need to in 12 minutes or less. After that, audiences tend to get distracted or bored. This means that you should use no more than 1,800 words in your talk. (I wish every politician would take this advice to heart.)
— Be yourself. Use words and wear clothes that make you feel comfortable. If you’re relaxed, the audience will be, too. Breathe from the bottom of your belly (this is much harder than it sounds). And you needn’t yell: The microphone is there for a reason.
—Vary the volume, speed and intensity of your voice. Be unpredictable. Enjoy the moment, and embrace the privilege of sharing your message with many people.
—Connect with the audience. Talk to them as if you were one on one. Make eye contact. Move around the stage. People like to see your hands, but don’t be repetitive with your gestures. If something unexpected happens during the talk—you sneeze, you drop a glass, someone yells, you’re interrupted, you forget what you were going to say—accept it. Pretending that it didn’t happen makes things worse.
—Practice. And practice some more. Say your talk to your mirror or to people you trust. I rehearsed my talk dozens of times. Two weeks before the date, you must have a very clear idea of what you’re going to say. One week before, you must be able to say it without looking at notes. But if you prefer to have your notes with you, that’s OK. While it’s not necessary to memorize every word, you should at least memorize the first and the last few minutes.
—Before starting, drink water. Clear and warm up your throat.
—And at the end, don’t forget to say “thank you.”
The difference between a good talk and a scholarly lecture or political speech is that you, and only you, can give it. We’ll all have at least one life experience that calls for just the right words. That’s when you’ll have to give the best talk of your life.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is a news anchor on Univision. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of several best-selling books. His latest is “Take a Stand: Lessons From Rebels.”