Tips from a TED Talk Coach on how to connect with your audience for those vital 18 minutes

Share your perfectly imperfect story. You won’t break

Julie was asked to produce a local TEDx event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Photograph: Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg

Gina London

Julie Bernstein held the pottery cup high above her head. She then released her grip. The cup slipped silently downward until it lightly hit the edge of a small, cement landing base placed near her feet.

You could hear a soft “clink” and the cup popped up an inch or two away from the base and landed. It lay there, resting on its side on the iconic red carpet of a TED Talk stage. It didn’t break.

Trouble was, it was supposed to break.

Julie is an acclaimed American radio producer. She has won a coveted US Peabody Award. She’s also the author of the best-selling book, Spark: How Creativity Works. It was the success of her book which prompted the TED Talk folks who promote “ideas worth spreading” in 18 minutes or less, to invite her to speak on the big stage in California in 2012. Big stage. Big audience. Really big emotion. Because, you see, until that time, Julie had always been behind the scenes.

“I was only ever on stage to introduce the talent, and then I had to grasp the podium to keep from shaking,” she told me.

But Julie accepted the invitation and spoke on that big stage.

She also told me that looking back, “it was a fantastic experience although something went radically wrong. Afterwards, one of the other speakers came up to me and said, ‘You know that moment when things didn’t go the way you planned, that was the moment when the audience totally joined with you.’ I think that’s true. Often, it’s when something goes wrong that people feel connected with us.”

A year later, Julie was asked to produce a local TEDx event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

“I coached all of the speakers and it was a delight to get to know them and help them craft their stories.”

Since then, Julie has continued to explore creativity, produce radio and coach TED speakers.

In fact, I was fortunate to have her coach me for the TEDx speech I delivered last month. Fortunately, for all of you, Julie was kind enough to share her coaching tips with us today. The tips are applicable not only for a TED talk mind you, but for any kind of presentation that is designed to inspire and motivate. And that, dear readers, pretty much covers everything.

Let’s get to it.

How to structure your speech

“TED is personal story, bigger picture, personal story, end,” Julie explained.

“You can play within that which is really fun.

"Understand that when you give a talk like this, you are conjuring for your audience. It’s like an enchantment. How do you bring your audience in to the enchantment? What do you want to happen during those 18 minutes, so they’re focused on you? What is the great story you want them to take away when you end? When you think about those things it will help you learn what to keep and what to prune. You’re not telling fairy tales up there, but you are creating a feeling and that’s great.”

How to deliver your speech

“It’s so personal,” Julie said.

“But for some people, practice is one of the best things. The best advice I can think of is from a brilliant radio host I worked with. Once, when I was getting very nervous because I was going on air, he said, ‘Julie, nobody else knows what you’re going to say, just mumble with distinction and they won’t care!’”

I laughed at that memory from Julie but the story makes a great point.

It’s important to have the words, but it’s also important to have the tone.

Julie went on, “The most important thing is how we connect with the audience and how we ground ourselves beforehand. To do that, ask yourself, ‘What makes me happy, that I do that can put me in a good mood?’ And remember, those nerves are actually useful. They give us energy.”

While you’re reflecting on your enchanting story and the energetic tone you are going to bring to your next presentation, I also want to take us back to Julie’s cup.

Why did she want it to break anyway? Because a story in her presentation revolved around the kind of cups, bowls and vases that she enjoyed making called Raku.

Raku is a type of pottery known by its signature of crackled webbing across its surface that emerges when it is dramatically heated and then abruptly cooled.

“Raku,” Julie told the audience, “is a wonderful metaphor for the process of creativity.”

Each experience produces a unique design. And as she described the clay vessels in her TED Talk, she stated, “it’s the imperfections that people cherished.”

It’s also a wonderful metaphor for each of us. We are made up of our experiences. We are imperfect. Our stories of disappointments alongside our victories and achievements are what connect us best with our fellow imperfect humans.

Julie’s plan, then, was to cause the cup to break and discuss what we can learn from being broken. But a recent viewer on the YouTube channel which showcases Julie’s TED talk observed the unbreakable moment differently commenting, “When you’re terrified of letting go and finally build up the courage to do it, but to your wonderful surprise… you don’t break.”

Share your perfectly imperfect story. You won’t break. Like Julie, the experience will make you stronger.

More Small Business

Top Stories