Talks Worth Listening To: 5 Reasons Why Every TEDx Event Should have Speaker Training

by cv harquail on July 11, 2013

When the organizer of TEDxHoboken, Elizabeth Barry, told me she was requiring every speaker to participate in ‘speaker training’, I couldn’t figure out whether to grin or to grimace.

On the ‘grin’ side of things, I was pretty impressed that our organizer had plans in place to make sure that the whole conference was better than good. Elizabeth not only had an insanely high standard for all the talks, but also she had designed a series of activities with a bona fide TEDx speaker coach, John Bates, to make sure we could reach this level. (Specifics below.)

You’ve got to love a leader with a destination AND a road map. 

TedxHoboken window

But on the ‘grimace’ side, I was selfishly wondering how much a speaker coach could really help me. I’ve got decades of experience of speaking in front of an audience, what with teaching, workshop facilitating and research presenting. Even as an 11-year old I won a state 4-H championship with my talk about “Avoiding Colic Through Pasture Management”. What could a group-based speaker training offer me that I hadn’t already heard before?

Then it hit me — Speaker training wasn’t really about ‘me’ and making my presentation better. It was about how we  all could create a full day of exciting, inspiring ‘talks worth listening to’.

I realized that I loved this idea of speaker training, because secretly I was concerned about just how good the conference would be. I’d been to two previous TEDx events– one was terrific, and the other was so bad that I almost asked for a refund. Clearly, the basic conference process produces uneven results.

By the morning of the actual TEDxHoboken conference, it was clear to me that the speaker training was a core driver of the quality and success of TEDxHoboken. Here’s why:

5 Reasons Why Every TEDx Event Should have Speaker Training

1. Having a speaker coach raises the overall quality of the presentations.

This one seems like a ‘duh’. But if it’s so obvious, why do so many conferences leave speaker quality to chance?

Many (most) conferences assume that speakers are self-motivated to crush it from the stage. If the speakers’ own motivation isn’t enough, surely the conference’s selection process and the pressure of the conference’s public profile should press speakers to create their very best?

                   The “Leave It To The Speakers”-Approach Isn’t Reliable

Anyone who’s been to a conference knows that the ‘leave it to the speakers’ approach doesn’t always work. We’ve all been at conferences with dumb presentations, listless presentations, irrelevant presentations, and ‘helicoptered-in’ presentations — and longed for something better.

A speaker’s good intentions and hard work are often not enough– people need guidance about what to do, tips for how to do it, and feedback about how far they’ve come. Plus, speaker training makes it easier for the organizer to add a few speakers who have motivation but not much experience (e.g., students).  Specific, directed coaching can give any motivated speaker the tools to be even better.

The sheer act of having a coach, much less requiring one, made a statement about the level of talks we were expected to give.

With all of us going through the training, the chances of anyone doing a poor job (and depleting the energy and value of the day itself) was low. The work I was putting into my talk made more sense, since I knew that so many other speakers   expected just as much from themselves.

2. Having a speaker coach helps shape the talks to fit the event, the genre, and the audience.

TEDx talks have a specific style— they explicitly aim to combine a personal story and big idea, to open the audience up to new ways of thinking and acting. This combination is so unique and specific to TED/TEDx that it’s unlikely that presenters would already have experience creating talks of this genre.

Our presentation coach helped us break down the components of a ‘TED-Type Talk’ and appreciate the roles that they played for the idea, the presenter and the audience. Then we challenged ourselves to consider how we could create these components in our own talks.

I was concerned that we’d be encouraged to use a cookie-cutter approach and end up with talks that felt the same. That concern evaporated at our second session when we speakers practiced our talks with each other. While there were a few universal outcomes from the coaching (e.g., we all followed the admonition “don’t’ talk about your talk in the talk”), it was clear that we were each combining our ‘big idea’ and our ‘personal story’ differently.

Understanding and using the general components actually helped free us to make our talks our own.

A surprising part of the coaching was the focus on the audience. I’d been thinking so much about the genre of the ‘talk’ that I’d forgotten about the style of the audience.

John Bates, our coach, helped us consider how the ‘typical TEDx’ audience would be supportive from the start, letting us jump right in without any preambles or perfunctory greetings. And, he had us think about our talks from the perspective of the audience– not only what they expected, but what they longed for — and how we could deliver this to them through how we crafted our talk.

3. Presentation coaching can help speakers become a community.

Going through the training as a group had a surprising interpersonal benefit– we got invested in each others’ success.

I got a lot of ideas just watching my colleagues, and also got more into the groove of a ‘‘TED-Type Talk’’.  I also invested my self in their talks by offering ideas, asking questions, and simply being encouraging.  I got the same help from the other presenters, too.

Even better, at the dress rehearsal and the actual day of presentations, I could see (and offer specific feedback about) how much and in what ways each person’s talk improved. I could see Jeff’s talk get tighter as he grew more confident about his message. I could see how Kirk polished the ‘aha’s’, and how Rick opened up his discovery process. And, I could tell them each for real how much their work had paid off.

This sense of being it it together made self-comparisons feel silly and helped all of us feel like we were creating a program together.

4. The coaching helped us see our talks as ‘bigger than ourselves’.

me fred taylorIt’s easy to imagine a TEDx talk as a  chance to promote not just you ‘big idea’ but also your big ‘self’. There are clearly people presenting at TEDx’s whose sole goal is to increase their profile to get new business. Which is fine, but not enough to ensure a wow for the audience.

Our organizer and our coach expected more from us.  We were each chosen, they said,  (1) to serve our big idea and (2) to create an experience for the participants (aka audience). Any personal profile enhancement was a nice side benefit but not the main purpose.

This ‘bigger than ourselves’ orientation helped to align our individual goals with the conference team’s goals.   It also took away some of the fear, since our talk was no longer about us and how we’d “perform”, but about how well we could serve the ideas we believed in. 

5. The presentation coaching built our individual capacity for sharing our big idea.

There were a few times (okay, more than a few) when my dear spouse wondered aloud whether all of this work wasn’t a bit much for 11 minutes on stage with an audience of (only) 150. There were times that I wondered this, too.

The coaching helped to improve my presentation on the day of the conference, so the observable result was a win.  Still, people who’ve already seen me present my ideas or teach a class might not recognize any actual improvement in my delivery. But I’m sure my process for getting there is more effective and more reliable. It’s like I refactored it— same result, more efficient internal process, more robust overall system.

For any of us planning to do more speaking, whether in a TEDx-Like venue, an Ignite talk, or an industry conference, the speaker training increased our capacity to deliver a what I now call ” a talk worth listening to”.   It’s an example of a skill-related boost (just like what I described in my talk!).

Other people noticed the positive impact of speaker training.

I spent a lot of time talking with TEDxHoboken participants/attendees during the breaks, and (even before they realized I was a speaker myself) almost everyone talked about how engaging some/many/most of the speakers were.

I also talked with some of my fellow speakers about what they did to make their talks so good– and they all referred back to things we’d learned at the training and to the support they felt from the speakers they’d trained with.

[Fellow TedxHoboken speakers– how did speaker training help you take your talk from good to great? What do you think it added to the event itself?]

Note:  The skill of the speaker coach matters– a lot. 

Of course, these accomplishments weren’t due  to having a speaker trainer per se.  Elizabeth chose John Bates specifically because he has lots of experience training other TEDx speakers and and as a TEDx speaker himself.  (In another post, and over on John’s LinkedIn page, I’ll expand on his specific contribution.)    

While I’m sure that many speaker coaches could have helped us improve our talks, it makes a difference to get a coach with TED-ish experience.  The most important benefits (for me) were in creating a fit between how I delivered my big idea and what the specific TEDx audience was hoping and expecting to receive. 

More conference organizers should adopt group-based speaker training as a strategy to improve the overall event.

I’m pretty sure that Elizabeth had all 5 of these benefits (above) in mind when she put the speaker training process in place, because she thinks this way.  But I haven’t seen many conference organizers include speaker training in their plans.

To be sure, there are many other elements that need an organizer’s leadership. But after the day is over, which of these elements remain?  The name tags and signage get tossed, the sound system gets disassembled.  The participants go home with whatever they learned and felt.

But the talks themselves? They go up on YouTube — as the only tangible demonstration of what the event accomplished.

So here’s an idea worth sharing:

If you are organizing a TEDx event, build in a speaker training process.

Find a presentation coach and work with him/her to create a program for all of your speakers to participate in together.

  • Raise the quality of the talks
  • Fit the talks to the event you want to create
  • Create a community among your speakers
  • Focus on a larger purpose, and
  • Build participants’ capacity to deliver the next time too.

As John Bates reminded us,

“If it’s an idea worth sharing, it’s an idea worth everything you’ve got.”



See Also:

* Our program included:

– A 3 hour webinar, with John Bates skyping in to a group of 6-8 of us (together irl) with discussions, case studies, q & a
– A 7 hour in person coaching-practice session, with John Bates and a group of speakers, each practicing his/her talk and getting coaching and feedback from everyone
– A dress rehearsal with final tweaks
– Email q&a
– Practice sessions with Elizabeth at our request

Some speakers worked with John privately and individually. A few speakers did not partipate in the training.



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