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When it comes to video content, a TED Talk sets a high standard. A combination of great ideas, inspiring speaking style and sticking to an 18 minute time limit makes it some of the most shared (and smart) online content around.

When you see a TED Talk live, there’s also a palpable energy you can’t get from a YouTube download. So when I got a ticket to see TEDx Sydney on April 27, I was pretty excited.

Partly because I’ve heard how good the food is. But mainly because I have a secret fear.

I am incredibly nervous about speaking in public.

So I really wanted to know how the people chosen and willing to speak in front of 2,300 people in the Sydney Opera House do it.

When I re-read my notes I realised these same tips apply to writing content. (And that is something that doesn’t scare me in the slightest.)

1. Make it real

A good TED Talk sets the scene with a personal story that has a bit of a punch. That’s what we writers mean by ‘being authentic’. It also draws people in to caring about what you’re saying.

2. Then make the link to your audience

Give them a reason to engage by making it clear what your story/idea/message means to them. To do this you need to know your audience – and what’s in it for them. The starting point of any good copy. A TED Talk also sticks to one great idea, and makes that idea very clear.

3. Create a reason to share

That’s the whole point of a TED Talk. Ideas worth sharing. It works because it creates talking points. It takes popular culture or an issue and turns it on its head.

4. Be memorable

To be memorable, you need to get creative – and creativity is as simple as linking two unrelated ideas. There’s humour and an emotional connection when you can do that well. TED Talk guidelines also tell speakers to stay away from industry jargon and spend some time on the visuals – two other ways to make sure your message sticks.

5. Embrace your fear of failure

Novelist Marcus Zusak dedicated his talk to failure. For a writer who spent years on the NY Times bestseller list that may seem a contradiction (see point 4). But it’s true that, in any creative endeavour (including a presentation or piece of writing), there will be failure along the way – and if you can get through that, you can make it the best it can be.

6. Practice, practice, practice

A polished TED Talk doesn’t happen spontaneously. These guys don’t even have notes. Apparently the rule of thumb is the shorter the talk, the longer the rehearsal time. It’s the same for writing. It doesn’t happen in minutes. Edit, edit, edit. Read it out loud. Would you want to listen to what you’ve written? If not, re-write. And spend more time editing the shortest copy, make sure every word has a reason to be there.

7. Pause for breath

When I’m nervous (such as when speaking in front of more than four people) I tend to rush. But a great speaker knows how to pace. Those pauses create a white space where the audience can catch up on complex ideas. The same applies to writing. The rhythm helps your reader stop for breath, and add their own context. That helps them understand what you’re saying – and it also makes it much more interesting to read.

And if all else fails when it comes to presenting, perhaps I could take beta blockers. Apparently a large number of performers do – just one other thing I learned at TEDx Sydney 2014. I highly recommend watching the talks themselves for more inspiration.





  1. sara says:

    Thanks Kathleen! Glad to know I’m not the only one suffering from #7 syndrome.

  2. sara says:

    I know… I don’t even know what they are but apparently at least 30% of performers use them. And if it was said at TEDx, it must be true.

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