The question I get more than any other from new (and sometimes, not so new) acquaintances — professional and personal — is “what was it like giving a TED talk?”.

That’s easy to answer. 

Sure…standing on a TED stage was exciting. It has opened doors, instigated conversations and most significantly, provided a platform for a topic I deem important.

But the TEDx experience had a profound and lasting impact on the way I think about, prepare for and attempt to engage in any opportunity to convey an idea. 

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by what it takes to connect with an audience.

Through the years, like many who read this post, I’ve spent plenty of time working on communiques — flirting with radio’s theater of the mind, the visual arts of film and video, creating advertising, designing strategic communication efforts and leading business development and sales teams.

But the four months I spent immersed in TEDx San Antonio changed how I approach connecting with an audience more than any experience along the way,

So for the record, and in hopes that this is of value to anyone who aspires to connect with an audience or market, here are my three greatest takeaways. 

1. Attention Is A Gift

Even though most of us have first hand experience with a wandering mind during virtually any presentation, it is easy to believe that our message is compelling enough to enthrall. As such, it actually deserves (or demands) more time.

The TED platform challenges speakers to think differently.

For starters, there is that pesky attention span issue. A Digital Information World piece in 2018 goes as far as suggesting that the attention span of a human being has shrunk to about seven seconds!

That is tough to contemplate. But whatever the actual figure might be, the fact is that the competition for attention is constant and fierce. To presume that an audience will stay tuned-in simply because I’m on a stage with a microphone is to ignore the challenge we all know to be true. 

A article by Esther Choy provides some perspective (and hope) by quoting Dr. Gemma Briggs, who notes that “people can and do focus their attention well when they want to and are interested in a particular task or activity.” 

But don’t get too comfortable. Whether for a few seconds or a few minutes, asking anyone to lend you their ears is a request for attention.

In exchange for the gift of their attention, audiences demand succinct relevance. Not a catalogue of offerings or a smorgasbord of insights, but an idea worth sharing.

Boiling everything you can say down to a relevant idea requires what, for me, was a different approach to prep.

2. Preparation Means Practice

My talk was scheduled for ten minutes.

The first pass at talking through my initial outline ran nearly twenty. And I thought I’d rigorously honed the content.

Time to rethink. 

Like many, I’ve made presentations my entire professional career. In the process I had adopted the view that seasoned communicators work without notes and don’t need to write out a speech. “Rehearsing” was something for actors. Or amateurs

But the TEDx experienced required every speaker to work with a coach and participate in critiqued rehearsals. 

So in collaboration with a smart and kind coach, the goal was to make every word necessary, and every minute purposeful. And to whittle my message down to ten minutes. 

The lesson?

Opportunities to communicate are too precious to leave anything to chance. Real prep means word-smithing, rehearsing (out loud), idea-honing, rehearsing with an objective third party able to coach…and then rewriting and rehearse some more.

By the time I stepped inside the trademark red circle on the TEDx stage, I’d spent 30+ hours writing and rehearsing, 8 hours with my coach, been through a dress rehearsal and a separate walk through to test lights, sound and AV. Plus dozens of hours in front of a video camera or a mirror incorporating insights from my coach.

Mark Twain famously said “if you want me to speak for an hour I’m ready today.  If you want me to speak for just a few minutes it will take me a few weeks to prepare.”

This view of prep is a cornerstone of my TEDx experience. It is the byproduct of an understanding of the attention span issue coupled with a respect for the time of the audience, as well as every other speaker on the program if you happen to be sharing the stage with others.

3. Twenty-Minutes, Max

Lesson three? More is not better — even if no one is watching a clock. 

We all know this; we just forget or fail to put it into practice. A longer presentation does not equate to a more important message. More time on stage does not guarantee more attention or greater mind share.

If it cannot be conveyed in less than twenty minutes, the message can use some work. 

The Common Thread

There’s a theme running through these lessons — attention is precious, and effective communicators do not take it for granted.

I am embarrassed to admit that I forget it all too frequently; but TEDx underscored the fact that communication rarely begins with a focus on eloquence or insight.

If you’re a consumer of TED content you have no doubt been moved by more than one or two ideas worth sharing. The TED brand underscores the fact that the attention you receive from an audience will correspond to the discipline you bring to preparing the communication.

(If you’re interested in the Talk itself, here’s the YouTube version.)