My experience coaching a TED X speaker

A few weeks ago, I coached a 23-year-old rapper who had been asked to give a TEDx talk at his university. Matt is an extremely intelligent and gifted rapper from Chicago’s South Side, where I grew up (in fact, his mom and I went to the same high school!)

The TED People sent out a thorough list of recommendations for how to build and prepare for a TED talk. The problem was, the more Matt read the list, the more uncertain and anxious he became.

So, we focused on just 5 things that would help Matt share his ideas, engage the hearts and minds of his audience and challenge their thinking around a controversial topic. Matt’s talk received the first standing ovation ever for a TEDx NIU talk. Here are the five things we focused on:

1. Have a bold core message
People sit through lots of boring presentation without hearing anything new. So Matt and I came up with a bold core message for his talk: “Hip-hop is our only hope.” This grabbed people’s attention because none of them had ever considered that before. In fact, many of them had only negative associations with the music and culture. This message grabbed them from the start and forced them to pay attention.

2. Tell a story
When Matt was 20, he was on the verge of taking his own life. He came home from school one day and was walking to his room to execute his plan. There were people in his house, and one of them stopped him on the stairs and said Matt had to hear Kanye West’s new song, Clique. Matt listened to the song and one of the lyrics stopped him in his tracks. And because of what he heard, he decided to live. Hip-hop literally saved his life.

3. Universalize your message
Though hip-hop may have saved his life, he had to ensure that his topic spoke to everyone. His talk played on the word “our.” Initially, the story was about how it saved him. Then he broadened it to how important hip-hop is to people who live in the inner city, as it helps them share what their lives are really like. Finally, he showed the audience that hip-hop is the only tool that allows the audience to empathize and potentially do something to help the inner city youth. As the title of the conference was “A future forward together,” this message resonated with everyone.

4. Contrast light and heavy
Life in the inner city can be rough, and Matt covered some heavy topics like suicide and murder. And though he can be lighthearted and hilarious, Matt often has a serious demeanor on stage. So I encouraged him to balance the heavy with levity. He told a few entertaining stories and did what he does best: rap. These elements helped create contrast in his talk. They prevented the audience from being left in dread for too long and kept them engaged on multiple levels.

5. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!
This comes directly from the TED Speaker Guidelines:

“We can’t stress this enough. Rehearse until you’re completely comfortable in front of other people: different groups of people, people you love, people you fear, small groups, large groups, peers, people who aren’t experts in your field. Listen to the criticisms and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. If someone says you sound ‘over-rehearsed,’ this actually means you sound stilted and unnatural. Keep rehearsing, and focus on talking like you’re speaking to just one person in a spontaneous one-way conversation.”

Blogger and TED speaker Tim Urban wrote a hilarious article about his preparation to speak at TED. He said you have to be “Happy-Birthday-level memorized”, meaning you can recite your talk as easily as you sing Happy Birthday. It allows you to not sweat the content, and be present to the audience reaction and yourself as a speaker. His article is worth a read.

And Tim’s TED talk, called “inside the mind of a master procrastinator,” is one of the most entertaining I have seen where he employs this Birthday level memorization really well.

Though you may never deliver a TED talk (but good onya if you do!), these tips should still come in handy for you. And if you want to see Matt’s TED talk, send me a note and I’ll send you the link to the video once it’s up.