Wanna give a TED talk? Here’s how I did it.
So, you want to give a TED talk.
You’ve accumulated experience.
You know you can help people.
You just need to get on that elusive stage.
That’s what this article attempts to answer.
Now, full disclosure, I’m not on any selection committees, and can’t tell you any insider secrets. Event organizers might even disagree with some of this. But I have done what you’re looking to do. I’ve been accepted twice to deliver TED talks, and in October 2022, I took the stage at TEDxFrankfurt to share my idea “Why You Need to Think Like a Hacker”.
Although I’m not a TED insider, I spent a lot of time pursuing this same goal that you are. I’ve reverse-engineered what seemed to make both of my applications get accepted, and I can share all that I’ve learned from organizers along the way. From my experience, it seems to boil down to demonstrating excellence in three areas:
- Your idea
- Your application
Action 1] Develop an idea worth spreading.
This should go without saying, but let’s make sure it’s clear that the whole point of giving a TED talk is to help people. If your goal is about vanity or ego, it’s just not gonna work.
- Something that’s new and surprising; an idea or invention that your audience has never heard about.
- A great basic idea (that your audience has maybe already heard) with a compelling new argument behind it that challenges beliefs and perspectives.
To develop an idea worth spreading, I spent effort doing the following:
- Think about a general audience. What is something that would be useful for pretty much anyone in the world? For those of you who (like me) specialize in a niche area, this means that you are going to have to speak to an audience different than you’re used to. A guiding question for me was “why should my grandmother care?” This helped remove me from the day-to-day conversations I have with other people deeply immersed in my niche, so I could think more broadly.
- Keep it simple. Simple is hard. Simple is what the audience wants. Simple is what the organizers need. Simple means you’ve sharpened and refined an idea so thoroughly that you can explain it to a curious 12-year-old child. Here’s your action plan:
- Remove the jargon.
- Stick to one call to action.
- Tell three stories that support the one call to action.
- Make those stories relatable to most people.
- Figure out what is actionable. What makes TED talks special is that the general audience can apply what they’ve learned. If I had given a talk about how to hack or build more secure software (which are my specialty), a majority of the audience wouldn’t have been able to do anything with it (because most people in the world are not in charge of building secure systems). So instead, I drew out things that anybody could go implement in their lives.
Action 2] Build yourself into a great candidate.
Have you ever noticed that TED talks are almost always excellent? Even if you didn’t enjoy a particular talk (or maybe even disagreed with the ideas in it), you probably noticed that the speaker is credible, the idea is sharp, and the delivery is captivating. That’s because TED speakers are not only experts in their niche, but have also developed their skill for storytelling, communication, and public speaking.
To strengthen myself as a candidate, I spent effort doing the following:
- Write a book. I’ll be the first to recognize that not all TED talks are from authors. I don’t know the exact stats, but it’s probably not even the majority of speakers that have written books. But you know what helps you sharpen an idea? You know what demonstrates relentless pursuit of an idea? You know what signals that you’re an expert on a topic? Being an author. You can definitely do this without writing a book (and many do), but if you are serious about changing the world with this talk, starting with a book is a great way to do it. I’d been pursuing this dream for many years, and I’d been a finalist countless times. But none ever crossed the finish line. Then, I wrote the #1 bestseller Hackable. Only a few short months later, two events selected me. As I found myself having to decline one of them with gratitude, I realized how different my candidacy was after becoming an author.
- Become a speaker. This is another one that you aren’t required to do in order to give a TED talk; once selected, you’ll get a lot of coaching and will rehearse your butt off. But, being able to prove that you are great on stage will help assure the organizers that you are worth selecting. So, get out there and give talks! Big talks, small talks. Speak in your industry. Speak to students. You don’t need to become a professional keynote speaker, just get on stages and work on the craft. Over time, you’ll steadily get better. You know how sometimes you watch a speaker, and they seem so natural, it’s almost like they just got up there and started chatting with you, unrehearsed? It took years and thousands upon thousands of hours to develop that skill. A lot of people mistakenly think they don’t want to rehearse because the talk might come off as “forced” and not “natural.” I assure you, the way to make a talk be natural is to work relentlessly at the craft of speaking.
- Become an idea translator. As you think about your area of expertise, what nuggets of wisdom are universal? Which speak to the human condition? Where can you change the way people think about things that affect them personally and daily? What are misconceptions you can correct? How can you bridge the gap between your field and the most general version of the human population? Make no doubt about it, talking about niche expertise in a way that a broad audience understands is difficult. But you have an opportunity to work on this rare skill every day. In your job, your daily life, and even in social settings. The more you can translate ideas across audiences, the better you’ll be on a TED stage.
Action 3] Apply.
While many speakers are sought out by event organizers, most are not. As you invest effort in everything mentioned above, you may find yourself invited to present your idea. If so, great! You short-cut this part of the plan! For everyone else, you need to apply. But not all applications are created equal. You want to craft a compelling application.
To submit a strong application, I spent effort doing the following:
- Be unique. Watch other talks from your topic area. What hasn’t been covered yet? What has been covered but you want to disagree with, improve upon, or otherwise update? What makes your application stand out?
- Be concise, clear. This may be the most difficult part. You have years of experience, you understand the topic as well as anyone, and you know all the jargon. But now you need to find the simplest, easiest to understand, least-jargony, most widely applicable concept within all of that knowledge. You need to describe it in very (very) few words, to an audience who does not understand your field – and that audience needs to be able to act on what you teach them. Do not overlook how much effort you’ll need to put in to being concise and clear. Once it’s short and clear enough: make it shorter and clearer.
- Be lucky (and create your own luck). Unfortunately, this last part is somewhat out of your control. Every event has a theme, and your topic needs to fit within it. Sometimes you know the theme in advance, but even if you do, you certainly won’t know how you fit in with the other speakers in the program. However! If you do all of the steps you just learned, and apply to enough events, you’ll eventually be the right fit. So, although this point is about being lucky, it’s really about putting in enough effort to create your own luck. If it matters to you, keep applying.
Call to action: DO IT!
This all may feel daunting. You may even be scared (in fact, if you aren’t scared, you probably aren’t serious enough about it yet). But as was the mantra from TEDxFrankfurt 2022: “feel the fear and do it anyway.” If you are the kind of person who:
- truly wants to help other people by sharing an idea that will benefit them, and
- you’ve put in the work to become an authority on a topic, and
- you’re putting effort into reading things like this:
then you probably are the kind of person who should be standing on the red dot, giving a TED talk.
Sharpen your idea.
Develop yourself as an authority.
Good things will follow. You got this!
- Need further advice? DM me on LinkedIn
- Want to book me to keynote your next event? Contact me here
- Need help with security testing or consulting? Hit us up here
 I was selected to two events happening in close proximity to each other, and made the decision to decline one so I could focus my full energy on the other. I was extremely grateful for both offers. But the point is: the ideas outlined in this article were successful not once but multiple times.
 The ideas in my TED talk, if applied to your desire to give your own TED talk, might help you find new ways to achieve this goal. I highly recommend you watch it.