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How to write a TED talk

"Would you like to do a TEDx talk in Stuttgart…?"

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my little breast cancer blog would lead to me being asked this. But I was, about 4 months ago now, thanks to Twitter. The question came from the amazing Ross Fisher (
@ffolliet), a Paedatric Surgeon who is passionate about getting people to stop using slides filled with tables and charts and words, and learn to tell a story instead. He's changed the way I give a presentation for the better. He'd presented at TEDx Stuttgart in 2013, and was contacted by @nicolegugger to ask if he could ask me to talk. The rest is history. The theme was 'Motion, Emotion and E-Motion', which seemed to fit my story of breast cancer, promoting exercise during treatment and highlighting the differences in IT use as a doctor and a patient.


But what is a TED talk?

TED is a non-profit organisation for spreading ideas, in the form of short, powerful talks of 18 minutes or less. All the talks are posted on YouTube. The main 5-day conference is held in America, but smaller TEDx conferences are independently run to help share ideas in communities around the world. There's even a TED app where you can download and watch talks. Doing a TED talk is HUGE. Lots of pressure!

What have I done?

I can honestly say that I have never worked so hard on anything in my life. Mainly, it's because it meant so much to me, but it also meant a lot to the audience. I found out that tickets for the event sold out in an hour, months and months before the speakers were announced. Can you imagine being so keen to go to an event, you'll buy a ticket before you know what you'll be seeing? A (much) smaller version of Glastonbury, perhaps? I couldn't let them down. The third reason is that there was a lot of personal soul-searching involved. And that was the really hard bit.

Also, it's easy to talk for an hour on a topic - most of us could do that tomorrow if we had to. But to talk for 15 minutes, and deliver one clear idea, that would be put on YouTube for the world to see… that's a different matter.

Team Liz

Ross was going to be my mentor in the UK, as it would be impossible for me to get to Stuttgart for the rehearsals with everyone else. This meant I was in my own little bubble. I never knew what the other speakers were saying, or how their rehearsals were going, or how much they were struggling. The two coaches,
Peggy Stinson and Dirk Haun in Stuttgart, were amazing. They are always an e-mail or Skype call away, but it was hard doing things at a distance. Even Ross was a good 4 hours away, and we did all our mentoring by Skype.

So what?

I was given a month to get my first draft together - a full script of what I intended to say. My dilemma was this - all the talks I've done up to now have been to medical or healthcare-related audiences who speak English. This would be to a non-medical audience who speak German. I don't speak German. I know very little about German culture. How could I possibly make my story interesting? Would they laugh at my British humour? How do I get them to care I've had breast cancer?

I really struggled with this draft, but at last, I was fairly certain that I had 'it' - the perfect script. And it was torn to shreds. Rightly so. My coaches, who were all amazing, simply said, "So what?".

You've had breast cancer - so what?
What's your message?
Why should the audience care?
What's your one idea you want them to leave with?

Back to the drawing board?

I've never written a talk with that much focus on the audience before. I normally know what topic I've been asked to cover, and adapt it to the audience; but to start with what the audience want first? That was hard.

It was also incredibly hard to be told that all my month of work was only the beginning, and that I would need to start again. As a surgeon and a perfectionist I'm used to getting things right the first time. After all, I only get one chance to make the first cut with a scalpel. It was very humbling to accept that I don't always get it right the first (second, tenth) time, and to go back to the drawing board.

Kill your darlings

What I quickly came to realise, thanks to Peggy, Dirk and Ross was that my story lacked a structure. It was a collection of all the little things that have happened to me that I love to talk about. They're fun to tell an audience, and I know they get a laugh. But they had no bearing on my message. I had to get rid of them. And if I did get rid of them, what would I have left to talk about? It's known as 'killing your darlings", and it was a scary thing to do. But they were right.

Just tell me what to talk about!

I can't tell you the frustration I went through. I wanted to be told what to talk about. For someone to tell me what my one amazing idea was. I couldn't see it for myself. And all anyone kept telling me was "You'll know when you find it". Not helpful for this impatient woman who wants it sorted NOW so she can start practicing it.

Help is out there

So I went right back to the beginning, with a blank page and a lot of post-it notes. I read all of Ross's
blog posts. I read 'Resonate' by Nancy Duarte and 'Presentation Zen' by Garr Reynolds. The TEDx team sent me "Talk like TED' and I also bought 'TED talks - the official guide'. It really was back to basics. I asked myself the following questions:

Why do the audience care that I've had cancer?
What have I learned about cancer?
What have I learned about myself?
How can I help the audience?

I made a huge chart of highs and lows, putting every silly thing I could think of on this massive piece of paper. And suddenly ideas and themes started to flow. And over the next couple of weeks, with a lot of re-writing and 'helpful' comments from Ross (more "So What?" again), I finally got there.

Let's start at the very beginning, what a very good place to start

And then the soul-searching really began. I needed a catchy opening, and a killer ending. Something that would hook the audience right from the start, and then leave them inspired to act on my message. And I just couldn't find the words. I'd lie awake in the middle of the night with all these great ideas, and couldn't remember them in the morning. With less than 3 weeks to go, I had an ending, but the beginning wasn't right. Ross to the rescue again. His advice - just start practicing, and the words will come. And that's a completely different story.
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