My experience of giving a TEDx talk: the preparation and lessons learned

On December 1st 2018, I was one of the speakers at the TEDxHUBerlin event – and this was an experience of a lifetime. And, besides discussing about the topic of the talk itself, many of my friends and colleagues ask me, “How was the process?” “How often did you practice?” “Did you get nervous?” “How did the audience respond?”. So I thought I’d share here what this whole TEDx experience was like for me.

Photo by SeeSaw Agency | Gregor Zielke

Around August 2018, I came across a Facebook post from TEDxHUBerlin calling for speakers. I really enjoy public speaking and have done it from an early age: back in Rio, when I was only 14, I gave a valedictorian speech in English to 3,000 people at my English course graduation ceremony, and during my PhD I was very involved in public outreach of science, and have spoken, for example, in a Science Slam and Soapbox Science twice, among other events. So it had always been a dream of mine to be a TED/TEDx speaker, as it is probably the most well-known platform for talks in the world.

My first thought when I saw the post was, “I’d love to do this, but I guess I’ll never be selected…” And then my second thought was, “but I guess it doesn’t hurt to try… I have nothing to lose after all.”

So a few weeks later I decided to send out an application. I had to answer questions in an online form about my motivation and show proof of my experience as a speaker. I included the video of my 2017 Science Slam (in German), which was another interesting experience (you can watch it here).

After sending it out, I didn’t think much about it and went on vacation with my parents, who were in Europe at that time. About a month later I still hadn’t heard from them, so I figured they hadn’t picked me. But then, on October 21st, I received an email inviting me to be a speaker. I remember I was on a train heading back to Berlin as I read the message on my phone, and felt like jumping around with excitement but had to contain myself to avoid weird looks from the other train riders.

Soon afterwards, it hit me: I had less than 6 weeks until the day of the event! I had to make very good use of the time.

The first step was to get in touch with the organizers of the event for more details. I had the freedom to choose the topic of my talk, and had already suggested a few in my application. I decided to go for “things that need to change in academia” for several reasons: 1) it’s a topic that has a very personal meaning to me and that I’m passionate about; 2) I have real life examples of my own experience to add to the story; 3) the TEDx I was speaking at was at HU Berlin (Humboldt University), so the live audience would likely be mostly students, to whom the topic was most relevant; 4) I had already written and posted an article on LinkedIn on the same topic in 2016 and got massive positive feedback from people saying how much they agreed (it currently has 70,000 views).

After defining the topic, my plan was straightforward: I would write the script of the talk, edit it until I was happy with the result, and only then start memorizing the text. 99% of the talks I give are not memorized word by word, but a TEDx should be. It’s too important to rely on on-stage improvisation, not to mention it would be filmed so it had to be on-point. And it would not make sense for me to try to learn the text before reaching the final version, as the changes would only complicate the memorization.

I’ve had quite some experience in writing and editing, so I knew it would be a process and that my text would go through several transformations. But still, this part was not easy. I only had a few weeks for conceptualizing, writing, digesting, editing, memorizing, making the slides and practicing. Plus, I had just started a full-time job as a consultant, with demanding hours. When I had dreamt about giving a TED or TEDx talk, I had imagined taking months and months to prepare. But in reality I only had a few weeks to work with. I knew it in my heart I could do it, but there were times that were quite stressful when I couldn’t yet see the final version of the script coming together. My parents and my boyfriend were big supporters throughout, reassuring me that I would get there.

Photo by SeeSaw Agency | Gregor Zielke

I learned valuable lessons while writing the script for my talk. For starters, the first version had everything I wanted to say, but didn’t sound like a talk – it sounded like an article. So I had to rewrite it, paying attention to how it would sound to a live audience, and not to a reader. Much like a script for a play or a movie.

The second point I learned is that you can’t say everything in one talk. My topic was “things that need to change in academia” – and there are sooo many. I wanted to also talk about the issues with the system of scientific publishing, students’ mental health, and gender inequality in science. The TEDx organizers connected the speakers with a communication coach that commented on our scripts. The coach said I didn’t have to improve anything in the way I was speaking and delivering my speech – that was on-point. But he suggested that I should focus on one main topic to be able to cover it properly – after all, the talk could only be 18 minutes long, at most. I agreed he had a point and restructured the talk to focus on my main message.

From the beginning, I also wanted my talk to be as humorous as possible – so I added several jokes, which I tested on a couple of friends, because you never know how funny the live audience is actually going to find them.

At last I reached the final version of my talk, which I was quite happy with. That was after several rounds of showing the changes and getting comments from my two favorite editors: my dad, and my good friend, Ahmed Khalil. They both have lots of experience in editing, perfect command of English and know me very well – they knew the points I was trying to make and how I would sound saying those words out loud. Big acknowledgements to them both for their insights!

I had one week to memorize my talk word by word and practice it. I usually find it easy to memorize texts, so the time was enough for me. I printed it out (it was 4 and a half A4 pages long) and repeated it out loud at home, trying to read less and less from the paper. I repeated it, and repeated it, and repeated it. I made my slides in a few hours and started practicing also with them. I would practice once before going to work, and once after arriving back home. Probably all the walls in my apartment heard that text at least 5 times. I had one rehearsal at the location a few days before the actual event, but without the stage or microphone.

On the big day, December 1st 2018, I actually had a career development event which I had helped organize, so I was busy the whole day, talking to graduate students about my new job (also very linked to the topic of my talk). At the end of the afternoon, I went straight to the TEDx location: die Heilig-Geist-Kapelle (the Holy Ghost Chapel), which doesn’t function as a chapel anymore, but as a venue for events. It’s inside a historical building of the Humboldt University in Berlin Mitte, home to the School of Business and Economics. I was the last speaker in a program with 9 talks. When I arrived, there were 2 talks left before mine, but I could only watch the first one, as I was backstage getting a microphone attached during the other one.

When they called me to the stage, I was surprisingly not nervous. I felt comfortable, in my element. I was very present and aware of my surroundings. It all went great: I remembered the whole text (which was one of my main concerns) and people laughed at most of my ironic jokes (even though the video recording didn’t capture it much, as there was no microphone for the audience). My two favorite people in Berlin, my boyfriend and my friend Ahmed, were sitting in the audience.

Right after the talk (and the event) was over, several people from the audience came to talk to me and gave me very positive feedback. They said I had inspired them to look for career options outside academia, that I had spoken very well and with passion, that I’m a natural speaker and should do this more often. They added that one could not tell that I had memorized the text, as I had delivered it as if it were the first time. They also said my talk was the best one of the day! I thought they were just saying it, but later one of the event organizers told me she had heard the same from other attendees!

Photo by SeeSaw Agency | Gregor Zielke

Speaking of the event staff, I must also say I had a great time with the TEDx organizers I got to meet: Rawan Alraish, Priianca Banerji, Senyao Hou and Konstantina Nathanail. A big thanks to them for the hard work and for being so kind to me!

After that day, I was naturally very curious to watch the video of my talk. When it finally came out, I was quite satisfied with the end result. Of course there are always things you wish you could change, but I think I did the best I could with the time I had.

After a few extra days of work, I was also able to upload subtitles for my talk in English and Portuguese, something that was very important to me, so that people with hearing impairment or who are not native speakers of English could also understand. It all had to be done through a platform that I didn’t know before and learned about: the TED translators, who are hundreds of volunteers who translate and transcribe all kinds of TED talks. My talk now also has subtitles available in Spanish thanks to them! (How cool is that?) A shout-out to the translators and revisors who took their time to work on the captions of my talk: Leonardo Silva, Daniela Pardo and Silvina Katz.

I truly believe in the words I said and am very glad to be able to spread that idea around. Since then, I have received lots of positive comments from friends, colleagues, clients, and several people who I hadn’t met before. Thanks to the exposure, I have been invited to give other talks, and several people have learned about my company and some applied to work there. The graduate programs where I graduated from have given me full support and even uploaded my talk on their websites: these are the Master’s program Neurasmus, and the Einstein Center for Neurosciences Berlin, which is linked to my former PhD program.

I’m super grateful for having had this opportunity and one-of-a-kind experience! It was really a dream come true for me.

Long story short: the journey of preparing and delivering a TEDx talk was not easy (the preparation part being much harder than the delivery, in my opinion), but extremely rewarding! 🙂

Watch my TEDx below and feel free to share it: