For me, what makes TED such an inspiring platform is the huge breadth of topics and ideas that it explores, and the ability of speakers to bring insight, understanding and inspiration on what may be a complex or unfamiliar topic to a lay audience.
However, despite this broad spectrum of ideas, there are still certain ‘topics’, or maybe a better word is ‘approaches’, that you can’t talk about on the TEDx stage.
For anyone aspiring to do a TEDx talk, I recently wrote an article about ‘What makes a good TEDx talk application’. In this article we’ll explore, based on my experience as the TEDxFolkestone curator, what you can’t talk about in a TEDx talk!
First tip – all the content guidelines and rules from TED, which all TEDx event organisers and their speakers have to adhere to, are freely available to the public via their site HERE – so I highly recommend you go read them first!
The paragraphs below give further insight based on my personal understanding and interpretation of these rules, and in response to the frequent misunderstandings of these rules that we see in TEDxFolkestone speaker applications, which subsequently lead to us having to disqualify their applications.
#1 – “No selling from the stage”
This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about what you do and/or elements of your work or business, but it does mean you can’t actively promote what you do. Sometimes it may not always be intentional, but what it does reveal to us is that the applicant may not be totally clear on the ideas and values that underpin their work; for example, they may talk exclusively about ‘what’ they do, rather than how what they’ve done could apply to or benefit others. Then there are those who try to sneakily weave in a way to talk about their business, disguised as an idea, and – believe me – it’s obvious!
However, I don’t deny it can be a fine line; chances are, most of the ‘ideas worth spreading’ are based on years and years of passionate professional experience – a life’s work, often – and the evidence and experience that comes as a result is essential for a well-supported idea. But you need to be able to separate the business from the idea – and share it in a way that gives value to the audience in a way they can apply to their life/work as a result – not just marvel at how great you are!
#2- “No political agenda”
Again, this is a fine line as this is not saying you can’t discuss ideas exploring politics or policy, but you can’t do so in a way that promotes a political agenda or extreme positions. Ideas should explore concrete problems and solutions with balanced insight from both sides of any argument.
#3 – “No religious proselytising”
The TEDx stage isn’t about trying to ‘convince’ someone of a certain belief, it’s about providing them with the insight to allow them to make their own, informed decision. “Speakers can be honest about their beliefs – but should not use the stage to promote them” say the TED guidelines.
#4 – “Only good science”
In my experience this is one of the ‘greyer’ areas that, as organisers, it can be a little tricky to provide concrete advice to potential speakers on. TED are wary of ideas that cannot be backed up with proven and/or testable evidence; quite rightly given how much trust and quick acceptance many viewers place in the ideas TED shares.
However, with the TED brand being all about ‘new’ ideas, we understandably see lots of ideas that explore more ‘holistic’ and ‘alternative’ approaches. Our challenge is that unless we feel the speaker has significant tangible evidence to support their idea, or the idea is approached in a way that does not make unsupported claims, then, at TEDxFolkestone at least, we tend to err on the side of caution. We’d hate to see a speaker spend months preparing a talk only for it then not be accepted by TED at the final submission.
Ideas vs Stories
The above paragraphs are the four core guidelines from TED on what talks can and can’t include, but I’d also like to share my experience of something we see a lot of in unsuccessful applications at TEDxFolkestone, and are a common misconception about what makes a TEDx talk.
Many applications focus too heavily on the speaker’s personal story and not enough on the idea or insight. This can sound harsh but TEDx is about the idea, not the speaker. The speaker just happens to be the one who came up with and/or has the experience and ‘evidence’ to support the idea.
Yes, the power of a personal story is huge, and, in many cases, we encourage speakers to use it to deliver their talk in a powerful way; but, ultimately, there must be an underlying message and unique idea or approach. They are just using their story to communicate and/or illustrate this idea.
We’ve seen many applications involving very moving and inspiring stories; however, although I personally believe they have their place and can provide a lot of value and inspiration in being shared, the TEDx stage is not the place for them if there is not an ‘idea’ at the heart of it.
It’s understandable, and noble, to want to inspire others. However, without also providing a tangible idea that the audience can put into practice in their own lives, the talk may fall short of having any lasting impact. Equally, the cathartic nature of expressing a very personal story is something we see a lot – however, the same applies: what’s the idea that underpins it?
We’ve seen many talks exploring mental health topics that fall within the above tricky category. Similar to the guidelines shared above in #4 from TED, a useful question to ask yourself is what evidence do you have for the ‘idea’, beyond just your own experience? An experiment of one is rarely enough evidence to prove an idea.
My advice, if you think this relates to you? Remember, yes, your personal experience and your story can be hugely powerful and have huge value – so, if this is the case, go out and use it to benefit and help others first in a more immediate setting or platform. Explore the idea that underlies your story and find out if/in what way/how it can benefit others. Once you’ve done this, not only will you have a clearer understanding of what your idea is, you’ll also have the evidence to back it up. And this is when you’ll have a great TEDx talk!
If you want to know more about what makes a good TEDx application, you can read the sister article to this one via the link Here