Lessons from the Front Row: What not to do in your TEDx talk

It was five years ago this last winter that I applied for one of the first TEDx licenses. And apparently, I’m one of the few crazy enough get a 6th consecutive one.  Our event has grown both in size and maturity, and it’s become a well anticipated event in Columbus each fall.

As we began choosing our speakers this year, someone asked me recently what were the moments when speakers really bombed?  I can’t say that anyone really has – but I got to thinking: What were the behaviors that caused a speaker to “disconnect” with the audience?

So here they are:  Lessons I learned from the front row (Where I sit every year). Several of the winning points are from my close speaker coaching relationships for some of our sister TEDx events.

1. Tell the audience you are funny.  One speaker presented an idea he thought was hilarious but half the audience

thought it offensive, rude and reprehensible.  The other half did laugh. Had he let the audience conclude it was funny, it may have been more funny. But the tweets were brutal.  He decided not to put the talk online.

2. Insert some content that isn’t yours.  I had a speaker sign his release at the event and he put an asterisk on it “You may release my video but not the video within it.” Turns out that forbidden video demonstrated the essence, the mojo and the rip-your-heart-out story of why his idea was a rock star.  Turns out that video wasn’t his property but someone else’s. While it used to be his, he had moved on but didn’t have rights to it.  His talk, despite huge audience approval, also never got posted.

3. Be the smartest person in the room – among a lot of other freaking smart people.  One speaker was invite to give a second TEDx talk. His first one was abysmal because he was the smartest guy in the room with 12 really big complicated ideas. My assignment from my colleague (another TEDx organizer) was to help him improve.  After I realized he was the smartest guy in the room and didn’t need my help (he refused to engage in any coaching), we let him do what he wanted. So he gave his second talk all on his own. And…he had the same results. Boring stares, no shares.   This old dog was not learning any new tricks.

4. Assume we know why YOU care. I asked a very talented speaker to simply give us a line about what gave him

license to speak about his topic, which was fairly compelling and exceptionally well stated. His response “Haven’t you read my resume? Don’t you know who I am?”  I re-stated it and gingerly asked, “Why do you care about this topic? What moment did you know this would be your life’s work?”…Because I am listening to you deliver a lot of interesting information but will walk away like I do at most restaurants. “Boy the food was good. But who knows what my waiter’s name was.”

5.  Refuse to be vulnerable.  One speaker was quick to point out all the mistakes in the world that everyone else had made in his draft talk, but protected sharing any mistakes he had made himself. I pointed this out to him and suggested he share a time when he failed and how he learned from it.  He refused the advice and as a result, came across as arrogant, showy and preachy.  The twitter sphere assured that few would click on his link when the talk was published later.

The TED Commandments and speaker coaching guidance includes the comprehensive list of what to aim for as a speaker.  But I submit to you these five, of all the mistakes speakers make, will most quickly disconnect you with your audience, and subsequently, to a wildly successful talk.