3 secrets to shorter talks at TEDxRWTHAarchen

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Recently, I was helping the team at TEDxRWTH Aachen  in Germany, get ready for their new event that’s coming up in just a couple of weeks. I had a zoom call with many of the speakers as they’re preparing to go on stage. And I asked them what their biggest challenge had been. For many of them, one of the toughest things was compressing a lifetime’s worth of work and stories down into the famous 18 minutes.

TEDx events are notorious for their strict 18 minute time limit. It really helps keep things on target and keeps an event running smoothly, but it can be a massive challenge. After all, how can we explain such complicated ideas in such a short amount of time?

To add to the complication of this often, an 18 minute talk isn’t really an 18 minute talk. If you take 16 minutes to deliver a speech in rehearsals, it will probably come across as 18 minutes to an audience because you need pauses for laughter, applause and all those kinds of extra things.

It’s important to remember that this 18 minute rule is a limit, not a target. So it means that a talk can be 16 minutes, 15 minutes, even three minutes if you can get your idea across in that kind of time. It’s more common to hear that talk should be shorter. Short and concise wins the day.

So what are we going to do? Well, I shared with a team at TEDxRWTHAachen my three top tips for getting it down in time.

The first tip is to THINK SHORT.

We’re giving away a little taster, not the whole main course. The audience doesn’t need to know every single detail. They need to know just enough to get them excited. It’s a bit like when you walk into a bookstore and you see hundreds of books on the shelf, you can’t possibly read all of them. So what do you do? You pick up the book, you look at the cover, you read the blurb on the back, and those few paragraphs on the back of the book tell you everything that you need to know about what to expect inside it. It’s this shortcut taster that we’re giving.

So your core goal is to get your audience excited about your idea. And from that point, that audience will want to learn more at a later date. So just give them a little taste when you think short.

The second tip is to RUTHLESSLY EDIT YOUR TALK.

I love to work with a script because then I can see every single word in front of me and I want to cut out anything that doesn’t need to be there. Be really, really tough as you’re editing out. Remove things that are extraneous, like introductions or anything that doesn’t move the story forward.

If you’ve got a joke that’s just there because it’s funny, but it’s not pushing you forward. Take it out.

Can you cut a paragraph?

Can you cut a sentence?

Can you cut a word?

Can you explain something in one line instead of two?

Be merciless in your editing.

Finally, there’s tip number three, CUT THE MOST UNMEMORABLE PARTS.

What the audience remembers is more important than what you actually say. So if there’s anything that you say that an audience isn’t going to remember, it’s perfectly fine to cut it out.

How you can work with this is to deliver your talk to a trusted friend or relative, wait a few days, and then ask them: “What did you remember about my talk?”

They will probably remember only three minutes of your 18 minute talk. But whatever it is that they remember, are the core points. So write them down and make sure that you emphasise those memorable parts. Anything that your friends can’t remember after a couple of days doesn’t need to be there. So you can cut the unmemorable parts. Focus on what you really need and throw everything else away.

If you follow these three tips, you’ll find it easy to compress complicated, advanced work down into a very short timeframe, and it will make your 18 minutes on the red dot memorable, exciting and concise.

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