Giving a TED talk is a huge honour and it’s been on my bucket list for a little while so when I got asked to give a TEDx talk in my home town of Bristol I was super excited. The only problem was that they kind of asked me at the last minute.
Usually there is a process where speakers think about their talk, plan it out and go through a TEDx masterclass over a few months.
To get some inspo I picked up Talk Like TED, TED Talks by Chris Anderson and watched like every single popular TED talk I could find to help me plan my talk.
TEDx is all about sharing great ideas and the TEDx team wanted me to talk a little bit about my background as a doctor and entrepreneur but left the rest up to me. My main issue was that I could speak about a bunch of topics from learning to business to medicine and technology but all the advice from the books and the TED masterclass was that the idea needs to be simple and focused.
So I started to map out some simple topic ideas that could grab people’s attention and that I had a unique take on. I thought about talking about learning how to learn, using active recall or trying to explain the metaverse but I wanted to choose a topic that could be valuable to as many people as possible.
As well as being passionate about learning in general I’m also really passionate about self-improvement and improving skills like communication and what are called soft-skills. In medicine we learn these through role-play and in work when breaking bad news and being a good communicator or having strong emotional intelligence can literally change your life both in work but also in your personal life. Medicine is great at improving skills like leadership, decision-making and empathy which aren't taught in school but are skills that we use every single day in our lives. Seriously think about think you how often you have to make decisions in your life and then think about how often you use trigonometry.
And improving soft-skills is one of the reasons I decided to start this YouTube channel so that I could get better at talking to camera and explaining things in simple terms.
When writing any essay or talk my approach is to break things down into bitesize chunks using headings and for talks I find that using personal stories and anecdotes helps the audience to understand things and stories are also easy for me to remember as they’re personal and so they're easier to encode and recall.
A TEDx talk is 18-minutes and although I usually use bullet-points or short notes when planning YouTube videos or when I’ve spoken at big events in the past like at Pitch at The Palace TED recommend scripting out everything and then rehearsing as much as possible. So for 48-hours my life was sitting at my desk writing out this talk.
I split the TEDx talk up into an introduction that grabbed people’s attention and set the scene, a story that linked my experiences in surgery with the importance of soft-skills like empathy to everyone beyond medicine and then I jumped into some stats and research that demonstrated the importance of power skills to careers and people’s personal lives. I really wanted to give back and make the talk as practical as possible so then at the end I broke things up into a few tips that the audience could use to help them improve their own soft-skills. When writing any essay or memorizing a talk breaking it up into sections helps to chunk the information and improve encoding. I then make the first word and sentence of each chunk really memorable so that this triggers my recall of that section.
Now this was cool and I was really happy with the content but giving a talk isn’t about content it’s about the delivery and how you make the audience feel.
One thing did was that if there is anything I just couldn't remember for whatever reason I switched it out for something more memorable. I tried to get the key bits of the talk down so that I could talk naturally rather than learning every-single word verbatim. The problem was there were some sections with stats that were pretty specific that I wanted to include so I used active recall to just test myself again and again and added on more of the talk as I nailed each section.
Reflecting on the TED Talk
So giving the TEDx talk was a really fun experience. When I walked out on stage it was pretty nerve-wracking but I got into the talk pretty well. Most importantly everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy the talk and I got lots of people coming up to me at the end which is always great feedback. Of course ideally I would have liked way more time to prepare but to be honest I always like to push myself and challenge myself under pressure and the most important thing isn't my perfectionism it's about how much value the talk offers to the audience and when the talk went up online it was trending on the official TEDx website and youtube channel and got over 50k views in the first few days which was pretty crazy.
So the first thing I did was simply to say yes. I'm a big fan of saying yes to opportunities even if they come with a challenge as that's how we grow. After making the commitment I then went into research mode and really tried to understand what makes a good TED talk and find out how other people had prepared. In this case I jumped into books, audiobooks and watched the most popular talks to study how the talks were structured and delivered and how the best speakers learned their talks. You can apply this principle to learning pretty much anything from studying for exams to learning an instrument if you understand how to learn and plan a strategy and process before getting down to writing and learning you'll do pretty well. For the TEDx talk specifically one thing I did that was really useful was I looked TEDx transcripts and their word count to get a feel for a rough word limit when constructing my script. For me this was around 2500 words.
Next up I spent quite a while thinking about the actual topic itself, choosing to go for something with wide appeal that I was passionate about and keeping things really focused. Even though 18-minutes seems like a long time actually it flies by and you need to hold people's attention and keep them engaged. If you introduce too many new ideas this can dilute the core concepts you're trying to share and so I had a really tough time leaving certain things out and just focusing down on educating the audience about why soft skills are important and then giving them some tips to actually learn them. This uses some basic educational psychology principles by explaining why something is relevant to a learner before teaching them the topic itself. If people think things are very relevant and important to them they are more likely to pay attention and stay engaged with the talk content.
Another thing I chose to do here was to use my own personal journey and stories to ground the pretty conceptual topic of soft-skills in the real world through relatable stories to show why they are so important. When planning out my talk I used a rough framework of introduction, middle and end and broke the middle down into a personal story, evidence and statistics and then tips to improve soft skills. This gave a good framework to build upon and which I could approach in bitesize chunks so it wasn't too overwhelming.
For the introduction I needed to introduce myself and try and grab people's attention and to do this I used the story of why I left medicine which people often ask me about and I then used examples from my medical career to show just how important soft skills are and why they can be learned. As mentioned using stories also helped me to more easily learn the talk since when encoding new information our cognitive load is reduced if we can easily link what we're learning to previous memories.
Once I'd planned everything out I then got down to researching and writing which took me about 4 days with minimal sleep and I approached each section of the talk individually. I then used active recall to just test myself and practiced the talk as much as possible focusing on each section at a time and linking the end of a section to the beginning of the next section using mnemonics a rough mindmap to again reduce my cognitive load and aid encoding and recall.
On the day of the TEDx talk I tried to chill out and didn't over-practise the talk and tried my best to enjoy the process by reminding myself that it was a really great opportunity and privilege.
When I was up on stage I tried to relax, took a breath before speaking and then allowed the talk to come to me and backed that I had prepared enough. I got a little bit nervous at a few seconds in a fumbled a few words but other than that I actually felt it went pretty well.
And that really was it. By using some encoding strategies and active recall I was able to learn the TED talk in less than a week and if you want to improve your soft-skill the video is below.