Everything you Need to Know
About Becoming a TEDx
(or maybe even TED?) Speaker

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To this day, several years after (what my gut tells me was) the peak of TED's popularity, the first thing everyone seems to do the second they walk off a TEDx stage is add 'TEDx speaker' or worse still, 'TED speaker' to their LinkedIn profile.

As a former TEDx event curator, this habit has always fascinated me. Not least because on a platform that is already full of self proclaimed titles... guru, entrepreneur, expert! Do we really need another?

Alex Merry, public speaking coach, presentation skills, thought leadership, communication training, leadership development, TED talks, keynote speech

Now don't get me wrong, becoming a TEDx speaker is a badge of honour, but these days I think it's fair to say that it's less of an accolade than it used to be. If you were to deliver a TEDx talk today, you would join 170,000+ others globally who have also stepped onto that famous red dot since 2009. Compare that with the 3,700+ people who have delivered a TED talk since 2005, you could argue that TEDx's air of exclusivity takes a bit of a hit.*

That said, I still believe that delivering a TEDx talk is one of the most effective ways of establishing yourself as a thought leader. I've worked on close to 100 TEDx talks over the course of my career and when delivered with the right intentions, these talks have gone on to achieve far more important things than a credibility boosting LinkedIn title. Changing government legislation, sparking debate, raising finance and lobbying the UN to name a few.

I mention this not to put you off pursuing your goal of becoming a TEDx speaker, but to help you start your journey on the right track - something that I normally have to do at the beginning of my thought leadership accelerator.

Let's be honest, there are a lot of distinctly average, self-serving talks on that TEDx channel and you don't have to look hard to find them. So if you're planning to go down this route, your sights need be set on delivering a talk that is going to serve a bigger purpose, rise above the noise and make a tangible impact.

Get this right, there's a chance you could join TED's elite...

More on that later. But first, here's a bit of background information that's worth knowing.

What's the difference between TED and TEDx?

TED have been delivering conferences since 1984. Yep, that surprised me too, but long story short, it shot to fame when they decided to post the videos of the talks on this small video hosting website called YouTube back in 2005. The rest is history. One of the consistent criticisms TED has had through the years is that it is elitist. If you wanted to attend the event you'd either have to be invited or you have to fork out $10k for a standard ticket. So they decided to explore ways of bringing the TED experience to the masses.

Cue TEDx.

Since 2009, you can apply for a license to host your very own TEDx event for your local community. As you know, the initiative has exploded and now thousands of these events happen every year across the world both in person and more recently, virtually.

Should I apply to speak at TED or TEDx?

Now that's a question that often comes up during my thought leadership accelerator...

For 0.0001% of you... TEDx. Here's why:

Firstly, it is ridiculously hard to land a speaking slot at TED... But, if you do, my guess would be 80% of the people attending have money, influence or both. Here's what you need to know:

  • They run 3 main conferences a year: TED (consistently in Vancouver), TED Global (somewhere different each year) and TEDWomen.
  • Each conference lasts 3-5 days with ~20 speakers each day.
  • My gut says (and this is by no means the reality - I can't speak for them), most of the people that end up on their stage have been headhunted. This means you've got more chance of speaking at TED through getting noticed by someone on the inside than you do by applying on their website.**
  • When you deliver a TED talk, you end up on the TED YouTube channel which has over 20 million subscribers. And the production value is incredible.

Secondly, while going down the TEDx route isn't easy, your chances are one hell of a lot higher than TED. However, there are some things you need to know before applying...

  • TEDx is a volunteer initiative. While there are thousands of conferences a year (and normally ~10-20 speakers per event), the quality of these events varies significantly from both an experience and production value perspective.
  • If the TEDx organisers can't break even on their event, they are the ones who have to cough up the money to make it happen. Speaking from experience, breaking even is a challenge. So don't ask for a speaker fee. You won't get one - it's against the rules. I've also heard of a couple of rogue events where organisers try to charge speakers to speak. If you come across one, report them to TED!
  • Most TEDx conferences have a max capacity of 100 people. This is, from what I can see, a damage limitation strategy put in place to ensure organisers do their job properly. Those who run 100+ events have been given a special licence from TED to do so but is by no means an indicator of event quality, so don't be picky.***
  • Audience size doesn't matter though as all the talks end up on the TEDx Youtube channel pending approval from TED HQ. That channel has 33.5 million subscribers. Yes, way more than TED.

So what does this mean for you?

It means that TEDx stages are both more accessible and they provide the same online exposure opportunity as a TED talk. But there's one more thing to take into account, and I'm saving the best till last... 🥁

TED are always on the lookout for TEDx talks that they believe are good enough to make it onto TED.com. When they find them, they promote them. This means that every TEDx speaker that graces the stage has the opportunity to join the truly exclusive club of TED speakers. And the chances are, you will have come across a few of the speakers that have taken this relatively untrodden path; Simon Sinek, Brene Brown and Mel Robins to name a few.

What's more, back when I was curating TEDxClapham, I would have LOVED to hear an aspiring speaker tell me that their goal was to end up on TED. It would signal to me that they were driven to put in the time required to give a talk that is going to wow my audience, which for a volunteer organiser is one less speaker to have a sleepless night about in the lead up to the event!

So if you're hoping to grace a TEDx stage next year, remember, it's not about the LinkedIn headline!

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