Be original, tell a story, keep it short: How to give a great TED talk

By David TroyDavid_Troy

Since 2009, I have been the organizer and co-curator of TEDxMidAtlantic, a conference operated under license from TED and held in Baltimore and Washington, DC.

In that time, we have been lucky enough to host well over 200 speakers and performers on stage. A couple of those talks have gone on to great success online — a talk by Cameron Russell about modeling and positive body image is now the 10th most-viewed TED talk of all time, with about 15 million views. A talk by Sam Berns, a young man who suffered from a disease called progeria and has since passed away, has been viewed almost 20 million times, making it the most-viewed TEDx talk ever.

Public speaking can be a big part of success in business, and we have hosted many entrepreneurs on stage over the years as well. Here are a few quick tips on how to make a great TED-worthy presentation, based on our experience in curating (and in some cases co-creating) great talks:

  1. Have something worthwhile to say. Being on stage doesn’t make you important; having something important to say is why you should be on stage. If you don’t have something worth sharing, talks always fall flat. Figure out what your unique message is. What story can you tell that no one else can?
  2. Use as little time as possible. The more concise your presentation, the more it will resonate. If it’s on video, it will get more views the shorter your runtime is. The “traditional” TED talk is 18 minutes, but these days, most are shorter. We find that talks from seven to 12 minutes are often best, as they require more discipline, refinement, and rehearsal. Figure out what you have to say and pick the exact amount of time you need — and no more.
  3. Tell a story. Great talks tend to have an interesting storyline, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. This should be no surprise; humans are built to tell and hear stories. There are lots of ways to tell a good story; figure yours out and package it in a way that people can easily digest, remember and retell.
  4. Eliminate unnecessary chatter. Ditch unneeded thank yous, introductions and references to your credentials, etc. People know your info — it’s in the program. Get to the heart of your message as quickly as possible.
  5. Rehearse. A great talk typically involves writing out a script, condensing that script onto index cards (or similar), rehearsing relentlessly from those cards, and then being able to do it without notes. Some folks need to retain some notes, and that’s fine, but great talks are often rehearsed 30 to 50 times before going on stage. Getting a feel for the stage before your talk is also key.
  6. Be yourself. Let your real personality shine through. Be funny. Be emotional. Be impassioned. This is easier with a lav-mic than with a podium; you can use your hands and gesture. However, do stay anchor on the stage — pacing is distracting.

Public speaking is a skill that one never completely masters. Every opportunity helps you improve and become more comfortable in front of audiences. But do take it seriously: your audience is giving their time to listen to you, so be sure you are respecting their sacrifice by preparing and having something truly worth saying.

David Troy is the CEO and co-founder of 410 Labs, maker of the popular email management tool Mailstrom, on the web at Contact us at

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