Public speaking: 3 things I learned from TEDx

Becoming an effective public speaker can elevate the success of both your agency and your career


By Ben Thompson, P1 Contributor

In October 2017, I walked out into an unusually warm winter morning. My hands were shaky and I could feel my heart beat pounding up into my throat.

This was the moment I learned I had been selected to speak at TEDx Birmingham 2018. I stared up to the blue sky with a big smile and imagined myself standing on the bright red dot in the middle of a dark stage.

Suddenly a chill shot through my body. I thought, “my God, what have I done?”

Public speaking is terrifying. Whether at your own TEDx event, reporting to local officials or speaking at a community meeting, the good news is that even if you feel like you are horrible at public speaking, there are some things you can do to make you look like a pro.

Trust the process

When I was selected to speak at TEDx Birmingham, I had to informally agree to follow the organizers’ “process.” This applied to everyone who speaks at the event, even those who do it professionally.

This is what sets a TEDx event apart from so many other conferences. There is a strong focus not just on the content, but on the delivery.  

So what is the process?

The first step was to read the book TED Talks; The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson. This book gives a brief history of everything TED. But, more important, it also goes in depth about what can make or break a successful presentation. For anyone looking to bring that TED style into a presentation, this is a must read.

When I reflect on my experience of the process, I am reminded of these three takeaways on how to be a better public speaker:

  • Identify what it is you want the audience to remember;
  • Watch yourself on video;
  • Seek out honesty.

1. Identify what you want the audience to remember

At TEDx, I was one of about 15 other speakers split into three sessions. I was going to be lucky if they remembered my name, much less what I said that day.   One of my first assignments was to type up what I wanted to the audience to remember in less than 140 characters; basically the length of a first generation tweet.

It seemed like a simple task, but for me, it proved to be one of the most difficult. It took me over three weeks and 47 different attempts before I finally narrowed it down to this:

The key to serving people lies in our willingness to step outside the boundaries of our job titles.

It seems like a lot of work for a line that was not uttered once during my talk. But during my preparations, this line acted as my guide, leading me toward the message to get through to the audience.  

With each presentation I give now, I start by asking myself this simple question: “What do I want the audience to remember?”

By focusing on the answer, I am able to keep my presentations lean and to the point. In the world of public speaking, brevity is your best friend. It leaves the audience wanting to hear more, rather than sending them running for coffee.

2. Watch yourself on video

I have a confession to make. Since my TEDx video has posted to YouTube, I have not watched it a single time. Just the sound of my own voice is enough to make me cringe. But during the months leading up to the event, I practiced in front of the camera on my laptop many times.

And I watched all of them. It was excruciating.

Why does the side of my head look so weird? Do I always sound like that?

And it never got any easier. But each time I watched, I couldn’t deny that I was getting better. There were so many little things that I did at first that I didn’t even know I was doing. One example, I used the word “so” like many people use the word “uh.”

I was unconsciously using it as a placeholder while I gathered my thoughts between lines. Over the course of a 12-minute talk, I probably said the word “so” 30 times. Had I carried the habit on stage, the audience would have walked out wondering about my strange love affair with the word “so.”

So...before your big day, lock yourself in a room; record yourself, watch and repeat. Just be sure to destroy the evidence when you’re done.

3. Seek out honesty

It must be said again. Brevity is your best friend. Do not take 45 minutes to say what you could have said in five, although being brief while still being effective is not easy, especially when you are passionate about the subject.

It helps if you have someone who is not afraid to be brutally honest with you. During TEDx, I had a speaking coach as well as the organizers reviewing each draft of my talk. With each draft, I was forced to either cut out or defend whole sections that I had worked so hard to create.

The good news for those of us in public safety is that we do not have to look far for honesty. Every day we go to work, we are surrounded by people who love the chance to be brutally honest; sometimes, whether we ask for it or not.

If you can give your presentation to a station full of the world’s harshest critics and survive, doing the same for a room full of strangers will be a piece of cake.


About the author
Ben Thompson is a lieutenant with the Birmingham (Ala.) Fire and Rescue Service. Since 2016, Lieutenant Thompson has served as the coordinator of the department’s mobile integrated health program, Birmingham Fire and Rescue C.A.R.E.S. He shared his experiences from building the program at TEDxBirmingham.

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