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I survived my TEDx talk: Here are 5 tips I learned that can make you a better speaker

July 30, 2019

By Cynthia Albright, FAICP CUD, GISP

Urban designer Cynthia Albright questioned her presentation skills in front of a giant audience, but persistence and practice, practice, practice paid off

I love to talk about urban design. It’s my day job and my passion. Whether in my hometown of Reno, Nevada/Lake Tahoe, California (which isn’t technically urban but receives 26 million visitors annually), or anywhere around the globe—quality design attracts people to places like hummingbirds to honeysuckle.

While I happily talk about this topic design to anyone who will listen, it was a different story when a friend suggested I talk about urban design on a TEDx stage. I’ve seen TED talks. People share “big ideas” and the presenters seem like pros. I wasn’t sure my passion was such a “big idea” or my presentation skills measured up.

After two years and a meeting with the coordinator, I submitted an abstract and was selected. Thankfully, TEDx University of Nevada offers speakers 6 months to prepare and provides scheduled feedback to ensure content and timing are succinct. I needed each of those months to fine-tune my idea worth sharing. In the process, I learned a lot about myself and became a more confident speaker. Hopefully, my experience can help you be a better speaker too—and maybe you will share your passion on a TEDx stage. It’s worth it!

Urban designer and planner Cynthia Albright presenting her TEDx University of Nevada talk earlier this year.

Tip #1: Speak about what you know and use good images

One of the things I was least concerned with was the topic: How pearls of urban design activate streets and connect people.

As an urban designer and planner, I’m comfortable with this topic, fascinated even.

Some cities leave an indelible impression upon its visitors. Streets and public spaces become memorable when compelling architecture, rhythm, continuity, mix and intensity of uses, and lighting are woven into the urban fabric. These are some of the pearls I illustrated using captivating images from Mexico, Europe, Asia, and the US.

If you’re standing on a stage, deliver on the images.

Watch Cynthia Albright’s TEDx University of Nevada talk.

Tip #2: Get help (in my case from a hypnotherapist)

Fearing failure, I sought the help of a professional. It was easy delivering my talk to a mirror but standing in front of my work colleagues has the opposite effect. I know a therapist who uses hypnosis, so I met with him to understand why I speak easily to strangers but cave before my closest friends and family. It turns out, it wasn’t “failure” as much as it was the thought of being judged by people I care about.

The therapist told me to stand up on his desk and deliver. Right there. In his office.

Being elevated above my audience of one gave me a sense of power, and I gained composure. He made faces to distract my train of thought as I repeatedly spoke into his eyes. As a friend, he was a person I cared about too and the experience together allowed me to get past my fear of judgment.

Virginia Street in Reno, Nevada, which Cynthia Albright said got a standing ovation from the TEDx crowd during her presentation. The “audience is rooting for your success,” Cynthia says.

Tip #3: Remember the audience isn’t your enemy

For many, public speaking is terrifying. But if you acknowledge that an audience is rooting for your success while silently telling themselves, “thank goodness it’s her and not me up there,” you should feel more at ease. Your audience just wants to hear the big idea. Embrace it.

In my case, the audience stood and cheered when I shared an image of Reno in my talk about urban design. A presentation or TEDx talk doesn’t have to be perfect because the audience has no idea what you forgot to say.

There were 1,700 attendees that day, but the bright lights blinded me to only those people in the first few rows. I connected with them and forgot about the others. Whether you can see everyone or very few, seek the warm faces in the audience and connect with them! Your heart rate will slow, and you will be surprised how much more comfortable you feel.

When the moment arrives, own the stage! For me, walking out there to a large audience was pure exhilaration despite all my fear of forgetting everything I had rehearsed.

A presentation or TEDx talk doesn’t have to be perfect because the audience has no idea what you forgot to say.

Tip #4: Practice, practice, practice

The organizers of TEDx events will drill it into you what we all know: “practice makes perfect.” When speaking in front of an audience of any size, knowing your material is an important key to success.

Since I was too scared to practice in front of my work colleagues and friends, I contacted a fellow local TEDx speaker I didn’t know and asked if she would like to practice together. We were perfect for each other. After my session of hypnosis, she and I both practiced from the top of the conference room table.

Tip #5: Borrow from others

David Wise, a fellow TEDx University of Nevada speaker, posted a hilarious photo on Instagram of him practicing to an audience of stuffed animals. When you need to practice, remember the audience doesn’t need to provide feedback. Everyone can feel comfortable talking to Winnie the Pooh and Buzz Lightyear.

A TEDx talk is really a video for the web with an audience there to support and applaud you. Know your material, but if you make a mistake, stop, pause, and start again. The pause gives the editor time to splice your dialogue to seamless perfection. I saw some speakers that day who probably didn’t practice enough or give adequate pause following slipups. Their overall outcome suffered.  

Watching TED talks, I became mindful of my body language and used my feet to “plant” myself to the stage. It’s distracting if the presenter moves around, sways in place, and lacks good eye contact. If your body is still, other than normal hand gestures for effect, your words will have greater impact because the audience can focus and listen.

The key is finding the right audience and environment to feel most comfortable to commit your talk to memory. 

Cynthia Albright and David Wise backstage at TEDx University of Nevada. David provided some inspiration during preparation for Cynthia’s talk.

No notes, no problem. Connect and embrace the process.

Public speaking can be intimidating, but not when you’re prepared, and you have something to say. When you practice, practice, practice, you feel confident in your knowledge, and that really helps.

We thrive when we feel connected. So, just like quality urban design attracts and connects people, when speaking to an audience, make it a goal to connect. Just a few of those audience connections and your ideas will flow freely.

In TEDx talks notes are not allowed. So, if you know your material, you won’t need to rely on notes. Remember, the audience doesn’t know what you forget. Go with what you know.

Smile. Be happy. Embrace your success. And I’ll look forward to seeing your TEDx talk in the future.

  • Cynthia Albright, FAICP CUD, GISP

    Cynthia is a certified land planner with experience in community and regional planning, site planning, urban design, and securing entitlements for land development activities.

    Contact Cynthia
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