April 18, 2023
In this episode, Alan Samuel Cohen joins host Jason Mudd to discuss how to become an excellent TEDx speaker. Alan shares his knowledge of what makes a good speech. They also discuss how to stand out against other applicants, how to be bold and back it up, and why it is okay if your idea isn’t new.
Tune in to learn more!
Watch the episode here
5 things you’ll learn during the full episode:
- What makes a good speech
- How to stand out against other Tedx applicants
- How to be bold and back it up
- Why you need to identify your goal of being a TEDx speaker
- Why you shouldn’t be afraid if your idea isn’t new
- Connect and learn more about Alan Cohen on LinkedIn.
- Visit the Alan Samuel Cohen Coaching and Speaking website for more information.
Additional Resources from Axia Public Relations:
- Listen to more episodes of the On Top of PR podcast.
- Find out more about Axia Public Relations.
- How to make the most of speaking engagements
Disclosure: One or more of the links we shared here might be affiliate links that offer us a referral reward when you buy from them.
[02:15] The process of becoming a TEDx speaker
Alan: “If you get lucky, you get selected first time out. And that doesn't happen a lot but it happens. And then sometimes you are recruited to do that because people, organizers of TEDxes around the country may have heard of you, may have seen other videos that you've done, and then they may approach you. They feel like you have themes and speak to things that align with what the themes are.”
Alan: “At a minimum it's researching the different TEDxes that are happening all around the country, all around the world, looking at the themes online, seeing if you can connect your origin story, your journey to one of the themes that have been communicated and then sometimes they ask for a 30-second or 60-second video of you talking about what you're going to speak about.
[08:21] The goal of doing a TEDx
Being authentic and not just selling or marketing yourself. It's about expanding people’s thinking and consciousness and inspiring them to do something or consider things differently.
Alan: “I think it's really important to get clear on your goal for doing it. That's a lot of work. It's a lot of writing time editing time, rehearsal time, marketing time. So you should have a pretty clear goal about what it is that you're hoping to accomplish by doing it.”
Alan: “If you're just there and you know, solely for the purpose of marketing yourself, it smells bad and it can sound salesy and people will see through it and it's just not really what TEDx is about.”
Alan: “It's TED’s really about turning some sacred cows on there, tipping them over and just expanding people's thinking and consciousness. So do it because you want to inspire people to do something or think about things differently and connect with them on some different level.
[12:15] How to stand out among the other speakers that apply
Be creative and help people think about a problem in a new way.
Alan: “So if you've got props like bring them, if you feel like singing is part of your story, then sing. Create art on stage. Do that, play the drums, do whatever. I think creativity goes a long way, as long as it doesn't obscure the key message and the way that you want people to be thinking differently.”
Alan: “Through your experience, through your expertise, you've come upon some reframing, a different way of looking at a problem, or thinking about it, or talking about a problem, and have a message, have a kind of a silver bullet solution. And that will help people think about things in a different way. In a new way”
[16:15] What makes a good speech
- Bring your stories and histories into the story.
- Be vulnerable.
- Provide real-life examples.
- Use humor.
- Have a good call to action.
Alan: “The thing that I think makes a great TEDx speech is when people really bring their stories and their histories into the story and are willing to be vulnerable in that way too. Regardless of what the topic is, your ability to connect with viewers, with TEDx committees by being vulnerable and really providing great real-life examples to back up all of your hypothesis.”
Alan: “When the speaker is really willing to bare their soul in the service of getting people to really get them and get what they're talking about, I think that's an art.”
[21:10] Being bold and being able to back it up
Jason: “I tell people all the time, you know, you've got to say something provocative, contrarian, and unique that they haven't heard everybody else say, because you sound like everybody else, they're not going to pick you. They're not going to relate to you. They’re not going to remember you.”
Alan: “Think about where you do have ideas or different ideas or a different perspective, or things that anger you about things that you're out there seeing and hearing and a different way forward through it.”
About Alan Cohen
Our episode guest is Alan Cohen, an author, public speaker, executive coach, and trainer for organizations and individuals seeking to maximize potential and drive peak performance in their lives, organizations, and careers. He is a Ted Talk speaker, and trains other speakers to speak on the stage and to use speaking to grow their business.
Enjoy the Podcast?
If you did, be sure to subscribe and share it with your friends!
Post a review and share it! If you enjoyed tuning in, leave us a review. You can also share this with your friends and family. This episode can give you professional insight into media coverage. Know your rights and the regulations to follow when it comes to the media.
[Narrator] Welcome to On Top of PR with Jason Mudd, presented by ReviewMaxer.
[Jason] Hello and welcome to On Top of PR. I'm Jason Mudd with Axia Public Relations, your host. And today we are joined by special guest Alan Cohen. I met Alan at a public relations event about 10 years ago and I've always wanted to have him on the show, and we're finally making that happen today. So you are going to be glad. I'm glad you're here and you're going to be glad to be here as well.
Alan Cohen is a public speaker, author, executive coach, and trainer for organizations and individuals to maximize potential and drive peak performance in their lives, organizations, and careers. He's a TED Talk speaker and trains other speakers to speak on stage and to use speaking to grow their business. Today's topic is how to become an excellent TEDx speaker. Alan, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Jason. It's great to be here. It's been a long time since I've seen or spoken with you, so yeah.
Yeah, absolutely. I'm glad that we're doing it. So we're going to talk today about how to become not just a TEDx speaker, but an excellent TEDx speaker. Let's start with the process. What is the process to be? And you can certainly talk about both, you know, the TED Talk speaking opportunity as well as TEDx and helping differentiate between the two and the differences of the experience.
Sure. That's already a great distinction because the TEDx, because TED Talks are just much higher, harder to get there. There aren't as many big conferences, and they tend generally to be looking for people who are pretty high profiles or whose TEDx speeches have gone viral and they feel like they need to just really check you out. So I'll probably spend a little more time talking about TEDx, the TEDx process, because there are lots of TEDxes They are often local, so you don't always have to travel to do them. And they do feed into the TEDx pool.
Right. Okay. So what's the process?
So I think the process, while it's similar, and for some people, some people get lucky. So I'm going to speak to the process if you don't just get lucky. If you get lucky, you get selected first time out. And that doesn't happen a lot, but it happens. And then sometimes you are recruited to do that because people, organizers of TED Talks around the country may have heard of you, may have seen other videos that you've done and then they may approach you. They feel like you have themes and speak to things that align with what the themes are at those different TEDx conferences. So at the minimum, it's researching the different TEDxes that are happening all around the country, all around the world, looking at the themes online, seeing if you can connect your origin story, your journey, to one of the themes that's been communicated. And then sometimes they ask for a 30-second or 60-second video of you talking about what you're going to speak about. Sometimes they don't, but it almost always includes an application and then a panel interview. You'll be interviewed by the several people who are on the selections committee. Once, if you make that cut, then you go into the heavier writing and rehearsal and promoting.
I know lots of people who are watching today that they're in the marketing or communications business. That's super helpful because so you've done your speech, you've gotten some eyeballs on it, but the only way that you're really going to get lots and lots of people to view it is to promote it. And so it's helpful if you have a marketing and PR background to promote your own TEDx after it happens.
When you're thinking about a local TEDx event, how many of those local events are going to have local speakers versus is there a formula?
I don't think it's formulaic at all, but I know that the ones — certainly the one that I've spoken at, and that others have spoken at who I've coached — it's, I would say probably 80% have some sort of a local connection. And then the other 20% are just because they found the organizers just think that you have a really unique take on the topic and they're comfortable with the fact that you have spoken elsewhere and then they invite you in. So and please, Jason, cut me off at any point. I did one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I have no connection to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I couldn't make it up. If I try it, I have a cousin who lives in Philadelphia. That's right. That's my Pennsylvania connection. But because of what I talked about, I guess it's nationally significant and it's got a little bit of a kind of celebrity cachet because it's connected to a big brand that people know about.
Well, now everybody's going to want to know — what is your topic?
So, my public relations career, which predates my career as a speech coach and leadership coach, was in public relations and marketing. I worked in PR firms and as head of communications for some pretty big companies. And I had the fortune of being the head of publicity for the Harry Potter book series launch in the United States. So I found my way to, I was able to connect the theme of the conference, which was chaos. I was able to tie it to my experience working on the Harry Potter books and being the first person to ever meet J.K. Rowling on the publicity side and touring her and all that. So I talked about that.
I talked about chaos. The way to navigate chaos is through a shared sense of purpose, like the one that we had with Harry Potter and getting young boys to read, and the chaos that ensued during something for the first time ever of that scale. Right. So yeah, interestingly, Jason, I hired a coach or two to help me and they both said, ‘You should really soft pedal the Harry Potter stuff. And it's like, people think that you're marketing Harry Potter or your ability to market Harry Potter, and that actually had nothing to do with it. And I trusted my gut, which was there are like thousands and thousands of Alan Cohens out there who are leaders or coaches or speech coaches. But what's that thing that's interesting about me that can help me tell the story? And it's Harry Potter. Nobody else can really talk about it in that way. So I went with my gut and I got picked. I think it was after 13 rejections. So I knew that I had to do a TEDx, and I wasn't going to stop until I got one.
That's right. Well, I love that when you have a calling, you stick to it. And you're reminding me of something I say all the time. First, the first 50 rejections are the hardest, right?
Yeah. I'm sorry for the people who get chosen the first time at all, that they don't learn resilience.
That's right. That's right. So I've got a note here that you want to talk about. What's your goal for doing a TEDx talk?
Yeah, I think whether it's a TEDx or it's the big TED Talk conference, the Big Ten conference, I think it's really important to get clear on your goal for doing it. That's a lot of work. It's a lot of writing time, editing time, rehearsal time, marketing time. So you should have a pretty clear goal about what it is that you're hoping to accomplish by doing it. I would say the least appealing thing, the least appealing why is just to grow your business. I think it can happen as a result of your doing it. You can maybe get more speaking or you can get more strategic alliances or people getting to know you. But you are not able to sell directly from the stage. You're not up there shilling, trying to get yourself, trying to get clients who are tuning in. Even though that can happen, sometimes the purest, the more pure your purpose for doing it, I think, the more the energy of your application will appeal to the committee. So it's because you've been through some sort of, you have a new idea or a new way of thinking about things that can inspire people or change the way that they do business. And it's something about the stories that you tell that people can connect with. But if you're just there and you know, solely for the purpose of marketing yourself, it smells bad and it can sound salesy, and people will see through it. And it's just not really what TED is about. TED's really about turning some sacred cows on there, tipping them over, and just expanding people's thinking and consciousness. So do it because you want to inspire people to do something or think about things differently and connect with them on some different level.
That authentic why is what I think is really what you're saying versus, you know, the idea “I can help others if I just have the platform” as opposed to the idea of “I can sell to others if I just have the platform.”
That's right. Now, I will say for those who are tuning in that it really can be spectacular for building your brand. And so really knowing what you stand for and how you want to be known is important when you are choosing which conferences to apply to, when you're deciding what your topic is, and coming and having that big idea, that silver bullet. Make sure that's something that you want to be talking about for quite some time. And because you're going to put a lot of energy into promoting that particular speech or that thing that you're being that you're now associated with.
Is 80% of the concept or the selection process for a TEDx presentation what you said earlier, a new way of thinking? Is that kind of like a prerequisite of the topic?
Yeah, it's and listen, there are no absolutes because also every conference and they have some basic things that are across all stages, but some folks can be quirky so they might have a theme and choose people for reasons that we don't really know, but I'm sorry I lost my train of thought.
It’s OK. I was going to also ask you other than being lucky and persistent, how do you stand out among the many speakers who apply?
Right. So if you watch a lot of TEDxes or TEDs and see that there are a lot of people. They're good speakers, but a lot of people are doing that kind of rote. I think it's like a Saturday Night Live goof at one point about people doing TED Talks like they would voice what's going through their head as they were giving the speech. It was like, ‘Now I am going to cross to a stool, pick up a glass of water, sip it, looking pensive, look at my feet, look, you know, wander around the stage a little bit.’ And they all kind of follow that. There are similarities, I think. Now, TEDx, they're more open to speakers sounding like themselves and not just sounding like Brené Brown or whomever. You know, pick your favorite TEDx speaker. That or TED speaker that they often have like a very similar way of delivering, right?
So if you've got props, bring them. If you feel like, if singing is part of your story, then sing. Create art on stage. Do that, play the drums, do whatever. I think creativity goes a long way, as long as it doesn't obscure the key message and the way that you want people to be thinking differently. That was what you were saying, is that it's a big idea is worth spreading. So, you know, generally we are aware of a problem in our world and that has affected us or those that we care about, people that we know. And you, through your experience, through your expertise, you've come upon some reframing — a different way of looking at a problem, or thinking about it, or talking about a problem — and have a message, have a kind of silver bullet solution. And that will help people think about things in a different way, in a new way.
Alan, we're you know, we're PR agencies. You know, we get people coming to us all the time who, you know, are like, ‘Hey, I want to be a professional speaker. And so, of course, I think I have at least two initial questions, which is ‘What's your big idea, your big transformative idea?’ And, you know, 90% of the time I hear something very vanilla that, you know, ‘Well, I have a five-step process for how to be a better leader.’ Okay. Yeah. And, you know, so does the last five people that I talk to. Right? And then the other thing is I say, ‘Okay, how many public speaking engagements have you done, either unpaid or paid in the last year?’ And, you know, it's not a number that's impressive. And so I'm like, ‘Okay, and have you ever worked with a speaking coach? Do you have any professional training?’ And if it's the CEO of a company, they're like, ‘Well, every time I speak, you know, I get a standing ovation.’ And I'm like, ‘Oh, at your company conference where everybody there is an employee of your organization, right?’ ‘Oh, yeah.’ And I'm like, ‘So if somebody doesn't stand like that, you know, what's their employment opportunities look like the following day?’
So I would not interrupt you, but we need to take a quick break and we'll come back on the other side with more of Alan Cohen.
You are listening to On Top of PR with your host, Jason Mudd. Jason is a trusted advisor to some of America's most admired and fastest-growing brands. He is the managing partner at Axia Public Relations, a PR agency that guides news, social, and web strategies for national companies. And now back to the show.
Welcome back to On Top of PR. We still got Alan Cohen here with us and we're going to ask him a few more questions before we wrap up this episode. And so, Alan, welcome back.
Good to be back.
So let's just talk at a high level. What makes a good speech?
So that answer would be different for every person you ask, probably. But for me and for the speakers that I work with, and I'm working usually with five to 10 speakers at a time, shaping their speeches, helping them with a TEDx process, working with them on their applications. The thing that I think makes a great TEDx speech is it is when people really bring their stories and their histories into the story and are willing to be vulnerable in that way too, regardless of what the topic is — their ability to, your ability to connect with viewers, with TEDx committees by being vulnerable and really providing great real-life examples to back up all of your hypotheses. And I think also for me it's I like when people interject humor. I think that's a real art. It can fall flat. It's a really appropriate use of humor, but really just taking people on a journey and having them feel all the feels. So the end and the triumph at the end and obviously the tips and some call to action is necessary, and good speeches will always have that. But when the speaker is really willing to bare their soul in the service of getting people to really get them and get what they're talking about, I think that's an art.
And I don't think all TEDx speakers do it very well. I think some don't, really. There's something a little surfacy about them and I think the ones that really stand out are when you really share your heart, your heart, your heart and your head and you listen. You don't have to have had a near-death experience or some horrible tragedy in your life, sometimes that people really can't relate to that. But really to relate some experiences which were important to you that really matter and that people can really feel your heart in that in the description. I think that's key good storytelling, man. I know, Jason, that you're in the business of helping people tell their stories and craft their stories. I did that for a long time in corporate communications, but this is different because it really asks people to be, to go very, very, very deep. And I don't want to work with anybody who doesn't have a story that can move people to action. And I don't like too slick, you know, I think I try to de-slick my speakers. What's worked in the boardroom doesn't always work on the TEDx stage. So I hope that answers your question.
Well you’re reminding me I'm a professional public speaker myself and one of our, my coach \ always says, ‘Make big choices.’ Right. And I think that you just kind of said that earlier as well. You know, you've got to be intentional about making big choices. You're nodding. Sounds like you want to say something.
Yeah, well, very, very good reading of body language. So I think that what can get a lot of us stuck even in the application process, is coming, is being bold with a statement and then being able to back it up. And it's but also to be okay with not having your idea be the definitive answer because TEDx says it's kind of an inquiry. It's kind of saying, ‘Hey, what if artificial intelligence, what if we could bring artificial intelligence into the hiring process? What, how could that make our lives infinitely better? Or it will make our lives infinitely better and here’s why.’ But you can't be afraid that other people are going to push back on you because they will. All right. That's once you're out there and up there, people are going to push back and you have to just be prepared to respond. But it's not definitive, right? It's not, we're not offering solutions that are going to work every time for everybody. Just asking people to consider a different possibility.
Yeah, I wrote down, you said, you know, be bold and back it up. And I really like that. I tell people all the time, you know, you've got to say something provocative, contrarian, and unique that they haven't heard everybody else say, because you sound like everybody else, they're not going to pick you. They're not going to relate to you. They're not going to remember you. And whether you're being quoted for a news interview, whether you're, you know, pitching yourself as a speaker, whether you're speaking, whether you're writing a book, you know — I've got a friend of mine, he wrote a great book, but I didn't learn anything new in it because everything he talked about, you kind of pulled from other sources and other books. But it is a book I will recommend to people to say, ‘Hey, if you need a fast track on learning some of the, you know, some of my best learnings and 20 years of reading a whole lot of books, I would read this book.’
Well, I think we've all heard that expression, there are not a lot of new ideas under the sun. And I think that's true. I think I love people when people present like proprietary systems and you're like, wow. But I think I saw that 30 years ago in a textbook, you know. So don't be afraid that your idea isn't new. I literally just quoted from Stephen Sondheim's “Sunday in the Park” with George. Don't be afraid that your idea isn’t new, but get that you as the channeler, you as the vessel for the message may be something, and your unique examples and the way they tell a story may make it new for some people.
Yeah, so you know, don't kill yourself trying to be the first person to ever talk about resilience. Right? There are popular themes that you start seeing across TEDxes. Some conferences are themed around health and wellness or are around leadership or around H.R., or around disruption. So think about where you do have ideas, and some or different ideas, or a different perspective from what — or things that anger you about, things that you're out there seeing and hearing and a different way forward through it.
That's good advice. Alan, we've run out of time. I want to thank you for joining today and helping our audience stay on top of PR and telling them more about how to become a TEDx speaker. And not just that, but an excellent TEDx speaker. So what we're going to do is we'll put a link to your LinkedIn in the episode notes and your website, etc. so if our audience wants to connect with you, they'll know how to do that. And speaking of audience, we just want to thank you, audience, for being here today and joining us and helping us help you stay on top of PR. If you know a colleague or friend who would benefit from this episode, do us a favor and post about it on social media and tag that person and tag Alan and myself or On Top of PR, and we'll be sure to comment and engage with you in that conversation. And we'll be sure to thank you for sharing the episode. With that, this is Jason Mudd and on behalf of Alan Cohen, thanking you for tuning in to On Top of PR.
This has been On Top of PR with Jason Mudd, presented by ReviewMaxer. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode, and check out past shows at ontopofpr.com.
- On Top of PR is produced by Axia Public Relations, named by Forbes as one of America’s Best PR Agencies. Axia is an expert PR firm for national brands.
- On Top of PR is sponsored by ReviewMaxer, the platform for monitoring, improving, and promoting online customer reviews.
About your host Jason Mudd
On Top of PR host, Jason Mudd, is a trusted adviser and dynamic strategist for some of America’s most admired brands and fastest-growing companies. Since 1994, he’s worked with American Airlines, Budweiser, Dave & Buster’s, H&R Block, Hilton, HP, Miller Lite, New York Life, Pizza Hut, Southern Comfort, and Verizon. He founded Axia Public Relations in July 2002. Forbes named Axia as one of America’s Best PR Agencies.
Find more On Top of PR episodes on: