Since helping to start TEDxVirginiaTech in late 2011, we have vetted or interviewed hundreds of potential speakers to around 50 talks over the last 4 years. There are a few things that I (and others) look for in every talk. Any speaker that can answer these three questions well tends to be an easy “yes”.
What takeaway do you want the audience to have?
This is a big one. What is the point of your talk? TED’s slogan is “Ideas worth sharing,” and you should have an idea worth sharing. Sometimes it’s a fully-formed idea like in John Boyer’s “More Passion, Less Pedagogy”. Sometimes it’s a question the presenter wants you to leave with, as in Ishwar Puri’s “Are our truths true?”. Regardless, there should be a thought-provoking takeaway.
What is the impact?
Whether you’re presenting your research like Wu Feng, professor of Computer Science did, or your career like John Carlin, news anchor did, or simply a story in which you were involved like Perry Martin did, I love to know the impact. This can be particularly difficult for researchers, as their research is often multiple steps removed from the real-world impact on the common man. But discussing that impact dramatically improves the appeal of the research to a diverse audience.
What stories can you tell?
The best talks I hear contain engaging stories. Imagine telling an audience about why you think manufacturing and engineering should happen in the same building. Sounds boring. Now instead imagine telling the audience how you came to this conclusion: by competing with a team of engineers on a Discovery channel reality show like Amy Elliot did. Tell stories, they’re much more engaging.