Dr. Laura Sicola’s complete guide on how to give a killer TED talk

This week, Women Who Dare hosted Dr. Laura Sicola for a one hour webinar on how to give a killer TED talk. Laura is a professional speaker, leadership communication coach and the founder of Vocal Impact Productions in Philadelphia. Laura has spent more than two decades coaching, speaking, training, researching, teaching and publishing on language, cognition, culture, the voice and its effects on learning. Laura has given three TED talks herself, coached for TED fellows, and trained dozens of others to give incredible TED talks. In her hour long webinar, Laura gave us a brilliant blueprint and expert tips outlined below.

What makes a story compelling?

The point of TED talks is to teach the audience a lesson is less than 18 minutes in a narrative, conversational style. You have limited time to wrap your audience in and communicate a number of feelings and takeaways to them in an impactful way. Laura says the most compelling stories that achieve this are surprising, relatable, emotional, and inspiring. Aiming for a story that nails one of these elements will guarantee your talk catches your audience’s attention.

What makes you credible?

Even if it’s a short speech, your audience still needs to know why you’re qualified to be teaching them this lesson. If anything, you have even less time to grab their trust. There are a few factors Laura points out that help establish your credibility. The worlds you use, how you make the words sound, and how you look when saying them all contribute to how credible you come across. Aligning these three elements with your overall message builds credibility.

Begin with the end in mind:

With such a short speech, it’s important to keep your end goal omnipresent from the beginning. You should have a clear and specific idea of how you want think, feel, and maybe even a specific behavior you want them to adopt by the end. Everything from the start should align around making your final takeaway stick.

There are two types of talks:

If you’re familiar with TED talks, these will sound familiar to you. Depending on which one fits your message more, you will gravitate towards one style over another.

  1. A personal story with lessons at key points along the way.
  2. A lesson with personal stories to illustrate key points along the way.

Crafting your story:

There are a few ground rules Laura suggests that the proper tone and structure for a TED talk. You’ll likely recognize these as characteristic of TED talks as well; they’re definitely great to keep in mind. You want to make sure your story displays honesty and vulnerability. You may have an amazing success story, but your audience won’t be able to put themselves in your shoes and learn if you also don’t share your mistakes and trials. Make sure you have logical order to your story. Jumping around in your story during your 18 minutes will confused your audience and make your lesson less impactful. And finally, a strong introduction and conclusion will catch your audience’s attention and make your story memorable beyond your TED talk.

Facts and opinions:

Beware of the balance of facts and opinion in your speech. A TED talk with too much fact can start to sound like a classroom lecture rather than an impactful story and a TED talk with too much opinion lacks credibility. There is absolutely a happy medium. When you do use facts, balance them with personal anecdotes and examples. Of course, cite your sources when you do. If your speech is strong on opinion, preface for your audience with facts.


Your language throughout should be carefully crafted to guide your message. Go back to fifth grade and remember to incorporate your five senses for strong, descriptive language. Remember, all your audience has to craft a picture in their mind or try to feel your emotion is you and your words. Explicitly narrate your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Never assume your audience knows what you were feeling or thinking. For inspiration, read a descriptive passage in a novel; notice how detailed the author has painted the mental picture.

The importance of transitions:

Along with having logical order, how your transition from one part of your story to the next is vital to a coherent speech. “Cement” the pieces of your story together with strong, clear transitions. Transitions can also be helpful for memorization. Breaking up your speech and using topic cues to guide you.

Who’s in the details: God or the Devil?

Make sure you find a place between too much detail and not enough detail that gets your message across in the right way. Too much detail, particularly of the negative or difficult parts of your story can seem like a rambling tangent to your audience. It’s easy to lose them. Oppositely, if you give too little detail, your audience will be confused and disconnected from your story or any lesson you’re hoping to convey.

Writing a script:

Laura has one big piece of advice: start now. She warns it takes on average 3-5x longer than you’re expecting. Your first draft should be done and in review far in advance to your speech to give you time to work out the weak parts and put it into practice. Remember, this is a script that is meant to be memorized, so you will need to give yourself time to do that. Don’t ad lib either. It loses the necessary natural, conversational tone.

Use conversational speech style:

TED talks are done in a conversational style. Make sure to keep this in mind when writing and rehearsing. To get it right think aloud: dictate, record, transcribe, and revise your speech. You don’t want to lose your authenticity and audience’s connected with a robotic, over-planned style. It’s not an essay or a report. Use contractions in your speech like you would a conversation and try to avoid jargon.

Energy and mood:

The audience will match the energy you bring to the stage. Everything about your body language, vocal volume and fluctuation, and movement throughout your speech will contribute to the overall mood and energy. Make sure to match the energy for certain parts of your story. You want to relive your story and bring your audience with you.

Volume and articulation:

If you know you mumble, practice not mumbling and be conscious of it. Your microphone is a tool, not a crutch. Make sure you’re not leaning or holding on to it. Vary your volume appropriately throughout your story to create the right energy. You won’t be grandiose and loud while describing a terrifying or trailing time and you won’t be softer while announcing an amazing accomplishment.

Breath support and vocal “fry”:

Practicing out loud as often as you can is going to help you learn to control your breathe to stay strong throughout your whole speech. Air is fuel for your voice. You want to avoid “vocal fry”: where your voice sounds tired, bored, or timid. Rehearse pauses to breathe. You don’t want your voice to trail off or to come across out of breathe to your audience. All you have is your voice!


Practice out loud to work on bad habits like a monotone voice or up-talk at the end of your sentences. Having a fluctuating voice will add more energy and interest to your voice. Use “vocal punctuation” so you don’t sound like you’re speaking run on sentences. You may need to practice slowing down your voice.

Remember PEGS:

P = Posture:

Stand tall, don’t sway or shift, and utilize floor space.

E = Eye contact:

Look at all audience zones, don’t look up or away to remember your lines.

G = Gestures:

Hand, head, and body movements reinforce the meaning and feeling of your story. Don’t fidget, don’t pantomime, don’t use dinosaur arms.

S = Smile:

Do smile when it’s appropriate in your story; it helps the audience connect with you.

Purpose of using slides:

If you’re going to use slides, remember they are there to reinforce your core point at each part of your story. They can also be helpful cues for your memorization but should be only incredibly brief, core information.

Slide guidelines:

Here are Laura’s basic slide guidelines:

  • Only use one idea per slide with only the bare minimum text.
  • No bullet points
  • Be visual: use pictures to help reinforce ideas where you can.
  • As always, keep credibility by citing sources and getting copyright for photos.

Rehearsing your speech:

Practice makes perfect. Here are Laura’s musts for rehearsal prior to your speech

Memorize your script:

Start as soon as possible and don’t underestimate how long this will take! Record yourself and listen often so you know where to improve. Memorize your speech in chunks split up and prompted by your slides and scheduled transitions, which should be clear to you and your audience.

Physical practice tips:

  • Practice out loud
  • Practice your movements and gestures while you go through your speech
  • Practice in your performance shoes: be as you will be during your performance

Managing your nerves:

Public speaking is one of the number one fears for adults. Some surveys suggest public speaking is feared above death. Of course you’re doing to be nervous! Keep your mind on your goal: to inspire. This is about your audience and their takeaway, NOT you!

Controlling adrenaline:

Tell yourself that you’re excited, not nervous. Your excitement will make you speak faster; remember to consciously slow down! Practicing out loud will help this. Before you speak, practice square breathing: breathing in for four seconds at a time and then taking a long breathe out for four seconds. Repeat this four times. This will help quell your pre-speech jitters and put you in a relaxed, focused mindset.

For some extra prep, check out Laura’s “10 Point Checklist: Do you speak like a leader?” here on her site. If you’re interested in some personalized guidance from Laura, you can learn more about her, her work, and get in touch with her at vocalimpactproductions.com.