Tuesday, January 26, 2021

How to Write a Compelling TEDx Script: Revise, Get Feedback, Repeat

I just finished writing a script for a TEDx talk and I am certain I have never before put in so many hours into such a short piece. 

I chose to write a script instead of speaking from an outline. The talk needed to be 12 minutes or less and the best way to ensure that would happen was to write a script.

As an academic, writing a TEDx script is like exercising a whole new muscle. I write all the time but had never done this particular form of writing. Learning how to do this well took a lot of time and feedback. Thus, I did something I have never done before: I got a speaking coach who read and listened to multiple drafts.

The first draft of my TEDx talk was similar to talks I have given in academic venues. The talk had place-based and historical references. It explained policies like redlining, White flight, and slum clearance. Here is my attempt at explaining why what I was saying in the talk was novel:
"If you read The Color of Law, then you know that federal policies created racial segregation. If you read The New Jim Crow, then you know that Black communities were devastated by mass incarceration. And, if you read How to Kill a City, then you know that gentrification has led to the displacement of working class and Black people from cities. Now, what you might not know is that segregration, incarceration, and gentrification are connected. My research into the neighborhood where I grew up has taught me that policies that created segregation laid the groundwork for mass incarceration, which in turn made gentrification possible."

I shared a version of the talk with this verbiage with my speaking coach. After listening, she told me she felt like she had just attended a fascinating academic lecture. But, that is not what a TEDx talk is. I needed more storytelling. I needed to cut some of the policy descriptions to make room for the stories. I needed to slow down and tell those stories. I also needed to cut the paragraph above because most people have not read those books.

I also reached out to a developmental editor I’ve worked with in the past, Audra Wolfe, as she has done some work on podcast and radio editing. She told me I needed to tell the stories in a way that evokes the senses and emotions. This was hard. For an academic, I might be a pretty good storyteller, but this was a whole new level. I wasn’t ready to invoke smells. But, I could try sounds. And, I knew I could invoke the visuals. I decided to describe the bus ride from my house in a primarily Black neighborhood to my school in a primarily White neighborhood.

I then presented the talk to a group of generous colleagues. My humanities colleagues, however, told me I needed to slow down and really tell the stories. This meant telling more of my own story as well as that of my friends. It meant providing more details and texture to the stories. This meant cutting even more of the policy discussions.

As a sociologist, I endeavor to strike a balance between storytelling and structural analyses. To tell more stories, I had to cut some of the policy discussions. This was hard as it all seemed so important!

I cut the part about how the Washington Real Estate Board’s code of ethics promoted racial segregation, about how White people were able to access federally-backed loans to open businesses in the 1940s, and about how only 2% of the loans insured by the FHA went to Black borrowers. I also had to cut the part about the wealth gap – DC’s White residents have 81 times the wealth of DC’s Black residents. I had to cut those because I didn’t have the space to explain them fully. There is no use giving a random fact if you can’t flesh it out.

I went back to my speaking coach with my revised script. She suggested I focus and really tell the stories I did tell. I cut the story of a family who left during White flight so that I could flesh out the other stories.

My speaking coach also said I needed a call to action for the conclusion. This was very hard. What should I tell listeners to do?

After a gut-wrenching discussion of the violence of disinvestment, lives lost, and people displaced and imprisoned, I couldn’t think of any policy suggestions that did the topic justice. More affordable housing? Changing lending laws? Providing jobs to formerly incarcerated people? None of these did the topic justice.

I reached out to my brothers, who share my politics and are not academics. I had come up with something about lessons learned and how White supremacy is encoded into laws. My brother Sean said: “Why just acknowledge the harms? Why not abolish the police?” My brother Ian said: “You wouldn’t end a talk enumerating the harms of chattel slavery by vaguely talking about profits over people and the deep roots of White supremacy, right?”

They were right. I had to stay true to my message and my values.

I revised the conclusion and ran it by my colleague and friend, Crystal, who suggested I end by calling back to the stories I had mentioned earlier. So, I did that.

I then gave the talk to three of my closest friends from Washington, DC who are not academics. They suggested I add in at least one uplifting story, so I did that. I ran it by my other brother, Justin, and his girlfriend, Tina. They suggested a couple of points that needed explanation.

I don’t know if you’re keeping count, but I definitely called in a lot of favors for this talk. I asked at least 27 friends and colleagues to either read the script or listen to the spoken version. I haven’t even mentioned everyone here. My colleague Anthony also read it and provided great feedback. He gave great tips on how to phrase things and where to slow down for more impact. My mother gave me feedback on an early version. She told me I needed to narrow down the points I was trying to make. My friend Christina told me I needed to make the argument clearer.

Once the script was done, it still wasn’t over. I needed to rehearse and to figure out how to perform the script. There was a part of the script that was very hard to deliver effectively because of the emotional ride in that part. I reached out to a friend and colleague, Nicole, who is a theatre professor and she stepped in and generously gave me some amazing tips on delivery.

My university agreed to professionally record the talk, so I delivered it on a stage. I got a student to help me with the graphics and the university’s media team put the video and graphics together. It thus looks a lot better than just me in front of the zoom screen.

I didn’t tabulate the hours I put into this effort. But, I know I worked on the talk at least 10 hours a week for 8 weeks, so at least 80 hours of writing and revising. I also spent at least another 40 hours practicing it. I listened to it and practiced it out loud every single day on my afternoon walks.

Was all this effort worth it for the TEDx talk? Watch it here and let me know!


  1. Thank you for sharing this experience. I will be assigning your blog post as a reading in my designing digital media graduate course this semester as it's a wonderful example of the necessity of pre-production work and practice!!