Lessons Learned: 3 Big Mistakes I Made Submitting a TEDx Talk

Scroll this

Shortly after writing Your Last Good Day, a friend of mine offered to recommend me to the selection committee for a TEDx talk. I was honored she would be willing to vouch for me, but I wasn’t sure I was ready.

TED Talks are, as they like to say, ideas worth spreading and a worldwide phenomenon. You’ve probably seen the informational, inspirational and/or motivational videos of your favorite speakers talking at a TED event. TEDx is an offshoot of the main stage, held sporadically and in various locations throughout the year.

I gathered all my courage and submitted my proposal:  A month later, much to my surprise and delight, I made it through to the second round. Out of 10,000 submissions, a few dozen finalists were selected and I was one of them. I did it! I was on my way to being a Ted speaker. All I had to do was record a video of the speech and be one of the chosen ones.


Except I failed.

“Unfortunately, your application was not one that made it…  I am sure this is disappointing and this is not easy news to deliver.”


After an emergency pint of ice cream, I spoke with the TEDx executive director in hopes of finding out what went wrong. We went over the committee’s notes and re-watched my video. My heart sank. They were right. Based on what I submitted, I didn’t deserve a spot. Here’s why.

Mistake #1: I Betrayed My Own Message

Time and time again people say “trust your instincts.” Well, I didn’t. TED has a set of guidelines just like any other submission process. In an attempt to make sure that my talk would fit into their guidelines, I adapted the message of Your Last Good Day to be more general, less focused on disability and my story.

What made that article popular was my personal adaptation of John Green’s idea from The Fault in Our Stars. Taking away the original idea, following the guidelines and appealing to the wider audience corrupted the message. The disability angle from my story is what made that idea unique and I should have trusted that.  When you find something that works, stick with it. Don’t change your messaging because you believe you need to follow guidelines.

Had I not attempted to change something that was already working, this post might have been titled “Mistakes I Was Smart Enough Not to Make.”

Mistake #2: I Made My Idea Common

The problem with “general” is that you are taking something unique and making it have broader appeal. Great idea for marketing a cupcake. Bad idea for promoting a personal story.

As a friend of mine said, “Live your life better is the same snake oil that every motivational speaker sells.” Every story has already been told, but only you can tell the story from your point of view. What makes it different is you.

Whether you’re writing a novel, asking your boss for a raise or pitching an idea, you need to separate yourself from everyone else. By committing my first mistake, I fell into the trap of my second mistake. The best way to fail to stand out is to make your message common. Don’t be common.

Utilize your experiences, knowledge and personal bias to create something only you know how. Everyone loves to take selfies with their phones, but one person had the “stupid” idea to put it on a stick. Many people have written about a school for wizards, but only one person made that story successful. A solid idea with a unique spin makes a ridiculous amount of money.

Mistake #3: I Got Cocky and Put All My Eggs in One Basket

TED encourages multiple submissions to let the committee choose the idea they like for their particular agenda. The same goes for any submission process. Agents are looking for a particular type of idea. Bosses are looking for a particular type of person. Clients are looking for a particular type of pitch.

But I didn’t want that. I wanted my first submission to be accepted on my first try so that I could brag about it as such. That was stupid.

“I didn’t fail. I found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” – Thomas Edison

Abraham Lincoln didn’t win his first political run. Jerry Seinfeld was booed offstage in his first stand-up routine. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school multiple times. No one cares if you get it right on your first try.

I could’ve submitted multiple ideas. I could’ve submitted the same idea both with a broad pitch, like I did and with a personal spin, like my original article with thousands of social media shares. But I didn’t.

Pride got in my way.

So, what happens when you betray your own message by making it have general appeal and then only rely on that one line with no safety net? You just might fall.

No matter what you’re doing, it’s important to remember to be yourself. Trying to change who you are to please someone else whether it’s in a relationship, an article pitch, or TED idea, is a bad plan. Be yourself. If you try to be something, someone else the person you are hurting the most is, well, you.

Submit a comment