How Do You Break the Rules and Still Bring Down the House? Insights From an Insider at TEDxCambridge

When Tamsen Webster invited me to be a VIP at the Boston Opera House on October 12, 2017 for TEDx Cambridge, I started packing. Tamsen had previously asked me if I’d be interested in weighing in on the talks, providing much needed feedback to the participants as they began the several month process of distilling their areas of expertise into succinctly prepared–18 minutes or less– talks deemed worthy of TED’s tagline, “ideas worth spreading.”

“After all,” she said. “This is what you do.”

It’s true; helping people write high-stakes speech content is one of the many aspects of writing I tackle here at The Clementina Collective. It’s also true that a few of my students have gone on to do their own Tedx talks, are well on their way, or are considering it but before last week, I’d never had the opportunity to work with a collection of talks for a particular TEDx event. Thrilled by the opportunity, I said yes.

The experience was priceless.

If you’re a member of my budding community, then you know that looking at multiple pieces of writing, written at roughly the same time, and discovering themes, common goals, interests, and divergences have been a longtime preoccupation of mine. And if you know me at all, you know I can be a bit of a Rebel. Put these two things together and you can see why this particular TEDx Cambridge–aptly themed Breaking the Rules–was right up my alley as far as experiences go.

The four talks I had the honor and privilege of putting my heart and head to work for belonged to a diverse group of speakers with powerful messages and equally powerful asks:

  • Glenn Cohen, a Bioethics Pioneer, asked us to see the inherent dangers of treating human beings as commodities.
  • Mike Boston, Truth Advocate, asked the audience to give up our preconceived notions about gang violence.
  • Tsedal Neely, Globalization Scholar, asked us to consider creating a common language as a prerequisite to sharing a truly global culture.
  • Dheeraj Roy, Memory Neuroscientist, asked for an increase in the allocation of resources to early stage Alzheimer’s treatment.

So often in my work with speakers I hear them say I’m giving a talk. Or, they wonder, do I have enough content? Sometimes, they need reassurance that what they have to offer is indeed valuable or whether or not they have what it takes to create an experience. Understandably, they’re hyper-focused on themselves. After all, they’re preparing to get up in front of all those people and take the spotlight. Make no mistake about it; like them, when you’re giving a talk you want to be generous with your audience.

You’re also asking your audience to be generous with you. It’s part of the deal. Whether or not you’re permitted to sell from the stage (a no, no as far as TED and TEDx go) does not change the fact that your presence on the stage, and the audiences presence in their seats, means that both parties are actively engaged in the art of asking (btw, I’m huge fan of Amanda Palmer’s book by the same title). So while a lot of the “relationship” advice I see doled out by business experts tells us to give, give, give, give, and give more insisting there’s no underlying hope for a return on the investment or a mutually beneficial relationship to follow is disingenuous and irresponsible as far as I’m concerned.

Think about it this way: Your audience has little idea what you’re going to tell them before they sit down in their seats, before the lights go down, before they’re asked to silence themselves and their cell phones. You could change their lives. You might say or do something they can never un-hear or un-see again. Because of you—you who knows what you’re going to say—you who has likely rehearsed it a ton—you the expert in your field—they could be utterly and completely changed upon leaving the theater.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Still with me? Good.

The question is not who is asking what from whom. People in relationships ask of each other. If you are in relationships, then you don’t need me to tell you they don’t maintain themselves. The ones we continue to nurture involve a little something called reciprocity. Speakers and audiences ask of each other. It’s part of the unspoken contract brought into play every time there is a ticket sale. As speakers, as experts, we do what mere mortals gave up doing a long time ago because more often than not, it doesn’t work: We try to change people. We’re thick-headed, we like a good challenge, and we know that failing might make us even better at what we do, so we try to change people again and again. And when we’ve reached that longed for level of unconscious competence, we do change people. For this we get big props. For this we make the big time. For this we get paid handsomely. For this, we bring down the house.

So how do we share potentially confronting ideas and keep our audiences safe without dismantling their desire to uphold their part in the relationship, and still bring down the house? Remember these five points when you sit down to work on your next talk:

  1. It’s a big ask; own it. Asking a member of your audience to trust enough to surrender to the possibility that you might be the one to bring them a life shifting, a mind altering, a soul stirring change is a big ask. They’re likely to be nervous too. They don’t know what they’re about to see and they’re trusting you. If the ride is too turbulent, if the path isn’t clear, if the ask seems too dangerous, too fraught with anxiety or too confusing, your audience is going to check out. For them to uphold their part in the relationship, they need to stay with you. To ensure the best possible odds of that happening, you need to see to it that they’re as comfortable as you can possibly make them in the presence of potentially uncomfortable ideas. It’s your responsibility as the speaker to make difficult ideas easy for your audience to consume.
  2. Put something familiar before something foreign to create rapport.
  • Glenn Cohen, Bioethics Pioneer, invited Sesame Street’s Big Bird along as he took the audience on a journey into the uncharted territory of teasing out the distinctions between persons and humans.
  • Mike Boston, Truth Advocate, took us into a young mentee’s heart and soul before he asked us to envision his vision for Mobile Stu, a travelling recording studio where self-expression is as readily accessible to inner city kids as ice cream. Once we likened him to our favorite–and familiar–neighborhood ice cream man, once we knew his heart worked much like our own (that it had loved a boy it lost), it was much, much, more likely we’d do what he asked next: Give up our preconceived notions about gang violence.
  • Tsedal Neely asked us to imagine what it would be like to arrive at work to learn we’d have to promptly learn another language to keep our jobs before she asked us to imagine a world in which global success in business depended on separating language from culture. Only after we could imagine that–and believe me when I tell you she had the data and experience to fortify these imaginings–could she make her dream of a common language prerequisite to creating a global community seem like a snap. Even if we haven’t had this exact experience, most of us have been in a situation where we’ve had to learn a new and seemingly difficult skill to keep our jobs. We understand the initial feelings of resistance and fear entailed on a visceral level. Again, the familiar, begin there.
  1. Make complex scientific ideas simple and human:

In putting something familiar before something foreign, neuroscientist Dheeraj Roy simplified his complex ideas. He began his talk by asking us to imagine the human brain as a library with each book standing in for a single memory. This metaphor, sustained throughout his talk, made his area of expertise—the inner workings of the human brain—familiar, simple, and easy for us to follow. A brief personal reveal signaled a big part of his Why and made his talk infinitely more human: Grandma also had Alzheimer’s. He wished she could remember their Scrabble games, his favorite meal, and the close-knit nature of their relationship.

  1. Recognize there’s often freedom in restraint:

Writers are skilled risk takers. We’ve got to be. It is inherent to learning our artistry but when we’ve got a high-stakes message, especially when we’re asking the audience to change, we’ve got to be careful. In other words, the more we want to break the rules, the more we’ve got to create safe spaces. Familiarity helps with that. Given that the speakers I worked with at TEDx—though experts in their fields—were not previously trained writers or speakers–much of my work in commenting meant asking them to get more specific, to tell me exactly what they meant, to stay within the confines of logic they themselves had set up.  I also asked them to get clear on what they hoped the audience would do, think or feel as a result of hearing them speak. While this may have felt constraining to them in the moment, several of them told me afterward these directions helped them discover aspects of their talk previously unbeknownst to them.

Audiences love when that feeling of discovery comes across as both planned (safe) and surprising (in the most delightful way). When you create safety for your audience and uncover the unexpected during the writing process, you’re well on your way to connecting in a compelling way. If you’re moved by your own work, if you discover something in the process of writing or rehearsing, great. If you can own the inherent responsibility in taking your audience on a similar journey  to discover it too, even better. It means you’re well poised for movement and the reciprocity most speakers hope for in the presence of their audience. Go with that.

  1. Ultimately, you’re in control:

What do you want your audience to do, say, or think as a result of hearing you speak? How do you want them to feel? What do you want them to take away? When we admit we have wants–when we can clearly articulate them–then we can work backward from there, creating great content in a safe structure that allows the audience to surrender and come along for the ride without fear, hesitation or, worst case scenario, checking out all together. When your message is confronting, if it threatens the status quo, if it’s asking people to change, to break the rules, to see things the way you do, you’ll want to be especially sure you take responsibility for creating a safe passage for your audience. You’ll feel safer too. Safer to authentically self express or in other words, just be you.

If you’d like to explore working together on your next talk, please contact me at

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If you’re wondering who the lovely woman in the featured photo with me is…that’s Jeanette Bronée. Once upon a time, not too long ago, I helped her craft her big idea. She’s gone on to do two Tedx talks, one at Inbound, and she’s a regular presenter at Eileen Fisher, to name just a few of her many recent successes.

Photo credit: Pretty Instant Professional Photographers