“You are an amazing performer and speaker! One of the best TEDx talks I have ever seen.”
-Jeremey Donovan, Author of International Best Seller How to Deliver a TED Talk
The TED organization, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, challenges the world’s most fascinating thinkers to deliver the talk of their lives in 18 minutes or less. No pressure.
On June 1, 2015 I delivered a 14 minute talk at a TEDx conference held at Manchester High School in Manchester, CT for less than 80 attendees. Entitled “How to Magically Connect with Anyone,” that talk has been viewed over 35,000 times on YouTube and is still climbing steadily [Update: 2.7 million views as of 9/12/17].
In the four weeks since hitting YouTube, the talk has landed me multiple direct bookings for speaking engagements, one featured podcast interview (not yet live) [Update: Successful Performercast ], and an upcoming spot in a major industry publication that I cannot yet announce [Update: Magic Magazine (Nov 2015) and M-U-M Magazine (Dec 2015) ].
In the emails and messages I’ve received from people all over the world, magicians and non-magicians alike, I have been asked to discuss my TEDx journey: how did it start, how did I prepare, what was the actual conference like, and what have I done since? I will address those inquiries here in this post.
How did it start?
You can read about people who have sought out TEDx conferences through careful planning and strategic networking. For some people it was their life’s ambition to become a TED speaker. I did none of those things. While I love TED talks, admire their prestige, and have watched them frequently since discovering them in high school, it had never been my active goal to become part of that community.
And then I got a phone call. Five minutes before walking into a gig my phone started ringing, so I ignored it and let it go to voicemail. I decided to listen to the voicemail before heading in just in case it was important. Here’s how I heard it:
“Hello, my name is so-and-so, blah blah blah, TEDx organizer, blah blah blah…”
My eyes popped out of my head. Did I hear that correctly? I listened one more time, and it was most definitely a man named Parag Joshi, organizer of a small TEDx conference in Manchester, CT only 20 minutes from my house. I decided to call him back immediately.
“Mr. Joshi? Hi, this is Brian Miller calling you back. I’m just about to walk into a show, but I wanted to let you know that I received your message and I will be available tomorrow to discuss more deeply.”
“Thanks for calling me back! Would you be interested in speaking at our TEDx conference?”
“Absolutely! It’s such an honor to be asked!”
We made plans to speak the next day and I hung up, went into work, and spent two hours doing close up magic completely distracted, lost imagining myself as a TEDx speaker.
The question burning in my mind was naturally, how did he hear about me? Sure, I’ve been working in Connecticut for five years and have a pretty good reputation. I have some high profile stuff on my resume and make regional media appearances with frequency. But then again, so do lots of guys in this area. So where did he know me from?
It turns out that Mr. Joshi takes his daughter to music lessons at Summit Studios Performing Arts Center, a popular local venue where I spent nearly three years teaching magic lessons in between shows and on off days. In fact most of my closest friends are the Summit teachers and staff. While waiting for his daughter to finish her lesson he simply mentioned to the studio coordinator and owner that he was putting on a local TEDx conference, and asked them if they knew of anyone who might be good for such an event. They both immediately and definitively said, “Brian Miller!” At least, that’s how the story was told to me, and how I choose to believe it.
So, was it luck? Well, yes and no. We all know that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” My former manager used to say “luck happens by design.” The point is this: I had spent years cultivating professional and personal relationships throughout Connecticut since moving here in 2010 and have made it my mission to consistently deliver top notch shows no matter what the conditions. Therefore my reputation has power and cache, and my name stays in the front of people’s minds. All of those years of work paid off in that single moment when an opportunity presented itself. So was it luck? Yes. But it wasn’t an accident.
I now had 6 weeks from the time I was invited until the conference date.
TED Rules You Need to Know
- Speakers are not paid
- Speakers may not sell anything from the stage
- Speakers may not read off of notecards
- No pseudoscience
- No inflammatory political or religious agendas
- TEDx conferences are restricted to 100 attendees or less
How did I prepare?
1. Creating the Topic
Nobody delivers a great TED talk without copious preparation. It’s just not possible. The very first order of business is to consider your conference’s theme. For those who don’t know, TEDx conferences must have a unifying theme within which all speakers must work. The idea of a TEDx conference is that different speakers from many different disciplines all discuss the same topic from their own perspectives. In our case the conference theme was “Reality and Illusion.” Our presenters occupied these different areas: chess instructor, practicing Buddhist, the idea of nothingness, yoga instructor, former pro athlete, philosophy of happiness, bullying, origami, and of course professional magic.
Narrowing in one specific angle from which to discuss magic within the conference theme was incredibly difficult, and not because I didn’t have enough ideas, but because I had too many of them. As you might imagine, “Reality and Illusion” gives a professional magician almost unlimited possible topics from which to choose. Over the years I have given lectures to many different fields relating to magic including marketing/sales, history of secrecy, philosophy, psychology, and even The Wizard of Oz.
Some early potential topics I considered:
- Skepticism (philosophy) – “Things are not what they seem”
- Perspective taking – magicians are experts at understanding different points of view
- Assumptions – magic is about turning your own assumptions against you
- The morality of lying and deception
- The difference between “magic” and “real magic”
In order to get a more objective opinion on which (if any) of my topics would be interesting to the TED audience (both the live audience and, more importantly, the global YouTube audience – more on that later) I had a call with Parag, the conference organizer. He liked two topics the best: perspective taking and assumptions.
2. Developing the Talk
Now armed with two equally intriguing topics I decided to enlist the opinion my friend Dr. Zoe Chance, a Yale Professor and renowned expert of influence and persuasion in sales. Perhaps even more relevantly, she has given a TEDx talk with 200,000+ views on YouTube. She graciously found time in her busy schedule to have a lengthy discussion about the process and help narrow down topic ideas. Here are some of the most crucial pieces of general TED talk advice that came out of that conversation:
- All but ignore the conference theme (“Reality and Illusion” in my case). TEDx conference themes exist only on that specific day and only for those 100 attendees, but will never be stated on the YouTube video or elsewhere.
- On that note, remember that your target audience is the potential global YouTube audiences of millions, not the 100 people sat in front of you.
- As a professional entertainer you will be inclined to play to and off of the live audience, but remember that every time you involve the live audience, your YouTube viewers at home will feel removed from you and your message. Limit your live audience interaction.
- Although you are given 18 minutes, the shorter the better. If you care about YouTube views, it should absolutely be no longer than 15 minutes. The psychological mindset of someone browsing YouTube is this: if it’s over 15, it may as well be an hour.
Having got the general advice out of the way, I needed specific advice regarding my potential topic and how to structure my talk. We settled on “perspective taking” as the best topic and began fleshing out the main points I would make and the stories to go along with them. It was during this conversation that Zoe reminded me of the story I had told her years ago about giving a blind man the experience of magic. “It is one of the greatest stories I have ever heard,” she said. We decided that story could be the framework for the entire talk.
And perhaps most crucially we decide to use an open loop, a speaking technique in which you withhold a piece of information that the audience desperately wants to know until later in the talk. In my case I would be withholding the secret to the trick with the blind man. When the open loop technique is employed properly it creates a true sense of suspense and fosters engagement with the speaker, because the audience has to listen closely to make sure they don’t miss the information that they want. But when open loops are employed improperly, the audience will sense that they are being artificially led on and it can backfire, resulting in disdain for the speaker. I knew it would have to be carefully created and rehearsed.
Zoe made one final recommendation, to read Jeremey Donovan’s book How to Deliver a TED Talk. His book discusses in depth how the best TED and TEDx talks were created. He breaks down and analyzes the different approaches to giving TED-style talks in an easy-to-understand way that made it easy to pick and choose from techniques in order to create my speech.
I also read every blog post I could find from those who have gone through the process before. There are surprisingly few such posts, which is one of the reasons I am writing one.
And of course, I watched TED talks. I watched so many TED talks. I was watching them constantly, taking notes on what I liked and didn’t, what I thought worked and what fell flat. This is a crucial part of the preparation process that should not be overlooked.
The main TED event provides speaking instructors and materials for their presenters leading up to the event. Some TEDx conferences do as well, but ours did not. Our organizer Mr. Joshi provided a few email links to Internet sources and videos about delivering a TED talk, but for the most part we were on our own. We were, however, offered the opportunity to come into his Truth Academy class at Manchester High School and practice the talk in front of his students. I did not take up that offer, and I’m not sure that anybody did.
3. Potential Problem
***Skip this section if you don’t care about the ethical code and rights of magicians.***
I foresaw one major potential problem standing between me and a great talk, and it had to do with the story of the trick I did for the blind gentleman. The problem was this: the secret to the trick does not belong to me. The story I told is 100% true and I reenacted it in the talk just as it really happened. But the secret to the trick was not something that I invented myself, and therefore it was not within my right to explain the secret to a live audience, and certainly not a potential global audience of non-magicians.
I tracked down the original creator of the trick, and by some chance it happened to belong to a legendary Los Angeles magician Whit Haydn that we know as Pop, with whom I was already acquainted. It turns out that he had explained the secret to the trick in a relatively obscure manuscript entitled “Street Magic” first published in the early 80’s. In it he described an encounter with a blind girl and how he improvised a technique to create a special moment of magic for her. Somehow his story found its way into the depths of my memory, and was called upon years ago when I encountered a similar situation with Ed, the blind man from my story.
We began a lengthy conversation about magic and our feelings about “exposure,” which is magician-speak for letting the audience know how a trick works, either intentionally or by screwing up. Pop believes ardently that secrets are what define magic, and he generally has a No Exposure policy. I am much more liberal regarding exposure, in that I do not believe that magic is about the knowing of keeping of secrets, but rather magic is about sharing the experience of wonder, in a specific moment. However, by the end of the conversation he understood that I didn’t want to simply expose the secret to his trick just for the sake of it, but so that the general public could appreciate and perhaps respect why what we (magicians) do is so important. It was crucial to explain how the trick worked in order for the audience to understand how I made the unique connection with Ed. Pop agreed that this would be an exception to his hard and fast rule on exposure, and I was thrilled. One hurdle crossed.
But another problem arose during our conversation: Chicken Soup for the Soul published his story without permission in their 3rd volume. Therefore, this story has been circulating for the general public in one of the best selling books of all time for many, many years. I feared that somebody would see my talk, have read that book, and accuse me of stealing it, even though my story is, as I stated, 100% true and told as it happened to me and me alone. This was a very real concern that I am happy to say has not come up yet.
I developed the first complete draft of my talk and timed myself reading it out loud, word for word. 20 minutes. No good. I cut things out until I got it down to around 15 minutes, eliminating everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. This process alone probably took a week, spending 2-3 hours every day.
When I had a decent draft that fit within my own time constraints of 15 min or less, I sent the draft off to Zoe for feedback. We ended up exchanging drafts and making revisions at least 3 times over the next 2 weeks.
At the time I was nearing a final draft, my fiancé Lindsey and I were out to dinner. She has a Bachelor’s in psychology and is currently finishing her Master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. I knew that her insight into the art of making connections and taking on different perspectives would be very valuable, as so much of what I now do well I learned from watching her. She helped me clarify some of the major points. Her feedback was crucial, but she had yet to deliver her most important contribution to the entire process.
Then came serious rehearsal. I began working off script, timing myself while giving the talk without looking at it unless I absolutely needed to. As a full time entertainer, I know that this is the part of the process where you discover gold. You tend to say things in a slightly different way than how you wrote it, or make unplanned statements that morph into great new ideas. I always keep pen and paper next to me during this part of the process so that I don’t forget these newly inspired ideas.
By the time it was one week from the conference date I had probably rehearsed the talk out loud over 100 times. That’s when you start to second-guess yourself. Your talk has become so mundane to you, because you’ve heard it so many times, that you start to think, “Nobody will want to hear this. Is anything I’m saying meaningful at all?” Lindsey was very helpful during this phase, reassuring me that what I had to say would not fall on deaf ears.
5. Coming Up with a Title
I stopped rehearsing to give myself a break and come back to the material just a couple days before the conference with a fresh, renewed focus. During that time I had one more job: come up with a title.
Coming up with a title for your talk is not as easy as it sounds. While the title makes no difference during the live conference, it is absolutely crucial for the YouTube video. The reason is twofold: 1) YouTube limits the amount of characters that show up in search results; 2) Faced with thousands of videos in their newsfeeds on social media every day, people decide whether to watch a video based almost completely on the title.
I went through many drafts of titles. Some examples:
- Making Connections: The Magic in Shared Perspectives
- How to Connect: The Magic of Shared Perspectives
- How to Make a Magical Connection
- How to Connect with People, as if by Magic
I wanted to get the words “connect” or “connecting” and “magic” in there, and I eventually decided that I liked the “How to…” format of titles, judging by existing titles for TED talks that I thought were effective.
I pitched a whole bunch of these to Lindsey, who said, “I understand what you’re going for, but it’s not there.” Then she thought pensively for a minute, and came out with “How to Magically Connect with Anyone.” Done and done. Her contribution to the title is very likely the reason that people click on the video in the first place.
1. Dress Rehearsal
The evening before the conference we were all invited to the venue, Manchester High School, to meet the other presenters, meet the tech crew, see the stage and seating arrangement, and generally get comfortable. Our conference was technically a TEDxYouth event, which means that the audience will be made up of almost exclusively teenagers, and three of the presenters were under 18 (also high school kids). This aspect would present some unique challenges on the conference day itself, but more on that later.
The stage setup was wide and narrow with only three rows of stepped seating. It would fit 100 people, the maximum allowed attendance for a TEDx conference. There were three cameras at left, center, and wide right positions, and they had taped off our left-to-right range that we needed stay within for the cameras.
For some reason the organizing crew decided to decorate a plain but elegant black background with an array of red plastic solo cups. I was not a fan, and I’m still not. Later when I would post the video on Reddit the very first commenter wrote, “TEDxCups”. But aesthetics are subjective, and it wasn’t my place to comment.
I did, however, make one suggestion that I felt comfortable voicing. There was a throw rug on the main walking area, but it didn’t cover nearly the length of the space we had in which to move around. As the only professional stage performer of the 9 speakers, I suggested that the throw rug be removed because it is too easy to trip over the edge, as I’ve done many times before years ago (I no longer allow rugs of any kind on stage during my shows).
2. Conference Day
I arrived at 8:00am, which is a normal time for most people, but awfully early for a self-employed entertainer who typically begins working at 9:00pm. Bagels, donuts, and coffee were provided for presenters, which was welcome.
A Word on Dress: As my fellow speakers arrived, I was surprised to discover that over half of them worn jeans or even sweat pants. I wore a suit, as did a few other speakers, who I thought looked sharp and dapper. I’m not trying to put down my fellow presenters, who each did a wonderful job and I truly enjoyed getting to know. To each his/her own! But I will say this: Although TED talks are intended to be conversational in tone, they are prestigious by nature. And make no mistake, TEDx talks carry the same weight – most people make no distinction. It is generally a good idea to be dressed at least better than the audience, unless your outfit is specific to what you are doing (a dance instructor might be dressed in comfortable dance clothing in order to do a demonstration). In other words, dress the way you want to be perceived.
We were each fitted with a wireless microphone. I could see the other presenters struggling to get comfortable while wearing one. I wear one every night on stage, so it was business as usual for me. But since most people are not used to it, and it is distracting if you’re not, it might have been a good thing for people to get to try on at the Dress Rehearsal the night before.
The audience came in and the conference got started almost precisely on time. What you don’t see on YouTube is that each speaker is given an introduction, so that the live audience knows at least the background of the speaker (chess, origami, yoga, etc). Our host was a lovely, bubbly, awesome high school girl whom I cannot say enough wonderful things about. However, she was not prepared for the introductions, and pretty much just said somebody’s name and then they walked up. The audience had nothing but the program’s blurb to go on. This concerned me because it was important that the audience be aware that they were about to see a magician. I didn’t want them completely taken by surprise as the very different tone of my talk. I was able to ask her during a break if she could be sure to let the audience know that I’m a magician before bringing me up. She was happy to oblige, and did follow through. Whew!
Distractions Abound: We were in a relatively small space and in the auditorium of a high school during a normal school day. Any noise in the audience was audible to everyone. Any door creak or chair creak was magnified in the silence expected during a talk. One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the sound of the school’s bells to sign the start and end of classes. Though they did not go off inside the auditorium, they were audible just outside the doors where we sat.
The time I spent on stage was a blur, as these things tend to be. I delivered my talk as best I could. As an interactive stage performer I had to make adjustments early on when I realized that the audience would not be responding like a typical show. What I mean is, when they found something funny they laughed politely and quietly, so as not to disrupt the quiet ambiance. When I did a piece of magic, they clapped tentatively, unsure whether they were supposed to or not. Apart from these oddities which I’m sure only I was aware of, I thought it went rather well.
My talk was the last before lunch, and I spent the entirety of our lunch period fielding questions and comments from at least half of the audience. It seemed that my message had already resonated with the live audience. I hoped it would translate through the cameras and onto YouTube.
When the conference was over 8 of our 9 presenters were all able to go out to lunch together. We had a marvelous time and rejoiced in our having made it through the talks. I could tell that for everyone else the journey was over. The talk itself was the culmination of the process. But I knew for me it was only the first step. The most important part was yet to come.
YouTube and a Global Audience
It would be nearly three weeks before the videos would be uploaded to YouTube, and there was very little communication during that limbo.
I used that time to prepare a marketing strategy for promoting the video once it hit. My goal from the time I was invited to speak was to use the prestige of the TED name to help push my burgeoning side career as an interactive speaker, in addition to my flourishing career in entertainment. I prepared an email blast to all my former and current clients, and made posts on social media and various forums that I frequent to let people know that the video was coming. During this time I consulted with a media/marketing expert whose advice was very helpful.
After two weeks I started checking YouTube daily, scrolling through the hundreds of TEDx talks uploaded each day. And then one day at nearly midnight I saw my face. It was live!
Lindsey watched it, beaming, as I squinted and half-watched. It’s awfully hard to watch yourself giving any sort of a presentation, which I know because I have watched 100s of hours of myself on stage doing magic over the years. While of course it wasn’t perfect (“Why did I move my hand like that when I said that thing???!!”) overall I was thrilled.
I plugged the video link into my email blasts and scheduled them to go out the following morning early, because people are most likely to read email first thing in the morning. I also schedule my first social media blast on my Facebook Fan Page which would simultaneously head to my other networks. I spent $20 at a Facebook boost to make sure it was seen by my followers, but that’s it. I also finished preparing posts for the various Internet forums I belong to and a blog post for my website. I went to sleep around 3:00am when I was finished, exhausted and anxious to see the response.
I awoke and discovered that I already had a host of Facebook notifications and emails from people who had watched and were glowing with praise. My spirits couldn’t be higher! Over the course of that first day I received nearly 800 views, messages and phones calls from strangers telling me how much they enjoyed it and how meaningful my message was to them, and even a booking from client I hadn’t worked for in four years looking for a speaking engagement. I emailed the link and a text transcript to some leading publications in my industry, one of which responded that they loved the video and wanted to do something with it in a fall issue. The Society of American Magicians shared it on Facebook all of their own accord.
I thought, “This is going to go viral.”
But it didn’t.
In fact it stalled out after a few days somewhere around 1100 views, which, don’t get me wrong, was awesome! But then it stayed there for a few more days and I figured that was it. I was proud of myself and of my talk, and knew that I could use it in future promotional materials to help establish myself as a speaker.
Then one night Lindsey said, “Whoa! Your TED talk has 1600 views!” And I thought, “It does?” Sure enough, it did. The next day it hit 2000. It started going up by 500 each day. After a week I was at 5000 and ecstatic. Then it shot up to 10,000. Then inside of a week it went from 10 to 20,000. Then it only took five more days to hit 30,000. As I write this it cleared 35,000 after only a month on YouTube, with over 700 likes to only 13 dislikes and 80+ glowing comments.
I didn’t do it! For the life of me I don’t know where it is being shared to get so many views after it had all but ceased. I’ve been spending my time responding to YouTube comments and connecting with people who are sharing the video, as best I can. I find where it is being shared on Twitter and tweet at the people who are supporting my work.
For some reason, my message resonated with people and instead of going viral or just falling flat, the response has been a slow burn. It is gaining traction slowly but steadily and, as of this post, shows no signs of stopping soon.
What else can I say? I am beyond thrilled and feel overwhelmed by the response.
I sincerely hope that this painstaking (and finger busting) recounting of my TED experience is in some way helpful to you, whatever journey you are currently on. By all means connect with me at the social media links below. I love to hear from everyone and I will do my very best to stay in touch as I start touring again next week.
Photo Credit: Rowmell Findley
Latest posts by Brian Miller (see all)
- Ride Your Ambition to the Skies | Memorial Day 2017 - May 29, 2017
- Magic for the Military in Asia: video blog [vlog] - May 2, 2017
- Military Tour in Asia an Epic Success - May 2, 2017