I remember sitting on a publishing panel about a year after The Oprah Winfrey Show aired its final episode and discussing how she had disappeared from recent book proposals. Gone were authors claims to some Oprah connection: the possibility that they’d get on her show or be chosen for her book club.
The panelists were joking about this when the agent sitting next to me opined that TED Talks had become the new Oprah as far as author platforms are concerned. At that time I’d only seen a handful of TED Talks, most notably Susan Cain’s “The Power of Introverts.” Today TED is a household name, with hundreds of conferences a year. TED is now a major media site, and there’s a popular podcast called the TED Radio Hour. Every nonfiction author I know has given a TED or TEDx talk or wants to.
As a nonfiction author myself, I’d had the goal of giving a TED or TEDx talk for three years before I finally publicly announced that it was my BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) for 2017. Though the competition for a spot at the annual TED conference is fierce, the good news for authors is that TEDx conferences are everywhere, with more licenses being granted each year to organizers who are aligned with TED’s goal: “to spark conversation, connection, and community.”
Throughout 2016 I looked for opportunities to apply to various TEDx talks. I even submitted a one-minute video for the TED conference but didn’t make the cut. Finally, in October, a door opened. A connection led me to TEDx Traverse City (Mich.). It took three pitches to the organizers before I finally grasped what TED means by “an idea worth spreading.”
If you’re an author or an aspiring author, the point of giving a TED/TEDx talk should be to support your book and to further advance ideas that you’re publishing or working toward publishing. In my case, it took a couple tries before I understood the intersection of the ideas in my book and my idea worth spreading via TEDx. In my book Green-Light Your Book, I encourage authors to publish their work on their own terms, but that made for too limited a TEDx talk. Though it took some finessing to get there, my talk, “Green-Light Revolution: Your Creative Life on Your Terms,” aims for a broader viewership and speaks to anyone who calls him- or herself a creative artist, driving home the idea that artists shouldn’t allow traditional creative industries’ narrow view of what’s marketable to determine whether they become authors or filmmakers or musicians.
The challenge to think bigger was a great personal exercise, but, as an author who’s always thinking about growing my platform, I also realized how important it was to stay on message. After all, a lot is at stake, and if you go too broad you risk diluting the ideas that you’re cultivating. Plus, there’s all that pressure. The talk, whether you succeed or fail, lives on forever. It’s not like a book that can be edited to perfection before being sent to the printer. It’s a performance, and you have a set number of minutes—in most cases exactly 18—to do your thing and make the impression of a lifetime. Countless books have been written on the art of delivering a TED/TEDx talk, and many careers have now been built on successful talks.
With all the hype around TED/TEDx, however, I saw the many ways in which it mirrors what we’re seeing in the publishing industry. The more talks get delivered, the more saturated the field. There are a lot of TED/TEDx talks, and just because you do one doesn’t mean you’re going to get the hundreds of thousands of views that some of the higher-ranking talks have received. And, just as is the case when you publish a book, some of the talks that have racked up thousands of views have done so over many years. And so you have to be patient and continue to get the word out, tirelessly and over time. Which should be the very definition of building a platform.
TED/TEDx doesn’t have the kind of Midas touch that Oprah once possessed, but these talks offer clear pathways to book deals and an opportunity to breathe new air into a backlist book. In my case, my talk happened a full year and a half after the publication of Green-Light Your Book. In recent months I’ve been getting a lot of messages from readers telling me that they watched my talk and bought my book. I’ve gotten a handful of new Amazon reviews and had plenty of opportunities to revisit the concept of green-lighting, thus plugging a book that would otherwise be on the back burner. In an industry that’s constantly strategizing how to make books discoverable, TED/TEDx is a shining light for authors.
And it’s the kind of accomplishment that has a life of its own, because you never know what reward you’ll reap from the fact that your talk is out there, touching hearts and minds months and years after it’s over. That’s the best kind of achievement: one that keeps working for you long after you’ve moved on to your next greatest thing.