Listen Now

Ever wonder how people make it to the TED stage? Tamsen Webster, Executive Producer of TEDxCambridge, lets us know how others found themselves standing on the signature red circular area rug.

In this episode we discuss:

  • How TEDx speakers are chosen. (6:47)
  • Why you need to know the difference between topics and ideas. (22:54)
  • The 5 key elements of story structure. (30:15)

Find out more about Tamsen Webster and her upcoming events.

00:00 Michael Port: Welcome to Steal The Show with Michael Port. This is Michael. Tamsen Webster is our guest today, and she is part idea whisperer, part message strategist, and part presentation coach. Tamsen helps people and organizations like Verizon, State Street Bank, Ericsson, Johnson & Johnson, and Disney, find and communicate the power of their ideas. She is the executive producer of TEDxCambridge, which is one of the oldest and largest local organized TEDx events in the world. In former lives, she worked in both agencies and at non-profits, heading up brand, marketing and fundraising communication strategy, along with a brief but enduring turn as a change management consultant. She is also a retired Weight Watchers leader and an accidental marathoner. Tamsen, how are you?

00:55 Tamsen Webster: I’m so good. How are you, Michael?

00:57 Michael Port: Although I should probably say, “How are yeah?” since you’re…


01:00 Tamsen Webster: Thankfully. See, now you’re trying to get Karen O’Sullivan to come out really early in the interview.

01:04 Michael Port: Just give me a little Karen. See, Tamsen’s from Boston. She’s from Boston.

01:07 Tamsen Webster: Yeah, I am from Bostn. I’m from Boston, not from Quincy. Don’t get ’em mixed up.

01:12 Michael Port: Sure. Sure. I wouldn’t.

01:13 Tamsen Webster: Yeah, yeah. I gotta pick up my pocketbook ’cause I gotta go get some potato chips and some popcorn.

01:18 Michael Port: I was in Boston on Friday.

01:20 Tamsen Webster: Were you?

01:20 Michael Port: Yes, and my hotel was on Webster Street.

01:24 Tamsen Webster: On Webster Street?

01:25 Michael Port: Yeah.

01:26 Tamsen Webster: That is a good street.

01:27 Michael Port: Yeah. It’s a great street. It’s right near Harvard Avenue or Harvard Street. In that area. Beacon Hill, kinda.

01:38 Tamsen Webster: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, of course.

01:39 Michael Port: And anyhow, I was there because my mom’s [01:41] ____ from Boston, and my grandmother who was 103, passed away last week.

01:48 Tamsen Webster: Oh I’m so sorry.

01:49 Michael Port: Thank you. Look, she was 103, so it was…

01:51 Tamsen Webster: I know. Bless her.

01:53 Michael Port: For me, it was a celebration of her because who gets to live to 103? Not too many people. So that’s why I was out in Boston, and it made me think of you, of course, and just how fantastic you are. So these are two things I wanna focus on today. I wanna talk about TEDx, the world of TEDx, what makes a great TEDx talk, how you as an executive director of, as I mentioned in the introduction one of the largest locally organized TEDx events in the world, and I also wanna focus on content creation because this is your area of specialty. You have mastered this, and I think people will just love it. So those are two areas I’d like to focus on. Sound good?

02:34 Tamsen Webster: Sounds good. And just one point of clarification though. I’m the executive producer. I don’t wanna take that shine away from our executive director, but Dmitri and I are a terrible two, a dynamic duo. I don’t know.

02:47 Michael Port: I’ll send him a message later.

02:49 Tamsen Webster: [02:49] ____ twins.

02:50 Michael Port: I’ll send Dmitri a message later, said that I’ve promoted you to executive director.

02:54 Tamsen Webster: Fabulous. Awesome.

02:55 Michael Port: And just to let him know he can come up with another title for himself.

03:00 Tamsen Webster: Honestly, he can keep it ’cause that means he has to deal with all the space rentals and sponsorships and all of that, and I get the wonderful job of taking care of the speakers. So that I will keep the job I have.

03:12 Michael Port: That’s true. Now you do something different with your TEDx event. You do a number of things different, but one of the things that you do that is very special is you do a lot of work with the speakers on their speeches.

03:26 Tamsen Webster: We do.

03:26 Michael Port: You do a significant amount of coaching. You have a whole program for them, which makes a big difference in the result, in the outcome of their performances.

03:36 Tamsen Webster: We hope so. And a lot of that is, some of it’s self-preservation, but it’s also part of how we wanna differentiate our event, not only for the people who come to it, but for the speakers themselves. We do two events a year, so that’s unusual in and of itself, and we do it as an evening event, also unusual, and we only have six speakers per event, which means that the expectation of the audience coming in for each of those speakers is very high. So we wanna make sure that the speakers all feel very, very comfortable with their talk. But also it’s a way for them to come to us. Increasingly TEDx events are very competitive. Events will compete for speakers in certain ways, and so it’s helpful for us to have something like that that makes us something that’s different, and speakers come away feeling like not only did they give a great talk, but now they’ve got some skills they can use elsewhere in their life.

04:32 Michael Port: Yeah. See, I know that if I was to do a TEDx, I would wanna do it with you rather than some…

04:38 Tamsen Webster: Aw.

04:39 Michael Port: We’ve talked about doing one together.

04:41 Tamsen Webster: Yep.

04:41 Michael Port: And I won’t mention what it was, but I had this idea for a TEDx that would be unusual and very risky, and of course, you being the risk taker that you are, “Really! That’s kinda cool. Let’s talk about that.” And I would be inclined to do it with you because you would help me craft it, organize it, present it in the most effective way possible. A lot of other TEDx events would just say, “Oh yeah? You’re gonna come? You just do whatever you want.” And that’s not always the best thing, even for speakers who are professionals.

05:15 Tamsen Webster: True.

05:15 Michael Port: Because first of all TED talks are different than a typical keynote.

05:21 Tamsen Webster: They are.

05:22 Michael Port: And I think all performers need directors. I think that’s important.

05:30 Tamsen Webster: I agree. And it’s not that the ideas aren’t wonderful when they come in. They are. And it’s not that the speakers can’t give excellent talks about these ideas without us. They can. For us, our motto for the TEDx Cambridge event is: Honor the idea. That is my motto for it at least because TED is all about ideas worth spreading. And so our pledge to the speakers, and I say this to them, is that our pledge to them is to get the best version of them giving their idea that we can possibly get on stage. And that means, a lot of times that we have to work with people to develop what as you noted, is a fundamentally different kind of talk. But the good news is that the things that make a great TEDx or TED style talk great are lessons that people can apply elsewhere in any kind of presentation and even into a professional keynote, whatever it might be.

06:30 Michael Port: Yeah, of course. With the theme of TED being, ‘Ideas worth spreading’, just because an idea’s worth spreading it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ready for the stage.

06:42 Tamsen Webster: Correct.

06:43 Michael Port: So, yeah.

06:44 Tamsen Webster: Yes. That’s right. Yeah, yup.

06:47 Michael Port: So, let’s talk about that, the process. You get submissions and I imagine you’re also out there looking for talent. Producers do both. They review their submissions ’cause you might get really lucky and someone comes in that’s just fantastic and unique and not yet seen but should be seen. And then you also obviously know so many people who are professional, who are experienced, who could provide great value. So, when people are coming to you saying, “I’d like to… I wanna do TED, that’d be amazing to be on TEDx cameras.” What’s the process and how do you evaluate the people that come to you and how do you ultimately make your choices?

07:26 Tamsen Webster: The process as you guessed, is a combination of submissions, recommendations from other people, and then Dmitri and I always on the hunt. We joke with each other that our ABC isn’t always be closing, it’s always be curating. So, we are, we are always on the hunt. I kind of warn people whenever I’m in any conference or talking to them, “Just know that my brain is always working on, do I hear an idea here?” So, we’re always looking for that. And I’d say the first step in the process is figuring out, [A] does someone have an idea? And that just in that one simple phrase is a huge topic of discussion, ’cause a lot of people have topics, they don’t have ideas. I can come back to that. But let’s assume that they have an idea, the next question for us globally before we even go too far deep into the speaker is, is the idea both important, because it needs to be, and interesting? And that’s where a lot of ideas stop. That’s where a lot of people stop in the process, where someone will come with an important idea but there isn’t a take on it, there isn’t something surprising about it, there isn’t something new about it, there isn’t something unexpected about it. It’s an important idea but it’s not one that invites more questions. And…

08:49 Michael Port: So, what’s an example of an important idea but not that interesting an idea?

08:55 Tamsen Webster: Well, from this I’m gonna borrow a super example from Alex Bloomberg, who was with ‘This American Life’ and ‘Radio Lab’ and full credit to him, the interesting piece comes from him but I paired it with the important piece. And he describes it this way, if somebody comes to him and says, “Hey, I wanna talk about homelessness.” And he says, “Well why?” And the person will come back and say, “Well, I wanna talk about homelessness because a huge number of people who are homeless are mentally ill.” And he’ll say, “No, that’s not interesting.” Now a lot of people will get shocked by that because it’s important. It’s important that we know that a significant number of people who are homeless are mentally ill. But it’s something that by and large a lot of people already know. It’s not something that invites more questions. You contrast that with saying, “Alright, I wanna talk about homelessness.”. “Why?” “Well, I wanna talk about homelessness which is interesting because a significant number of people who are homeless prefer being homeless to some other alternative. 

09:56 Michael Port: Yeah, that’s interesting

10:00 Tamsen Webster: Yeah, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Well why? And who are these people? And what’s preferable?” That’s always what I’m listening for out of the gate. Does somebody already, has somebody already figured that out? A lot of times when I’m working with the speakers or if I’m working with clients, that’s what I’m teasing out, is how do we take what’s an important idea and how do we find what’s interesting about it?

10:19 Michael Port: It seems the question ‘why’ is a big part of that, because you said, a lot of… Often there are a large percentage of people who are homeless would prefer to be homeless than living in a home?

10:33 Tamsen Webster: Right.

10:33 Michael Port: And yet you were playing the listener who would say, “Well, why?” If somebody says ‘why?’, then they’re interested. If they say ‘oh’, not so much.

10:49 Tamsen Webster: Of course, exactly, exactly.

10:52 Michael Port: If what you’re offering to somebody elicits that question why, then maybe there’s some interest in it.

11:00 Tamsen Webster: Yes, exactly. I’ll give an example from our current speaker crop and this is not revealing anything that he wouldn’t be comfortable sharing, where a speaker originally came to us with the idea, which I would classify more as a topic was, “Is income inequality important?” Yes, let’s move on.


11:22 Tamsen Webster: So, we kept poking at his idea a little bit and he came back with this question which was, “Why are there still so many jobs?” And I said, “That’s a really interesting question. Let’s talk about that.” And so his talk ends up now being about how in this world of AI where artificial intelligence and robots are taking over more and more of our jobs, why are there still so many of them? And then you add this other layer in, the fact that we’ve got a huge number of the population who feels underemployed and yet in certain areas there is a surfeit of jobs. So that’s one of those, that’s from our current crop of speakers, that’s was a, that’s a great example I think, of that pivot from your income and equality to why there are still so many jobs.

12:05 Michael Port: Very interesting. So this is the first litmus test that they have to pass through. What’s next, so they go or they have an important idea, and it’s interesting. Do you next, are you now looking at, “Well, can I present this idea in a way that is interesting?”

12:23 Tamsen Webster: We don’t put that level. We don’t put that label on people or that’s not quite what I’m trying… But that’s not an active criterion. We do look at how far might we have to move somebody from their current level of speaking to being stage-ready. We don’t want six speakers who we have to move a lot, but we also don’t want necessarily just for the experience of the event. We don’t want six people who are incredibly comfortable on stage either because that’s not as interesting as an event.

12:53 Tamsen Webster: A lot of people like TED because a lot of people who are on stage, particularly at TEDx level, are as yet unknown. And so there’s this opportunity to see someone before they become great. And in fact, that happens at TEDx Cambridge. Amy Cuddy first gave her power pose talk on the TEDx Cambridge stage. And when she was invited then to give it to TED, they re-recorded it, and we took the original copy of it down. So we wanna find people who are willing and ready to be coached, but they don’t have to be comfortable to start.

13:29 Michael Port: Very interesting. What else? I mean, what’s the next part of the process?

13:35 Tamsen Webster: Once we feel that… So there’s always this shift moment that we have of looking at people who are on our shortlist for the fall. And then we spend some time looking at the mixture of ideas. Do we have a good range between academics and non-academics? And that can be hard sometimes frankly, being in Cambridge, because we have such a rich well of people to draw from between MIT, and Harvard, and all the other schools here. But it’s important again for the arc of the event to make sure that we have some human interest stories, some things that are more tech or business or entrepreneurship related. So we’re taking the swirl of important and interesting ideas and looking at, “Do we have a good mix? Do we have a good mix of ideas? Do we have a good mix of speaker types? Meaning, comfortable to not. And also and importantly, do we have a good mix from a gender perspective, and from race, ethnicity, political view, all of those other criteria to make sure that we’ve got a well-balanced representation on stage.

14:40 Tamsen Webster: Once we feel like we’ve got that, then the coaching process starts. And that is depending on the timing and which event we’re talking about, it’s usually between 12 and 14 weeks that we’re working with them. And the first… And that falls roughly into the categories of tightening the idea, and figuring out what the context through which the audience will receive it is. So okay, we have this idea, great. But where’s the audience gonna start with this idea? It’s gonna be something that’s really surprising to them or new. Are they gonna be resistant to the idea? Are they gonna be open, eager, and ready? And we move from there to gathering all the content for the talk based on that context, and what the idea is, and we structure it, and we’re big fans of story structure here. And then about a month before the event, which is where we are right now, we transition to performance and delivery of the event. So those are the big stages of it.

15:34 Michael Port: It’s one of the things that I tell a lot of our students when they’re just starting out. The curation piece is such a big part of the decision making process that is completely out of their control. It’s like when you’re an actor, if you’re auditioning for, say, the lead in a play, but they’ve already cast, and you’re a man, and they’re already cast the woman. Now let’s say, this woman is 4’11”. Well, you’re 6’5″. It’s not gonna work visually unless that’s part of the dynamic that’s written into the script. And even if you’re great, even if you do a wonderful job at the audition, you’re probably not gonna get it. So you can’t take it personally because often the choices that they’re making are influenced by the choices they’ve already made.

16:30 Tamsen Webster: That’s 100% true.

16:32 Michael Port: Yeah. And actually, Billy Crudup who is I think the least famous, most famous actor. Do you know who Billy is?

16:41 Tamsen Webster: Yeah, I do. And he’s marvelous, but he always just melts into whatever movie he’s in. So I don’t think people notice him very much.

16:47 Michael Port: And that’s intentional for him. Billy was two years ahead of me at grad school at NYU. And Billy was always very, very pretty. I mean, he’s a very, very handsome guy. And he didn’t wanna be known as very handsome, and he wanted to be a character actor. And so he made very strong choices right from the beginning not to do talk shows. He would only do the absolute minimum that he was required to do contractually in those big part of his negotiation process, because he felt that once you know who he is, you can’t see him play a character anymore, you just see the actor.

17:24 Michael Port: And that’s what happens sometimes to actors as they get more and more famous over time, which is a separate issue. But the reason I’m mentioning him is because when we got out of grad school, one of the first films that he got was, he had a role in, “Inventing the Abbotts.” I think it was the name of the film. Something about the Abbotts, they’re a couple of brothers. And it was Stephen Spielberg executive produced movie, he wasn’t directing it, but he was the executive producer. And after a couple of days of shooting, Spielberg was looking at the dailies, and decided he didn’t think Billy worked, so he got fired. Now, think about that, coming out of grad school, now Billy was being considered for the role of Robin while he was still in grad school, in Batman and Robin. Joel Schumacher said to him, “Listen, I want you, but I gotta go with the guy the studio wants, ’cause he’s already known.” I forgot the guy’s name, he’s on some TV show now. He knew he was gonna do well, at least everybody else knew he was gonna do well but he got fired, and then right after that he went in to audition at Lincoln Center for a show. And on his first time in, he didn’t really nail it.

18:37 Michael Port: Daniel Swee, who was the casting director at the time at Lincoln Center, he said he gave him some direction and when Billy left, he’s like, “I just, I missed it, I didn’t do it.” So, he called up his agent, Sarah Fargo, I don’t know if she’s still his agent, but he called up Sarah and said, “Listen, can you get be back in there? ‘Cause I don’t think I’m gonna get a call back because I didn’t do what Daniel asked me to but now I know what it is, I’m 100% sure”. And she called in, and said “Listen, Billy wants to come back in.” And he’s like, “I don’t really think he’s right, he’s great, I love him, I’ll bring him in for other things, but not for this. Plus, he’s too short. The woman that we have playing the role is quite a bit taller than him. And Billy’s maybe 5’8″ on a good day, I think.” So, a couple weeks went by, and Sarah gets a call from Daniel Swee saying, “Listen, I’d like to see Billy again.” She said, “Really? What happened? I thought he was too short? And he didn’t nail the audition.” He says, “No, well, the woman, something happened, she’s not playing the role anymore, and we’ve cast Jennifer Dundas. Now, Jennifer is 5’, is 4’11”. So, we’re now looking at the shorter actors again.”


19:49 Michael Port: Billy goes back in, he nails it.

19:51 Tamsen Webster: Oh man!

19:52 Michael Port: Does exactly what Daniel wanted, he gets it, he wins the Outer Critic Circle Award, which is a big award in theater, in New York, and he was off to the races from there. So…

20:02 Tamsen Webster: Amazing.

20:02 Michael Port: There’s so much chance, just based on decisions that were made before you even showed up, that you can’t take it all so personally.

20:12 Tamsen Webster: Exactly, and I will validate that from now until the end of time. That is so true that sometimes, we get great ideas in and either we are, honestly, it does come down to this, we can’t add another man, because it would throw off our gender balance, we try very hard to have 50-50 at least, male-female, and, or that we’ve already got an AI Talk, or we’ve already got a talk that’s on that and it’s not, again, that the idea isn’t important and interesting, it’s just that the timing isn’t right.

20:47 Michael Port: But that’s actually, we have a gender balance issue for Heroic Public Speaking Live coming up for which you will be on this panel about the business of speaking. We’re gonna, we’re working on trying to figure out how to do it as like a family feud style [chuckle] thing, as opposed to just a regular panel. We’ll see if we can pull it off, but we like to take risks. But we like to do it 50-50, half men, half women. And right now, we have too many women.

21:17 Tamsen Webster: [chuckle] Well, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be proud! [chuckle]

21:20 Michael Port: She would. Now we, this is actually, it’s part of one of our missions is to support women in this industry, because there’s an imbalance in the industry, but in terms of who’s put on the stage, but there is not an imbalance in terms of talent. The women are there.

21:37 Tamsen Webster: Thank you, yes, agreed. [chuckle]

21:37 Michael Port: They’re just not getting the same kind of recognition as the men. And eventually that’ll change, I think, but we want to be a part of that and we actually find that we have just as many, if not more, women at our events and our training, than men. So, we can see a shift already, in terms of people who are coming in, so the new generation will be a little bit more balanced. The point is, is that someone who at first didn’t think she was gonna be there and then she is, we’re like, “What, we already said we want you to come”, so we gotta put her on and then Christa [22:13] ____, who was there last year, who I told last year, I was like, “Oh, please, come back again!” I didn’t think she could, now she’s like, “I can come!” So, I’m like, “Oh, okay.” Now Chris is coming, so, now it’s like we have four women I think, and two men.

22:25 Tamsen Webster: That’s a good problem to have!

22:27 Michael Port: I know, and if we can make the family feud thing work, then we maybe will bring in even a couple more people, so they have more people on each side of the family.

22:35 Tamsen Webster: Yeah! Perfect.

22:35 Michael Port: And then we’ll have to figure out…

22:36 Tamsen Webster: So then you’ll be more accurate, there you go.

22:37 Michael Port: Who’s in which family? Maybe…

22:39 Tamsen Webster: Oh! That would also be interesting, I like this.

22:42 Michael Port: We could do men against women, we could also do that, make it a little interesting. It’s not fair to the guys though, because they’ll get trounced. [laughter] It’s just the way it is! You know, they’ll get killed.

22:53 Tamsen Webster: Oh, no comment.

22:54 Michael Port: Yeah, exactly. All right, so let’s talk about topic versus ideas, because you said, we touched on it, but you said we can get back to it, and I would, because I think it’ll be helpful for people. Most people feel like they have a topic. The topic’s so broad. So, what’s the difference? And how can people move from topic to idea in order to get themselves better placed for TEDx opportunities?

23:20 Tamsen Webster: Well, the biggest difference between a topic and idea, and you’re already hitting on it, is specificity. But in the way I think about it, it’s specificity in a very specific way. An idea, and this is true for TEDx but I’m increasingly finding this is true for any communication, is that an idea is, how I like to just define it, the one thing that people have to understand, but probably don’t, to solve a problem that they may or may not know they have. So, the one thing that people have to understand to solve a problem that they have.

23:56 Michael Port: So, give me an example.

23:58 Tamsen Webster: So, an example of a problem. Of course you’re gonna ask me that off the top of my head. Example of a problem that people even…

24:04 Michael Port: [chuckle] I know, I’m sorry, I’m terrible.

24:06 Tamsen Webster: [laughter] Well I use an example from… Something I’ve been working on ’cause it’s top of mine. Well I can use the example from one of our TEDx speakers that’s even better. So the idea, she’s giving a “big data” talk. And the idea at the core of this is that, the only true way to manage risk is to make room for the unknown. So, now how did we get there? So, we got there by working backwards, and this is the process that I go through with all the speakers I work with, is first saying, “What is the thing that you think you wanna talk about?” In her case, it was talking about making sure that we are uniting qualitative and quantitative data. And a lot of people would start off by saying that that was the idea, but it’s not. That’s not the idea, that’s a solution, and a solution is not an idea.

25:04 Tamsen Webster: So if we think about this piece of it and we start with what is the audience that’s coming in, what would be the thing that the audience would readily agree they want? What’s the audience’s goal? And when it comes to what she’s talking about, the audience’s goal is to make the right decisions, to mitigate risk, because that’s why and how people are using big data. Well, what challenges are they facing with that? Well, the challenge they are facing that they’re spending all this money on big data, they’ve got all these dashboards and the decisions aren’t getting any easier. Well, why is that? Well, that’s happening because big data doesn’t create more knowledge, big data creates more unknowns. Okay, so now we’ve got a real problem that’s in the way of the audience’s goal. And then from that, we have to tease out what is the one thing that people have to understand about that problem in order to solve it. Well, the only way to mitigate risk is to make room for that unknown, because more knowledge creates more unknowns and that’s where the risk is. So we’ve gotta figure those pieces out. What’s the solution? We need to make room for the unknown. How do we do that? That’s what it talks about. But it’s that process that I walk people through to tease out the idea that’s at the core of what they’re trying to talk about.

26:27 Michael Port: And that’s a big part of your work, big focus, big theme for you is simplicity.

26:32 Tamsen Webster: Yes. Yes.

26:33 Michael Port: And this is what we love, we cut, cut, cut, until we get to the core of something. And one of the things that I would love to see changed in general in the speaking industry, especially in conferences, a little bit different around workshops because, say, for example, if we’re doing an improv workshop at HPS Live, Mike Canino is gonna be teaching improv. And if he’s doing an improv workshop, there’s a fair amount of improv in unknown in that workshop. So if he has 60 minutes or 90 minutes, then he can do as much as he can in that time which is different than a pre-determined script. Okay, you have… I’m gonna go deliver a TED Talk, while TED Talk is a certain amount of time, but why is a keynote always 60 minutes, why are these slots always the same? Maybe I only need 37 minutes, do you know? So they don’t need to all be the same. And what happens ultimately is, people end up filling them up with stuff that doesn’t really need to be in there, just because it’s supposed to be an hour.

27:47 Tamsen Webster: Yes.

27:47 Michael Port: And then of course what happens is the audience is sitting there going, “Alright, well this is fun but I just know I gotta make it… Something the greatest thing ever, I just have to make it til the end of the hour and then I can have a break”.

27:58 Tamsen Webster: [chuckle] Yeah.

28:00 Michael Port: But if they cut all the stuff that was filler, and they just did whatever it took 30 minutes or 35 minutes, that 35 minutes would be time really well spent and the person will feel like, “Wow, that was a phenomenal speech.” So it’s same thing on my podcast, I don’t have a certain amount of time, they’re not always an hour, sometimes I’ve done some that are hour and a half, two hours, not too many, but some. And then I’ve done many that are four or five minutes and sometimes are 27 minutes and I don’t know where this will end, the only thing I know is that I have another podcast about 45 minutes from now so I know I have to be done before that. So I don’t know we have to always organize ourself around time, I think we organize ourselves around, “What do we need to do with this audience, for this audience to deliver on that promise, to get them where they need to be by the end?” So let’s talk about story structure, let’s talk about just that.

28:56 Tamsen Webster: Yeah. Yep.

28:57 Michael Port: How do you move into story structure work with folks?

29:02 Tamsen Webster: So, I back into it, they don’t know they’re doing it until it’s done. So I’ve created a process by which… [chuckle]

29:09 Michael Port: That’s sort of how I work… That’s how I deal with my kids. [laughter]

29:14 Tamsen Webster: Well, my background is, I spent 20 years in marketing, and you start talking about story structure to business people and academics and scientists and a lot of times, their eyes will just go, glaze over, they’re like, “You are whackadoodle, I don’t even wanna talk to you about this.” But if you talk about story structure with other language and then, you get them to give you that information and then you happen to put that information to certain order, and then you reveal to them, guess what you just did, then they’re like, “Oh that’s cool”, [chuckle] which is my goal. So, I describe my process as talk mad libs, where basically those five elements that I’ve mentioned become the core skeletal sentences, I call them a foreign entire talk. And to your point you were just saying, it can be a five-minute talk or it can be a three-day workshop, but there’s gonna be some core to that, and here are the five elements.

30:15 Tamsen Webster: The audience’s goal, the thing they would readily agree they want before they ever hear you talk. Two, the problem that they are facing that is in the way of the goal, and in this case for the talks at least this is the real problem. Then there’s the idea, then there is the change that needs to happen in order to enact that idea and in the actions that you take to get there.

30:41 Tamsen Webster: Now how do we back into story structure with that? Well, if you’re talking about a three-act structure, it usually breaks down roughly like this. That in the first act, the first part of the talk, you are moving the audience from the goal that they know they have to an understanding and agreement with the real problem. The second act, so basically that’s your beginning hook. Like, “Okay, oops. Now we’ve got a problem.” Then the middle build is where you’re moving people from an understanding of this problem to agreement with the idea that this is the thing that needs to happen in order to… This is the thing you have to understand in order to change that. That’s the second big chunk. And then roughly the third big chunk is moving people from understanding an idea through to the change that needs to happen and the actions they need to take in order to get back to their goal.

31:28 Michael Port: That’s fantastic. It has a three-act structure to it.

31:33 Tamsen Webster: Oh yeah, it absolutely does. And that’s very conscious but I don’t reveal that upfront when I’m working with people.

31:38 Michael Port: That’s fascinating, yeah.

31:39 Tamsen Webster: My approach is, “Let me do the work. I figured this out. You don’t have to worry about this. Just give me these pieces of your talk and trust me.” If we talk about them in roughly this order, and there’s always of course for storytelling pieces you may wanna delay revealing something upfront. But it always falls in roughly yeah, in those three acts.

32:00 Michael Port: And it doesn’t matter how much time a particular speech is, you’re following this structure. You know what I really like about the structure is its simplicity. Doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy for somebody to do because often creative work takes a lot of brain fluid.

32:19 Tamsen Webster: Yes. [laughter]

32:20 Michael Port: And this idea that, “Make it easy, make it easy, make it easy.” Well, we can make it simple, but it’s not always…

32:26 Tamsen Webster: Yes, it’s simple, not easy.

32:28 Michael Port: Exactly, it’s not always gonna be easy. And the reason I love that you focus so much on simplicity is because in the structure story content development, because on the performance side our focus is on simplicity because simplicity is such an important part of an audience understanding what you are experiencing so they can experience the same thing. An actor that is simple is very compelling. An actor that is complicated is hard to see through. If there’s too many layers on at the same time, the audience doesn’t know what to look for or what they’re seeing.

33:15 Tamsen Webster: Yes, yes.

33:15 Michael Port: But this is similar and also you could also call it honesty, the more honest you are or the more connected you are. Some people throw around the word “authentic” a lot in performance, I think that can take on different meanings.

33:30 Tamsen Webster: Yeah. For me the word is “consonant.” You know this, but my favorite word to describe that is consonant, which is the opposite of dissonance. So there’s dissonance and consonance, and dissonance of course is where there’s a clash, there’s a gap, things don’t quite work. But consonance is what I use to describe when someone, a speaker, is perfectly in-tune with their message, the message is in-tune with the audience, and the speaker is in-tune with the audience. And when you have that, then it works. And a lot of times people focus only on one leg of that stool rather than looking at all of it and seeing how it’s all working together. But that’s where I’ve tried really hard with the process that I use to help people come up with these talks to very similar to I back people into story structure, back them into something that they are passionate about and something that’s relevant to the audience. Because they won’t get to the point of being willing to do this work if they don’t care about it. And once you’ve answered these questions for people, once they’ve answered them for themselves, why would people care? What is the real problem? What do they have to understand that only I have figured out so far? And what is the thing that I really want them to do? Then they become personally invested in what they’re talking about. And because we’ve put all this from the framework of how would the audience respond to this, you’ve already got the audience looped in as well.

34:50 Michael Port: And this consonance…

34:50 Tamsen Webster: So it’s really just a method to getting there.

34:52 Michael Port: Well, the consonance produces resonance.

34:55 Tamsen Webster: Yes.

34:55 Michael Port: And that’s what you want. You want resonance. You want… There’s intellectual resonance, there’s emotional resonance, and of course there’s physical. You want the audience to feel physical change, experience your whole talk in their body, in their mind and in their heart at the same time.

35:21 Tamsen Webster: Yes. Yes, and my goal is to take resonance one step further, and that is… So, I love to use the example of tuning forks. So tuning forks being those metal things that tunes to a certain note. You hit them, you put them on something that resonates and then you can hear that note more loudly. Well the cool thing… And so that’s resonance right there. You can’t really hear it until you put it on something that resonates and then that allows that sound to be heard and for people to listen to it and decide what to do with it. They hum along, tune to it, whatever. If there are two tuning forks though, and those two tuning forks are tuned to the same note, this is when really cool stuff happens.

36:01 Tamsen Webster: Because if you hit one tuning fork and it’s sitting on its resonating box, and then the other one you just don’t touch but it’s sitting silent, what happens is if you stop the first one that you hit from ringing, the note will continue to ring in the one you never touched. And it’s so cool when you can show that to people, but even the concept is amazing to people. And this is what I say to speakers all the time about that’s the goal. That’s the goal that you’re trying to get, not just momentary resonance, because resonance stops as soon as you stop talking. But consonance, when those two things are tuned, when you’re tuned to the audience and they are tuned to you, that note that you may be speaking, that message that you’re delivering, even when you stop giving it, if you’re tuned, it’ll continue to ring in them.

36:49 Michael Port: Yeah, you know what it makes me think of, it makes me think of how much dissonance we create as performers with an audience when we are very anxious. Because that anxiety, that stress, is like taking your hand and putting it on the tuning fork and dampening it so it stops vibrating. All of that anxiety often compels people to protect themselves.

37:26 Tamsen Webster: Like you choke off the sound.

37:28 Michael Port: Exactly.

37:28 Tamsen Webster: Absolutely, literally.

37:28 Michael Port: Yeah, and so you sometimes hear it in people’s voice. They start getting a dry voice and they can’t get it out and they stop breathing. Physically, they start getting tight, and it really just stops all of that vibration from filling the room and connecting with other people, creating this kind of consonance and then resonance, and then the step further. It’s a beautiful analogy, I really quite like it.

37:57 Tamsen Webster: Thank you. And the resonance is critical, and this is what I say to people, “It has to start with you. You have to have this idea. You have to love it. You have to be willing to put it all out there for it. And then you need to make sure that it’s in tune with the audience,” because, and we’ve all seen speakers like that, where you can tell the speaker loves their talk and the audience is just kind of like, “Okay?”


38:23 Tamsen Webster: You’re entertaining, this was great. Or even in the moment it felt good to see that person speak. And I want people to want one step more than that. Let people… Don’t just wow the crowd, change them. Let them be different afterwards. And sometimes that means that you have to find that, but it all, all, all, all comes down to finding the core of what it is that you are talking about and just being so clear on what that is so that idea… And this is why it’s so important, is that idea that you’re trying to get across, you’re trying to transfer it into the minds of the person that you’re talking to with as little loss as possible. You wanna mainline it. You’re trying to mainline meaning from your brain to theirs.


39:16 Tamsen Webster: That’s the goal.

39:17 Michael Port: That’s great. What are some TED Talks or other speeches that people could look at to see an example of this story structure? The goal, problem they face, that’s in the way of the goal, the idea change, actions. Any examples that you can give them that they might be able to find online?

39:39 Tamsen Webster: Well, I will tell you that any of the favorites, do it. They just may not have done it consciously. [chuckle] And the clarity on this structure, I should say, is recent. So this next group of speakers is the first one that is officially through this process described that way. But one of my favorite examples of a talk that the three act structure spends much of its time just on the first piece, so this is a point I wanna make too, is that these chunks aren’t necessarily equal in time. And you know this as a speaker, is that sometimes you need to spend a lot of time getting people to understand why it is that this situation exists in the first place.

40:23 Michael Port: Yeah, ’cause it’s interesting, people often ask, “Well, exactly how much time should I spend on each one of these components?” As if there is a certain amount of time. Like, “How much time should I spend on the opening? How much time on the closing?” As if an opening or a closing has some sort of pre-determined length.

40:44 Tamsen Webster: No, it doesn’t, and it completely depends on the type of talk. So I will get back to the question of TED Talks to look at it just a second. Because here’s the thing, I think there’s essentially three types of talks. There is the “Why” talk, which if you think about the chunks we were talking about earlier, the “Why” talk spends much of it’s time, most of it’s time, on moving somebody from “I want this thing, this goal,” to “Here’s this idea.” Just the whole talk is about that piece. And then right at the end, in a sentence or two, you might say, “And so this is the change you need to make and this is the way to do it.” And a great example of that kind of talk is Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath talk. He spends of 12 minutes, 10 of it telling the story, which is all just a giant set up for… “Here’s the real problem. Things aren’t always what they seem. Don’t believe everything right on the surface.” And that’s it, and it’s just as beautiful talk that just happens just like that.

41:46 Tamsen Webster: At the other extreme is the “How” talk. The “how” talk is basically where you’re spending most of your time in that third chunk, where you’ve got people and they say “Yep, I have this problem. I agree with this idea, but now what do I do about it?” Favorite example of a very short talk is Joe Smith’s, “How To Use One Paper Towel.” It’s four and a half minutes. He dispenses with the problem, the goal of the problem, and the idea within I’d say the first 30 seconds to a minute of the talk, and the rest of talk is all about on what to do and how to do it.

42:20 Michael Port: By the way, after I saw that talk, I now only use one paper towel when I wash my hands at a public restroom.

42:28 Tamsen Webster: Isn’t that awesome? Yeah. [laughter]

42:30 Michael Port: And now if I don’t I feel terrible. I go, “Oh, my God.”

42:33 Tamsen Webster: I know. Yeah.

42:34 Michael Port: And then the next time, “Okay, next time I’m gonna do it properly.” It’s so easy and it stuck.

42:39 Tamsen Webster: Yes, yes. So I’m happy to say at our fall event we are going to have the companion talk to that, which is how to wash your hands properly, which we hope is equally as sticky.


42:52 Michael Port: Well, here’s a good…

42:52 Tamsen Webster: So now that people know how to use one paper towel, how to make sure that you’re washed your hands properly before you use it.

42:56 Michael Port: Now, here’s a good point. It’s like you think this is such a little thing, like, “What do you mean, this is gonna be a great talk about how to wash your hands?” It absolutely could be extraordinary. At Heroic Public Speaking we say, “Changing the world one speech at a time.” Joe Smith’s speech, this little short thing, that’s changing the world one speech at a time, one paper towel at a time.

43:20 Tamsen Webster: Paper towel at a time. Yeah.

43:22 Michael Port: And it was amazing about what he was able to do in that, he was able to reach people that aren’t hardcore conservationists.

43:31 Tamsen Webster: Yes. Right.

43:31 Michael Port: And that was the key. So obviously, I’m concerned about the environment, but I do drive a big boat with diesel engines, and have an SUV for all the kids. I’m not living off the grid. So it’s no something that I’m thinking about all the time, but he got me to do what’s right and only use one paper towel.

43:56 Tamsen Webster: That’s right. He mainlined the meaning.

43:57 Michael Port: Exactly.

43:57 Tamsen Webster: I mean that’s what he did. He went in with a goal of what he wanted to accomplish, and he figured out what had to happen, what was the key thing that people had to understand in order to do that, and that’s that you don’t need any more than one, one is enough if you use it correctly, and that’s essentially, it’s never stated out loud, but sometimes that’s true, sometimes it can be implied idea. But the third type of talk, I don’t wanna leave people hanging, the third type of talk sits between the “Why?” and the “How?”, and that’s what I call, “What now?” talk.

44:28 Tamsen Webster: And essentially what you’re doing is you’re spending about half the time on the first trunk, and half of it, it’s basically your first half of the talk, again, whatever length, is to get people to the idea, and then the last half of the talk is to get people from the idea through to action. Great example of that, most of the top 10, I’d say, most watched TED Talks fall in that category, Simon Sinek’s does, Ken Robinson’s does, and essentially you’ll know those talks because what they do is they reveal a problem that people probably weren’t aware of or hadn’t really thought about, and they spend about the first half getting there, and then the second half is about, “Now, what do we do about it?” High level.

45:14 Tamsen Webster: So it’s not tactical, like you’re gonna do this, and then check three boxes, and then move on to the next process, but high level “What do we need to do?” So in Ken Robinson’s talk he basically spends half the talk getting to the point that we educate the creativity out of kids, and so the last half, yeah, almost a third of the talk is about, “Well, what do we do now?” Well, first we have to understand that we’re not preparing them for the future. How do we prepare them for the future? We need to make sure that we’re acknowledging a wider definition of intelligence, and then once we recognize a wider definition of intelligence, then we need to make sure our educational structures support those.

45:51 Tamsen Webster: So, “Why? What now? How?” is a really key decision for people to make, not only because it tells you where to spend time in your talk, but for a lot of your listeners it’s a good way to chunk out what kind of talk to deliver in what kind of environment. Keynotes are almost always “Why?” talks.

46:12 Michael Port: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah.

46:14 Tamsen Webster: And a fair number of them are, “What now?” talks as well. Breakout sessions almost always, “How?”

46:20 Michael Port: That’s right. 

46:21 Tamsen Webster: And then you’ve got main stage which tends to be, “What now?” And that’s a good way to think about it based on what stage you’re about to be on. 

46:27 Michael Port: That’s right. One of the ways that I articulate it in the Steal The Show, in the book, is there are these message-based speeches, and then curriculum-based speeches, and of course any curriculum-based speech is gonna have a strong message in it, but it’s a how-to. How do you do this thing? So when I give a Book Yourself Solid speech, that’s a curriculum-based speech, and when I give a Think Big Revolution speech, that’s a message speech. Yeah. Hey, listen. We gotta wrap up. You are phenomenal. I’m a huge fan. We’re going to have collaborate more. I know you and Amy talked about that.

47:02 Tamsen Webster: Please. Oh, I’d love that.

47:03 Michael Port: But we’ve got to get you in doing more stuff.

47:04 Tamsen Webster: I’m such fans of you and Amy.

47:06 Michael Port: Yeah. Thank you. And I know you’re talking to Amy later today, which…

47:09 Tamsen Webster: I am, yes. She’s helping me on a keynote, as it were, as it turns out, so… [chuckle]

47:13 Michael Port: It’s so great. Well, I’ll tell you what, you are just tremendous, and I think everybody should work with you, no doubt about that.

47:20 Tamsen Webster: Well, thanks so much.

47:21 Michael Port: Yeah. I’m a big fan.

47:21 Tamsen Webster: Thank you.

47:22 Michael Port: And of course where can they find you now?

47:25 Tamsen Webster: They can find me at It is in process still, but there’s enough there to get people started, but should be up and running fully within the month I think, knock on wood or whatever I can get my hands on. But, also semi-active on Twitter, but seeing what I do and get in touch with me the website is the best way.

47:47 Michael Port: Yeah. For sure. Thank you so much for taking the time. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you, Tamsen.

47:51 Tamsen Webster: I loved it. Thanks so much, Michael.

47:53 Michael Port: And everybody keep thinking big about who you and what you offer the world. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to be in service of you. We never take it for granted. And we’ll see you next time. Oh yeah, if you feel like it, go ahead and leave a rating and review, I appreciate that. But if you don’t, no problem, go get on with your day. Bye for now. Cool. Hey, Tamsen…

48:16 Tamsen Webster: Super.

48:16 Michael Port: I gotta go ’cause I…