How to take your audience on a journey: curating your speakers

Curating the order in which people speak during your event can be as impactful as the speakers on stage. Organising TEDx events for the past five years has fundamentally changed the way I think about a speaker line-up.

When I first started to organise events, I never really thought about the order in which people spoke. Often, if there was a specific order, it was because of seniority or when someone had to leave early. There are two levels to curating content, the first is selecting the speakers and ideas on stage and the second is the order in which those speakers appear. The best events bring together great ideas and use them to tell an overarching, strong story, taking the audience on an meaningful journey over the course of the event.

First, let’s look at the individual talks. Most talks will fall into one of the following categories. Talks that will make you:

  • Laugh
  • Cry
  • Be amazed
  • Learn something new
  • Understand the world better or differently
  • Think or give you new insight
  • See into the future and/or past

All of these types of talks will elicit both an emotional reaction and spark specifc thoughts and debates from your audience. The job of a curator is to put talks in an order that will make speak to each other, make sense and isn’t under or overwhelming. If you’re using the TED/TEDx format of 18 minute talks then I have found that an audience can only pay attention for a maximum of 90 minutes or 5 talks at a time. So, how do you curate each 90 minute session?

Variety is important, so don’t have too much of one type of talk in a session. Having a majority of very technical or very personal talks in one session can make them all blend together. It will be overwhelming and people will just switch off, which is a disservice to the speakers and the audience who miss out. Using different formats, such as, mixing live talks with videos, interviews and performances can create variety in tone, content and pace. Also, having too many speakers on the same topic can make your session seem repetitive, so the key is to balance the talks to all relate to one another without them all being about the same subject matter. For example, last year at TEDxEastEnd the first session had talks about the individual (personal experience about homelessness, how CGI characters are created for movies), the second comprised of talks about global issues (economics, women’s rights, environment) and the third consisted of talks about issues that were universal or out of this world (sexuality, satellites, the future).

One useful narrative arc is to start on a lighter topic or with a talk that will amaze, then have talks that are more technical and end on talks that are more personal or emotional. Think about how you will end the session – what emotion do you want people to leave the session with?

Remember, everyone won’t love every talk, which is to be expected and absolutely okay. Having a variety means that there will be something for everyone. In fact, giving people a variety of talks and topics gives the audience a chance to recover mentally and/or emotionally, which helps them to refocus their attention. It sounds counterintuitive but even at TED events every speaker is not mind-blowing in the same way.

Hosting also plays an important role in your curation. For me the host is the guide for your audience- the narrator whose job it is to weave the talks together. If you have a printed programme, then your host doesn’t need to read out each speaker’s bio. Instead the host can help the audience get to know the speaker, perhaps by telling a short story about them or offering a unique introduction to them. I have found that the host should get a chance to meet the speakers and get to know them before introducing them. Of course this isn’t always possible; however, since I work with all my speakers for TEDxEastEnd, I have also taken on the role of host. I try to tell the audience something they can’t get from the bio. I also think it is important for the host not to comment on each talk once the speaker has left the stage. It can get repetitive if after each speaker you say “weren’t they amazing/inspiring/interesting”.

Each curator will have a different idea of the role the host will play. What is important here is to think about the hosting as central to the session and not as an afterthought.

Curation can be a game of trial and error to work out what your specific audience enjoys and interacts with best. Nevertheless, these top tips that I have learnt should be a good basis with which to start curating your amazing event!