The other day I was shown the WORST online TED talk I’ve ever seen. But since the individual who shared it with me has a real passion for the topic and is genuinely interested in delivering high quality content, I could not resist jumping in and uncovering a few choice insights about giving a great TED talk. Along a journey of discovery I found some incredibly valuable lessons for anyone interested in effective communications techniques, storytelling, content marketing and thought leadership.
If you’re not familiar with TED, it’s a nonprofit ‘devoted to spreading ideas’ according to its website, holding annual events for more than a decade. Though not without its critics, TED has single-handedly industrialized the purveyance of insight, with experts skillfully delivering interesting presentations in 18 minutes or less. The key question is, what makes a TED talk great?
The short answer: it’s about public speaking
Sam Leith, in a well-written review of Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, paraphrases the 9 ‘secrets’:
- Be passionate about your topic
- Engage the audience by telling stories
- Treat your speech like a conversation
- Tell the audience something it doesn’t know
- Include a few jaw-droppers
- Use humor
- Keep it brief
- Engage all the senses by painting word-pictures
- Be authentic.
There are a few more tips. As Leith points out, acting plays an important role, too. Delivery relies on good body language, voice control and a ‘a sweet spot of about 190 words per minute.’ Why 190 words per minute, which is at the high end of normal speech? According to at least one speech communication professor, Stephen D. Boyd, “[p]sychologists have found that speakers who deliver at a rate of 190 words per minute are more likely to seen as credible, objective, knowledgeable, and persuasive as compared to slow speakers.”
Kelly Stoetzel, TED content director, puts a lot of emphasis on rehearsal and preparation. In particular, you should ‘expect something to go wrong.’ That’s why it’s crucial to ‘know your material backwards and forwards.’ Importantly, you should construct your presentation for those who are listening. As Stoetzel notes, ‘the best type of speaker is one who is constantly thinking about the audience.’ For me, that last point should act as the overarching guideline to keep in mind–above the list of tricks and tips.
The long answer: it’s more than public speaking
Chris Anderson, TED curator, is in a unique position to weigh in on successful public speaking. In this video, he explains how to get the best ‘substance’ (read: high quality content + strong delivery) to room full of TEDx conference organizers–coaching the coaches of TED speakers across the world. If you have 20 minutes, it’s worth watching in full. If you don’t have time, just keep reading.
Here’s what I take from Chris Anderson’s talk:
Every journey begins with a single word
The “very first thing that must be done in a talk […] is to pick a journey.” Anderson refers to each presentation as a step-by-step journey along which the speaker guides the audience. He describes a journey as a process of discovery and persuasion that can (but doesn’t have to) have the structure of detective story. Start with a question, a riddle, or an unexplained observation. Then start down the path. Along the way show clues. Sprinkle in ‘aha’ or eureka moments to taste.
The journey metaphor works because there’s a starting point and a destination. I think this is particularly powerful because it implies a purpose: you have a motivation or objective to achieve — and it involves getting your listeners’ brain gears churning along the lines you set out in the direction of your target aim. That’s why Stoetzel’s admonition to be ‘constantly thinking about the audience’ holds so much weight.
Plan a few pit stops
“Talks can’t advance difficult ideas without populating them with these rich examples,” says Anderson. Big concepts fly over people’s heads rather quickly if there’s nothing tangible or compelling to back them up. Likewise, anchoring the speech to several key examples helps fix the distance you’re able to travel with the audience. There are only a certain number of steps you can take in 18 minutes. Some speakers try to go too far. Anderson reminds that “in an 18-minute talk, trying to give more than three big examples is pretty hard.”
Anderson examines what works–and what doesn’t–for TED talks. One barrier is the speaker’s fog of unclear communication: “language that, in the context of a speaker’s worldview, makes total sense–but it isn’t where the people are.” This means using accessible language and avoiding jargon.
It also signals something important about the journey: it begins from your audience’s starting point, not yours. Technical experts need to strip down messages to simple, lay terms. Put yourself in the listener’s shoes. Assume your audience has an average education level and low awareness of your topic–then adjust these assumptions as needed.
Strike the right chords
“People think they have cracked the TED code with emotion” Anderson says, seemingly unconvinced–leaving the impression that this is not the best route to follow. First of all, it’s not that straightforward. “Inspiration is not something you get by targeting directly,” but rather a combination of authenticity and the sense of possibility, he adds.
When wielding emotion as a speaking tool, there is at least one ‘no go’ area. “Too much ego on stage is a bad thing,” notes Anderson. As listeners, “[w]e don’t like arrogance […] we start to shut down. The opposite of that is vulnerability.” A number of successful TED speakers have highlighted vulnerability as being the emotion they sought to convey. Vulnerability is powerful. Speakers willing to take a risk and ask the audience to join them on the journey create a human connection that makes people want to get involved in the conversation.
On humor, Anderson equivocates. Use humor, if you can. Not everyone can do humor, he adds. His most concise tips may be the most meaningful. “Be authentic. Don’t sell.”
Ask for help
Identifying your story and shaping it for an audience means that you’ll confront several critical questions. Anderson has identified the most challenging ones: “Is this person a leader? Do they have an idea the world needs to know about? Have they found a way to make it accessible? Is this idea, or the scope of their work possible to fit into eighteen minutes? If not, what is the angle?”
Convincing others that your topic is fresh and it matters is, according to Anderson, “the single hardest thing to do.” He adds that “this is where speakers need help. It almost takes a journalist.”
The good news: it can be learned
As Chris Anderson wrote in ‘How To Give a Killer Presentation’ for Harvard Business Review:
“Since we began putting TED Talks online, in 2006, they’ve been viewed more than one billion times. On the basis of this experience, I’m convinced that giving a good talk is highly coachable. In a matter of hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from muddled to mesmerizing.”
For those of us looking to deliver great presentations, that’s reassuring.
What do you think? Are there other keys to delivering a great TED talk or presentation?