Harnessing the power of a TED Talk
‘I want it to have the impact of a TED Talk’
Say those words to someone and they’ll know immediately what you mean. TED Talks are often considered the gold-standard in public speaking.
Starting out as a one-off conference event in 1984, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) has grown into a hugely successful international franchise across 130 countries – with five events taking place every day on average around the world. They rack up billions of views online and elevate the standing of the speakers to new heights.
The words ‘TED Talk’ has come to mean the very best in public speaking – a presenter selling a clear idea to an engaged and receptive audience in a creative, confident and genuine manner.
So of course – we want to learn how they do it.
In fact by analysing hundreds of different TED Talks we can identify common themes and techniques that each presenter uses.
And they are skills that WE can learn to give our public speaking the edge
- There’s no single formula for a successful talk
The first thing to realise is that there is no single formula for putting together a successful talk. TED Talks aren’t a one-size fits all model of opening joke, pithy quote, eye-opening statistic, repeat etc.
Each talk is different and unique. And so should ours be.
Rather than focussing on the journey – the content of the talk – we need to focus on the destination i.e. where we want the audience to be at the end of our talk. In other words, what do we want the audience to be thinking by the end of it.
The most successful TED talks plant an idea in the minds of their audience. So that’s where we have to start.
- All great TED Talks start with an idea
We need to make sure that our talk has a great idea at its core. There needs to be a fundamental reason why we’re getting up in front of other people and talking to them.
Try asking yourself these questions:
- What do you want to talk about?
- Why is it important to you?
- Why do you believe it’s important to the audience?
- What do you want them walking out of the room thinking?
By trying to answer these questions we can hone in our what the central idea behind our talk is.
- We need to care about our idea
Every TED speaker strongly believes in what they’re sharing with us. And the same needs to be true of us and our idea.
Caring about our idea allows us to present with passion and come across as genuine. When we care deeply about something it energises our delivery and makes us appear more natural. Audiences engage with this and warm to us.
Reversely, if we don’t really believe in what we’re talking about then audiences will quickly pick up on this and disengage from us. An audience can smell falsity instantly.
- Limit our talk to just one major idea
The best talks are often the most simple. Rather than trying to get across five different ideas it’s better to just focus on one
Often people worry that their talk doesn’t have enough information for the audience to digest. In actual fact, the real danger is that we overload an audience. An idea is much easier to implant in the mind of an audience if it’s not being crowded out by other ideas.
Try and focus on one core idea with several supporting points. Remove any tangential information in order to showcase this clear message. Everything you say in your presentation must be in service of that core idea.
Similarly, try not to have too many takeaways for your audience. The best way to implant an idea in the mind of your audience is to not to have their brain stuffed full as they walk out of the door.
Exercise: Help identify our central idea
- To help ourselves with this, write out the top line idea for your talk.
- If you find this hard to write down, or find you come up with several top-lines, then your talk might be lacking clarity.
- Once we’ve drawn up our talk go through and see whether each part is in support of this top line. If not, either remove it or re-write it to support the central idea.
Selling our idea
- Ask ourselves what issue or problem our idea will solve for the audience
The best ideas offer a solution to something that an audience needs.
The best TED Talks have a clear goal they’re working towards or problem they’re trying to solve.
Example: Scientist Jorge Soto makes this clear at the start of his TED Talk ‘The Future of Early Cancer Detection’; “1 out of 3 people sitting in this audience will be diagnosed with some type of cancer”
Exercise: In order to understand what value our talk has, we need to ask ourselves a series of questions;
- Why does the audience need to hear what we have to say?
- What ‘knowledge gap’ does this fill in for people?
- Does the audience already know this or do we need to illustrate this?
- Does our talk make clear what the problem is, and how WE can offer the solution?
If we can find answers to these questions then we can make the audience care.
We need to ask questions in our talk that will resonate with the audience and feed their curiosity. By illustrating what solution our idea provides, it will gain more traction and engage the listener.
- Assume our audiences aren’t experts
TED Talks are given on a wide-range of very detailed subjects. But what unites them all is their ability to put across their messaging in very clear, simple ways.
Remember that our audience might not be experts in our specialist areas.
This means talking in a language which the audience already understands and using concepts that they already understand.
- Use creative techniques to bring our talk alive
Share examples and anecdotes to present our idea in a vibrant and concise way. Employ metaphors and aids to explain complicated concepts in ways that people will be able to get their head around.
Example: In his TED Talk ‘How to start a movement’ entrepreneur Derek Sivers uses a popular viral video to illustrate his central idea:
Stories and narrative hooks can be a good way of keeping people engaged in what you’re talking about.
Example: Psychologist Shawn Anchor uses a childhood story in his TED Talk ‘ The Happy Secret to Better Work’. He dives straight into the story to capture people’s attention: “When I was seven years old and my sister was just five years old, we were playing on top of a bunk bed…”
Another example: Career Analyst Dan Pink grabs people’s interest by using their sense of curiosity is his TED Talk ‘The Puzzle of Motivation’, “I need to make a confession at the outset here. A little over 20 years ago, I did something that I regret, something that I’m not particularly proud of. Something that, in many ways, I wish no one would ever know, but here I feel kind of obliged to reveal.”
Also humour can be a good skill to use in your talk. When people laugh they let their guard down and are more inclined to take on new information.
Example: Lie Detector Pamela Mayer uses a joke to immediately make the audience laugh but also focus on the topic she’s going to talk about, in her talk ‘How to spot a liar’, “Okay, now I don’t want to alarm anybody in this room, but it’s just come to my attention that the person to your right is a liar.”
Our article: How to Get the Audience on Your Side is full of tips from our trainers on how to engage with your audience.
Putting our talk together
- Keep it punchy
Most TED Talks are only 18 minutes long. This might not seem a huge amount of time but it’s considered the perfect length for a talk – long enough to delve into the subject you’re discussing but short enough to hold people’s full attention.
In actual fact 18 minutes is no time at all when we’re presenting.
Just by making our introductions and a few opening remarks we can easily go through the five minute mark. That’s almost a third of our presentation time gone without doing any of what we’re supposed to. Remember; the goal of our talk is to plant our idea in the minds of an audience.
So we need to be punchy. Don’t waste a minute of time when you’re speaking.
Think about what’s the strongest and most concise way we can get something across to an audience.
- Don’t use five sentences when one will one do.
- Use simple language and avoid long-winded passages of text.
- Keep a good flow.
- Think about your opening
We often say that someone makes their mind up about a person within the first thirty seconds of meeting them – and the same can be true of a talk.
The best TED Talks have an imaginative and attention-grabbing opening.
Example: Economist Larry Smith opens with the line, “I wants to discuss with you this afternoon, why you’re going to fail to have a great career”
Another example: Games designer Jane McGonigal starts with, “You will live seven and a half minutes longer than you would have otherwise, just because you watched this talk”
So we need to think about the best way to captures the audience’s attention straight off the bat.
- Can we wow the audience in the first 30 seconds? Or even less?
- Doing or saying something bold even in the first ten words can make a big impact. Can we do something with our opening line, before we’ve even introduced ourselves?
- Can we ask the audience a direct question or engage them with a problem immediately? Remember the idea that we’re trying to plant in their minds or the problem we’re trying to solve for them.
- Have a structure
Put quite simply – Say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you’ve said.
Follow a coherent thinking pattern throughout our presentation – at every stage we need to take the audience with us. Constantly ask ourselves ‘am I losing anyone along the way?’
- Don’t perform the talk like reading out a script
In the best TED Talks the speaker is completely relaxed and smiling at their audience. The fourth wall – the imaginary wall between the speaker and audience – has been completely removed. This is accomplished by creating a genuine connection with the audience.
So treat your talk like a warm conversation:
- Keep our body language open
- Make positive eye contact with people
- Use strong physical gestures and commanding movements across the stage
- Think about tone of voice – we can use power, pitch and pauses to create a connection with the audience
- Can we also use silence? Notice how Amanda Palmer uses silence in the opening of her Ted Talk on ‘The Art of Asking’
Sharing an idea we believe in passionately will help us come across as the real ‘us’.
You can read more about delivering your speeches with confidence in this article.
- Memorable Ending
The end of our talk is the part that an audience will remember the most.
So finish with a strong call to action. Ask yourself, what do I want my audience to walk out of the room thinking? Your concluding remarks should hammer that home.
- And lastly – practise your talk
Go through your presentation as many times as possible to get fully comfortable with it. You can do this on your own, but also try it out on other people, particularly those who don’t know anything about the subject you’re presenting on.
- How does it sound to the layperson?
- Do they grasp the main idea?
- Do they see the value in what you’re putting forward?
The clearer and more powerful you can make these messages the more effective talk you’ll have.
By following all these points you’ll have everything you need to produce a TED-worthy talk!
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