Chances are you’ve seen a TED talk. Each day TED’s 2,000-plus inspirational and informative presentations are streamed 2 million times, and they’ve been viewed online more than a billion times. Maybe one showed up in your Facebook or Twitter feed, “liked” by tens of thousands of viewers. Perhaps it was forwarded to you by a colleague who was moved by a talk on vulnerability or inspired by a TED-talker’s presentation skills. Or perhaps you visited TED.com in search of some inspiration.
Now more than 30 years old, TED—with its focus on short, powerful talks about Technology, Entertainment and Design—has raised the bar when it comes to giving memorable presentations. Watch just a few TED talks and you’ll find great examples of presentation skills, content design and visual support you can apply to your own presentations. In fact, scads of books, ebooks, blogs and websites have sprung up to show “How to Give a TED Talk.” At the same time, the TED brand also has attracted criticism, namely that TED-talkers tend to place style over substance, over-simplify concepts or present in too “TED-ish” a manner.
I believe that both the praise and the criticism are valid and helpful to anyone working on honing their own communication skills, so in addition to highlighting some best practices the talks demonstrate, I’m offering up a few cautionary reminders.
Five best practices
1. Thou shalt tell a story.
TED organizers have been known to send speakers a small stone tablet called “The TED Commandments,” which include directions such as “Thou shalt not read thy speech” and “Thou shalt not steal the time of those that follow thee.” There’s even a commandment that reminds speakers of the power of storytelling. Whether drawing from personal experience, using examples to illustrate complex concepts or treating an entire talk as one big narrative, TED talks provide a master class in effective storytelling. Zak Ebrahim’s “I am the son of a terrorist” is a great example.
2. Say just enough. Then stop.
TED speakers make their impact in 3-, 6-, 9- or 18-minute talks. Listening to them, you get the sense that the speakers have distilled their topics down to the most satisfying kernels. This is a great reminder, especially if you are a content matter expert, to work within your time parameters and focus on what you need the audience to understand. It’s also a great reminder that a little can go a long way. So don’t overwhelm your audience (or yourself) by trying to cram in everything.
3. Work without a net.
With just a few exceptions, the TED-talkers steer clear of lecterns. They own the space in which they speak, standing before an audience with rarely anything in hand but a presentation remote. No notes, no laser pointer, no desk to lean on. Being comfortable speaking without a net is one of the most valuable skills you can aim for as a presenter. Why? Because once you’re comfortable simply standing and delivering—in control of your body, voice and mental focus—you’re golden in almost any other type of speaking situation.
4. Visual aids are just that.
TED talks offer wonderful examples of effective visual support: big evocative images, a minimal amount of text or, in Hans Rosling’s case, animated data that dance across the screen. TED talks demonstrate how less is more, enabling the audience to focus on the presenter and the message. The visuals actually aid the speaker—not replace or compete with him or her.
5. First moments matter.
There’s no hemming or hawing at the start of a TED talk. No, “Okay…well, let’s get started…” The speakers have meticulously planned and practiced their first words so they can make their first moments among their best. Knowing your first words helps boost your confidence—and reduce your nervousness.
1. Don’t try to sound like someone else.
It was bound to happen. When you have that many speakers working within the same parameters (keep it short) and working toward the same goals (be “jaw-dropping,” “amazing”), a pattern begins to emerges. Call it TED-style; funny guy Will Stephen gives it a hilarious send-up in “How to sound smart in your TED Talk” and he nails some of the mannerisms and rhetorical effects common to many TED presentations. Watch enough TED talks and you may wonder whether some speakers are adopting TED-style as their own, rather than letting their natural style emerge. TED-style reminds us that being an effective speaker is about finding and claiming your own speaking style, not wearing someone else’s.
2. Don’t make everything awesome.
One criticism leveled at TED.com is that within the frame of “spreading great ideas,” all ideas presented receive equal praise and elevation. And as we all know from personal experience, when someone repeatedly raves how great something is, we begin to question motive. While one of the TED Commandments is “Thou Shalt Not Sell,” speakers’ extreme passion can occasionally feel forced. Over-emphasis can also damage credibility, so check your own tendency to paint everything with an “awesome brush.”
3. Remember that context is everything.
While TED talks give you plenty to emulate in terms of effective presentation skills and storytelling, remember that your everyday business presentations differ considerably in style and intent. Standing in the spotlight to deliver nine minutes of one-way brilliance is very different from most everyday back-and-forth business exchanges, which my colleagues at Turpin Communication call “orderly conversations.” Look to TED talks for tips on presenting information, but balance that with work on facilitation skills.
Whether you’re just getting to know the TED talks, you’re an avid fan or you’re a little leery of so much awesomeness, spend some time at TED.com viewing the talks through the lens of your own continuing improvement as an engaging communicator.
There’s plenty to learn at TED.com. And, truly, much that inspires.
John Capecci of Capecci Communications (Minneapolis) is a trainer and consultant who offers personal coaching, group workshops, and webinars on communication effectiveness.
Image source: urban_data via Flickr