Ten things every presenter can learn from TED Talks

TED Talks: how did we ever manage without them? What a rich store of wisdom, wit, creative thinking and sheer brainpower is freely accessible to all in that online collection of 18-20 minutes presentations https://www.ted.com/talks

And what a gift they are to any speaker looking to raise their presenting game and improve their influencing skills.

As a presentation skills trainer, spending much of my time on the basics, it is nothing short of inspirational to watch and listen to experts in their fields with so much to say saying it so persuasively, so economically, and in many cases without the aid of a single PowerPoint slide.

A couple of weeks’ back I eavesdropped on a LinkedIn group discussion about favourite TED talks. Some of these I had already seen but others I looked up and watched. Then I supplemented my research using this link: http://bit.do/7qYX

Having spent a highly instructive and enjoyable few days in the company of these masters of spoken communication, I am now happy to pass on the 10 things I believe every presenter, however experienced, could learn from them.

1. Nothing beats a story

When it comes to illustrating and supporting your argument, you can’t beat a good story. Economist Tim Harford tells a cracking tale about pioneering epidemiologist Archie Cochrane’s early use of a randomised controlled clinical trial in a German prisoner-of-war camp to drive home his core message that trial-and-error is the root of all progress. http://bit.do/7qZa

Educationalist Sir Kenneth Robinson points up the traditional academic neglect of the performing arts with a moving story about dancer-choreographer Gillian Lynne who, as a schoolgirl, was assumed to have a learning disorder because of her constant fidgeting and lack of concentration. Until, that is, a wise and observant specialist told her mother: ‘Gillian isn’t sick, she’s a dancer – take her to dance school’. http://bit.do/7qZy

2. Make it personal

I don’t think I have ever seen anything more moving, shocking and powerful than neuro-anatomist Jill Bolte Taylor reliving her moment-by-moment experience of a devastating stroke, with all the insight afforded by her expertise. She moves around the stage like a tormented dancer as she flips between describing the sensory fireworks experienced by her right brain and the rational interpretation (‘We need help!’) offered by her left brain. At one stage, understanding that she is having a stroke, she thinks: ‘This is so cool – how many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their brain from the inside out?’ Amazing stuff!  http://bit.do/7qZN

3. Repetition works

Simon Sinek’s talk on how the most successful businesses and individuals ‘Start with Why’ (as opposed to ‘what’) is a masterpiece of persuasive rhetoric. Every separate strand of his argument culminates with ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’, repeated over and again like the chorus of a song. http://bit.do/7qZ5

4. Involve the audience

Motivational guru Tony Robbins shows how interactivity is possible even with very large audiences. Throughout his talk he calls on the audience to ‘say aye’ if they have ever done, said or thought any of the stupid things he is about to set them right on – and you can practically see the energy level in the room rise as a result. My favourite bit is when he asks who has ever hired a DVD they had already seen. When the shout of ‘aye’ die down, he retorts: ‘Get a fxxxing life! http://bit.do/7q2H

5. It’s okay to be emotional

Amy Cuddy’s hugely popular talk on the power of body language to change self-perception has given me some genuinely helpful practical advice to hand on to anyone suffering from crippling performance nerves. It is particularly poignant when she talks of her determination to succeed against the odds after a car accident almost wrecked her career. She just stops short of breaking down on describing the sudden realisation that she no longer had to ‘fake-it-until-you-make-it’ – she had arrived. And the audience love her for this glimpse of vulnerability. http://bit.do/7q2V

6. Set up the questions that your presentation will answer

Back to Simon Sinek again. He starts by asking three apparently unrelated rhetorical questions right at the start:

‘Why is Apple more innovative than all their competition?’

‘Why is it that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement when he wasn’t the only great orator of the day?’

‘Why is it that the Wright brothers were able to figure out controlled powered manned flight where others with better qualifications had tried and failed?’

The remainder of his talk addresses these pivotal questions, shows how they are linked and provides thoroughly satisfying answers. http://bit.do/7qZ5

7. Use a prop

And we’re back to Jill Bolte Taylor again. She doesn’t content herself with describing the different functions of our two cerebral hemispheres. Neither does she show us a cleverly animated PowerPoint slide. What she does is slip on a pair of surgical gloves and demonstrate with a real brain, its spinal column hanging down like Rapunzel’s tresses from the tower. Of course there are gasps of disgust from some in the audience, but boy does that moment have impact. http://bit.do/7qZN

8. Humour always helps

Sir Kenneth Robinson is deadly serious in his contention that schools kill creativity. But the hilarious anecdotes and asides that pepper his talk have the audience howling with laughter and hanging on his every word. I will long remember his story about moving to LA from the village of Snitterfield, where Shakespeare’s father was born. He riffs amusingly on how no one ever thinks of Shakespeare being a child, but he must at some point have been a seven-year-old in someone’s English class. Pause: ‘How annoying would that be?’ And what would it have been like for young Will’s father? ‘Go to bed now…and put the pencil down…and stop speaking like that – it’s confusing everybody’. http://bit.do/7qZy

9. You don’t need slides

TED speakers who use slides use them sparingly and never include great slabs of text, long lists of bullet points, complicated diagrams, irritating animations or any other known triggers of ‘Death by PowerPoint’. Some speakers don’t use any audiovisual aids at all. If you have great presence, a commanding voice and a fascinating story to tell, that can be enough. Clinical psychologist Meg Jay needs nothing but herself and her two anchoring anecdotes to convince her audience that 30 is not the new 20 and that twentysomethings need to use that decade to reclaim adulthood. http://bit.do/7q3z

10. If you have enough charisma you can break all the rules

Statistician Hans Rosling is not known as ‘The Mick Jagger of TED’ for nothing. He does everything presenters are not supposed to do – leans on the podium, has little eye contact with his audience, stands in front of the projector, talks very fast without pausing and looks a mess. But he has the most extraordinary ability to bring abstract data to teeming life and give it the excitement and urgency of sports commentary. http://bit.do/7q3P

 This is just a taste of the wonders on offer from TED talkers. But don’t take it from me – check it out for yourself!

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