Brian McCarthy

Is advice from TED about making presentations any good?

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TED curator Chris Anderson has this week released a video called “TED’s Secret to Great Public Speaking”. Is his advice any good and can you apply it to making presentations at work?

The video is 8 minutes long and very nicely made with classy graphics, Chris’s resonant voice and some impactful footage from real TED talks. I tend toward concrete advice so the first 5 minutes are not all that great – the typical TED style of speaking about “big ideas” with that quintessential American style of sugary optimism.

So, unfortunately, he spends 70% of his presentation making the rather self-evident point that “Ideas are the most powerful force shaping human culture”. However, at 5:02 minutes he says the magic words, “here are four guidelines to build an idea inside the minds of your audience”, and now it gets interesting. These are four very solid pieces of advice and I agree wholeheartedly with them. But because he only spends 30 seconds on each one, I’ve fleshed them out with my own ideas below:

1. Focus on one major idea.

He says “pick on idea and make it the through line link running your entire talk so everything links back to it in some way”

If you’ve been to one of my workshops, this is what I call the “Core Message” of the talk. Its best to only have one message as it will make your talk more powerful and focused, and won’t tax your audience’s concentration so much. The key at the beginning of your preparation is to write this message in one simple sentence. Why? Because every grammatically correct sentence, no matter what the language, will have at least two, if not three, key words. These key words then become the 3 parts of your talk. For example, Ken Robinson’s key message in his famous TED Talk is “creativity should be key to our children’s education in order to prepare them for living in today’s world”. Thus, a structure for his talk would be

  • What makes today’s world different from the world 50 years ago?
  • What is creativity and why is it important?
  • How can we make creativity central in children’s education?

2. Give your listeners a reason to care.

Chris says “Before you can start building things inside the minds of your audience, you have to get their permission to welcome you in. And the main tool to achieve that? Curiosity. Stir your audience’s curiosity.” While I agree with him, I don’t think this advice is very practicable when it comes to actually preparing a talk. He talks of curiosity as though if you (the presenter) find it curious, then so will your audience. This is not always true. I come at this problem of “getting audiences to welcome you inside their head” from another angle – that of problem/solution. People will listen to you if you are speaking about a problem they have. But in order to know this problem, you need to know your audience because every audience has a different problem. The biggest problem I see in presentations is that the presenter hasn’t thought about who they are speaking to. The great TED speakers don’t make this mistake. They know that TED audiences are generally tech-savvy, educated, middle class and cosmopolitan. The most popular TED talks are aimed at problems these kind of people have. Also, TED talks are watched online and you cannot interact with them. You choose whether or not to click play, and you can fast forward the video or turn it off. This is a completely different context from making a presentation at work where curiosity about a topic is not a strong enough key to opening the minds of your audience.

3. Build your idea out of familiar concepts

I like this section of Chris’s talk. He reminds us that we should use concepts that are familiar to the audience and explains how metaphors work. He’s right when he says that “many speakers often forget that many of the terms and concepts that they live with are completely unfamiliar to their audiences”. He says you should practice your talk with “trusted friends” – in another article I’ve written I go into more depth about the differences between rehearsing alone, with friends, or with colleagues.

4. Make your idea worth sharing.

He says you should ask yourself the question, “Who does this idea benefit?” and that the answer should be that your idea “ inspires someone to do something different” (italics mine). Again, this is where I see the weakness of TED talks as models for the rest of us making presentations at work. The “someone” they are aiming for is actually “everyone” (at least everyone that belongs to the tech-savvy, educated, middle class and cosmopolitan group I mentioned earlier). This is ok when your main audience is going to watch this talk on youtube, but not 99.99% of all other presentations taking place every day around the world. It is crucial that you are very clear about who your “someone” is. You need to know your audience very well, and frame your presentation as a solution to a problem they have. For more about this, read my article “You are Mr. Miyagi, not the Karate Kid.