5 presentation tips from TED’s executive producer

TED talks have become a phenomenon, and rightly so. The speakers don’t simply get on stage and wing it, though. Neither should you. Don’t pass up these vital techniques.

(Editor’s note: This was one of the top viewed stories of 2015. We’re rerunning it as part of a look back at the articles that captivated our readers the most.)

I am a TED fanatic. My enthusiasm for TED and TEDx talks propelled me to get involved in TEDxNashville.

As a member of the TEDxNashville board, a consultant for the Speakers’ Committee and the Chair of the Engagement Committee, I was afforded the opportunity to attend TEDActive in Vancouver and Whistler, Canada.

While there, I gained many fresh insights and a renewed appreciation for all public speakers and presentations. On my first day in Vancouver, I was one of the few people granted access to watch the TED speaker’s rehearsals. Many aspects of this experience blew my mind, especially watching TED curator Chris Anderson coach and challenge Alan Eustace on his TED talk just a few days before he spoke.

As described in the guide distributed to TED2015 attendees: “Alan Eustace leapt to Earth from the edge of the stratosphere wearing only a spacesuit, shattering skydiving records (and maybe, revolutionizing the space industry).”

As you can imagine, Eustace’s talk is brilliant and details a groundbreaking achievement, yet as a TED speaker, he was still required to participate in feedback sessions to refine his presentation.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to understand that even the brightest minds and most innovative thinkers in our world can benefit from presentation training. That’s why I’m sharing some presentation tips TED staff members offered during an exclusive workshop for TEDx leaders.

I’ll highlight a few tips shared by June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media.

At the heart of Cohen’s message was that great TED talks always focus on a single idea. Elaborating on the vital importance of keeping one idea as the guiding light of a TED talk, June Cohen shared additional tips for speakers who strive to deliver a presentation in the wildly successful TED style.

1. Extract meaning from your stories.

You probably know the power of storytelling, especially for presentations. However, do you remember to extract meaning from your stories for your audience? If not, start now.

If you do not wrap your personal stories in a message or lesson that relates to your central idea, your story will be like a balloon, floating next to you on stage as decoration, instead of acting as an arrow that shoots your message directly into audience members’ hearts and memories.

2. Don’t give a lecture.

Lectures typically present a series of facts, a list of information. TED talks, however, explore a single idea with unwavering focus. When you present a singular idea-avoiding tangents and loosely related facts and stats-you give your audience a clear takeaway from your presentation, making your message easier to recall and more likely to inspire action.

3. Don’t focus on an issue.

An issue says, “Isn’t this terrible?”

An idea says, “Isn’t this interesting?”

To ensure your talk or presentation centers on an idea instead of an issue, frame your topic as a challenge, proposal or solution. Don’t simply tell your audience about a problem and then lead them to a dead-end conclusion. Talks that only present a problem typically do not motivate action, nor do they inspire fresh perspectives to emerge.

Audience members leave an issue-centric talk with only the knowledge that the problem exists. That type of presentation is relatively pointless and wastes everyone’s time. Inspire action by focusing on an idea instead of on an issue.

4. Don’t be vague about your idea.

Clearly articulate your idea so the audience has no doubt about the meaning of your presentation.

Cohen cited one of her favorite talks—What if we lost the cheetah?—which she considered a “near miss” in the sense that the speaker, Laurie Marker, never clearly expressed her core idea. Marker came close, but coming close leaves the idea open to audience interpretation.

By succinctly stating exactly what you want the audience to learn from your presentation, you eliminate confusion about your point.

5. Start strong.

Earn the attention of your audience with the first few sentences of your presentation. TED talks, and many other presentations, eventually are shared with the world via online platforms such as TED.com or YouTube.

When people view presentations online, they are tempted by many distractions such as email, social media and chat messages from colleagues and friends. If you do not hook your viewers immediately, you probably will lose your audience and your message will affect far fewer people.

Even if your presentation will never be shared online, show your audience respect by engaging them from the beginning.

Fighting with non-violence, a TED talk by Scilla Elworthy, was the example Cohen chose to demonstrate the power of starting with a strong hook.

To deliver presentations in the popular TED style, focus on one idea and one idea only. You can support your idea with a foundation of related points, but all your facts, stats and stories must clearly relate to your central idea to have the impact of a TED talk.

Continue learning about the TED approach by watching Cohen share other tips in the following video, shot in 2010.

Leslie Belknap is the marketing director of Ethos3, where a version of this article originally appeared.


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