What you can learn from an outstanding TED talk

One of the series’ most popular offerings of 2016 focused on breaking bad habits. Regardless of your topic or area of expertise, its structure offers key lessons for your next presentation.

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TED talks offer great takeaways for speakers.

I was pleased, but not at all surprised, to see Judson Brewer’s TEDMED talk from 2015 about “an easy way to break a bad habit” on TED’s list of the 10 most popular TED talks in 2016, with more than 6 million views and counting.

Brewer was among the TEDMED speakers I coached in 2015, and I think there’s much to learn from this talk, for researchers contemplating TED-style talks, and anyone else who wants to understand the form.

Here are six things that make this talk work well:

1. Time management: Clocking in at 9 minutes, 16 seconds, Brewer’s talk is complex and compact. Mind you, he’s talking about multiple studies and their results, not just one, but with careful editing, we learn just what we need to understand his topic. That work comes in during the scripting process, with edits made as practice and coaching require.

2. The premise comes in early: Good TED talks focus on one big idea and get it on the table early. Often that’s expressed as a “what if” question. Just after the three-minute mark, Brewer states the core premise of the research, and the talk: “What if, instead of fighting our brains or trying to force ourselves to pay attention, we instead tapped into this natural, reward-based learning process—but added a twist? What if instead we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience?” You’ll notice he echoes it at the end, couching it then in terms of how it translates to your everyday life. The speaker uses one-third of his time at the start for the setup, then shares the premise, then spends the rest of the talk giving examples and shaping the premise.

3. Judicious use of slides in a research talk: When Brewer finishes talking about a slide on the screen, he moves to a “blank” patterned slide that matches the set. At TEDMED, we try to make sure you get off the slide once you’re done talking about its content, and the blank slide is the best way to do that. It gives the audience the chance to focus just on the speaker, rather than divide its attention, and gives the presentation a cleaner look.

4. Clear language throughout: You can show this talk to your grandma or to a kid and still expect them to understand virtually all of it. That’s good communication. Many researchers scoff about using simple language, saying they don’t want to “dumb it down”—a remark that’s insulting to the audience’s intelligence. Clarity should be the goal for research talks.

5. Just enough personal touches: If you wince at the thought of adding a personal story to your TED-style talk, Brewer gives an early example of doing so briefly. He talks about how difficult he found it to meditate when he first began to practice, adding a personal touch. Your personal touches don’t have to be long, hand-wringing, divulging stories—unless that’s what the talk needs. Just like slides and props, stories and personal details should earn their keep.

6. Good stance on stage and natural gesturing: Brewer doesn’t move around much, and most speakers don’t have to move. He shifts stance and looks at different segments of the audience, and his gesturing is random and natural—just as it should be. It has a calming effect that, again, lets the audience focus on the talk.

A version of this article first appeared on The Eloquent Woman.

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