How to Deliver a Compelling TED Talk

Watching the phenomenal performance of the world champion of public speaking was amazing. Getting to know him on a personal level inspired me to give a TED Talk.

As a TED fanatic and speaker, I often find myself analyzing the different presentation styles, techniques, and idiosyncrasies each speaker brings to his/her speech.

In June’s edition of Harvard Business Review, Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, shares five key to great presentation.

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1.       Frame Your Story

According to Anderson, conceptualizing and framing is the most vital part of the preparation. Great TED talkers frame their talk as a story as if taking people on a journey. They follow a narrative structure that loosely follows a detective story where the speaker ignites the interest by presenting a vexing problem and describing the search for a solution. There’s an “a-ha” moment that comes around the conclusion.

TED talkers also restrain their desire and urge to cover all the ground – you simply cannot summarize your entire book or product within 18 minutes. Rather, you need to limit your scope of your talk and share vivid stories and examples. So, instead of sweeping broadly, dig deeper. Be specific and detailed.

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2.       Plan Your Delivery

Anderson simply says, “Don’t read and never use the teleprompter.” Many of the best and most popular TED talks have been memorized verbatim. This is hard work yet very rewarding.

For instance Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher who had suffered a stroke, shared her story on how she recovered for the next eight years. She spent countless hours of solo practice and rehearsed her talk dozens of times in front of audiences to ensure she had nailed it.

Initially, if you’re memorizing your talk, you may encounter what Anderson calls “valley of awkwardness.” This is when you have haphazardly memorized the talk and the audience senses awkwardness. The solution is simple: more, more, more practice. World class talent equals exceptional talent multiplied by 10,000 hours.

3.       Develop Stage Presence

Many of TED talkers aren’t professional presenters. Anderson notes that the biggest mistake he sees during rehearsals is unnatural and excessive body movement. This is a natural physical response for someone who is nervous yet very distracting for an audience. Anderson says, “It’s better to stand still and rely on hand gestures for emphasis.
 

Also make eye contact. Find five or six friendly –looking people in different parts of the audience and look them in the eye as you speak. Anderson suggests that we “think of them as friends you haven’t seen in a year, whom you’re bringing up to date on your work.”

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Amy Cuddy, professor at Harvard Business School, says certain body poses affect power. Stand tall, stride around, extend bodies. These will make you feel more powerful.  Anderson says that we need to “Breathe deeply before you go on stage.” The fact of the matter is the audience expects you to be nervous. This injects energy in your presentation and keeps your mind sharp.

Case in point: Susan Cain’s famous TED talk who spoke about her book on introvert. She was terrified about giving her talk. You could feel her fragility onstage, but that made it a lot more authentic and real.

4.       Plan the Multimedia

Many people are aware of the universal rule of thumb for using Power Point slides. You need to make the slides simple. Don’t use the slides as a substitute for notes. Don’t recite what you seen on the slides. Many TED speakers don’t use slides at all, and many talks don’t require them. Artists, photographers and designers should use visuals to complement their talk.

TED uses Prezi, a storytelling tool presenting ideas on a virtual canvass, to amplify the effect of the talk. This is a good replacement to the pedestrian Power Point tools everyone uses.

Kinetic sculptor Reuben Margolin used silence in his talk, letting the work speak for itself. He wanted to give this audience a powerful experience of my work.

5.       Putting it All Together

Most TED Talks start six months prior to the actual presentation to accommodate plenty of time for practice. In many cases, you will be in many practice runs with audiences asking feedback. Often times, you’ll hear conflicting feedback making you more confusing. In this case, Anderson suggests we need to be selective in the type of feedback we hear from selective people. Those with experience are best for feedback.

Above all, there is no perfect or pro forma path to be a great presenter. Every presenter bring his/ her unique style, style, and personalities.

However, what matters most according to Anderson is that “Presentations rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker. It’s about substance, not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics. It’s fairly easy to “coach out” the problems in a talk but there’s no way to “coach in” the basic story – the presenter has to have the raw material. If you have something to say, you can build a great talk. But if the central theme isn’t there, you’re better off not speaking. Decline the invitation. Go back to work, and wait until you have a compelling idea that’s really worth sharing.”

Questions: If you could give a TED Talk , what would you speak on?


  • Great points for any communicator. When giving a Ted Talk or any presentation passion is essential, which ties into a lot of what you mentioned here. When I give a TED talk it will be on leadership but don’t have a specific leadership topic in mind.

    • Thanks Dan! There’s a book called “How to Deliver a Ted Talk” by Jeremey Donovan. http://www.amazon.com/How-Deliver-TED-Talk-Presentations/dp/1468179993/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370649720&sr=8-1&keywords=how+to+deliver+a+ted+talk

      I think you’ll find this book useful. I haven’t read it myself but heard good reviews. It’s on my wish list.

      If I have a chance to speak at TED, I think it’ll be on intentional living – living every moment with kingdom impact, stewarding my gifts, talents, resources, and opportunities as a response to His calling in my life.

      • I’ll put the book in my wish list:) Thank you for mentioning it.

        That’s a great topic!

      • It is a good book. I read it a few months ago. The biggest thing I remember about it was that you have to weave in a story. That is a theme I have been seeing quite a bit over this last year.

        • I’m looking forward to reading the book. Yes, I absolutely believe any presentation without a compelling story is like a delicate dish without no seasoning. The seasoning completes the food; the story completes the key message. It makes it personable and relatable. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      • Thanks for the recommend – just picked it up. I’ll be doing a TEDx talk on “Life Changing Stories” – exploring how we all have life changing moments, where something inside gains new perspective, and we never look at the world the same way again, paired with the value of sharing & harnessing others’ life changing stories

  • disqus_FlYnRGeXPn

    Great insights Paul! I’d love to see you speak and help organize a TEDx talk locally. One of the topics I would love to present on would be mentoring leaders for multiplication. As for my favorite TED Talk, Simeon Sink’s “Start With Why” is one I watch frequently: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA

    • Glad to have you join me Joshua. Yes, I’m thinking about organizing a TEDx talk locally. It’s a matter of right timing since my bandwidth is stretched to the limit now. I’m gradually creating an executive team that will make this possible.

      I love Simon Sinek’s TED Talk as well. He hit the nail with focusing on the “why”

  • Sven Winter

    I’m excited to support you in the destiny you have been given to create a huge impact in the world for him!

  • Ludmilla Salonda

    On public speaking, it is a slow process working on overcoming stage fright. So thank you for the insight and advice you provide in this post.

  • mmodesti

    I would highly recommend you take the opportunity, if you have, it to give a TED Talk. I did so last year and it was the experience of a lifetime. The coaches are phenomenal. Definitely a creative highlight of my life.