Karen storytelling picIn the last few months, many of our clients are asking us to help them prepare “TED-type” talks.  Some of them have even built alliances with the TED organization to create their own forums for these types of presentations.  So, that got me thinking; what is it about the TED talks that people find so appealing?  What is creating this demand, and what can the TED talks teach us about communication?

So, what are the key elements of a TED talk?  Perhaps that can help us to understand them better.

  1. They start from something the speaker considers to be a big idea. That means these are talks and discussions where the speaker truly has something he or she wants us to know, something that he/she thinks will make a difference to us.  It is not simply reporting in or delivering information that you have been ordered to put forward.  The speaker is often quite passionate about the idea and wants us to at upon it.  That leads me to think that our listeners want us to have our own big ideas to deliver and to have a personal connection with them.
  2. TED talks offer us new ways of seeing – often challenging a well-known theory or concept. One of the key aspects of the TED talk lies in the original slogan – ideas worth spreading.  They are dedicated to helping us look at a topic, an experience or the world in an expanded or new way.  They are willing to challenge us and push us in order to do that.  We can learn from that – when we have a presentation or discussion, it is our job to offer our listeners a new slant on an idea, even if it is simply to show them our own slant.  And they are not only willing to be challenged, they want us to push them towards new ideas.
  3. The speaker makes a call to action. We are not simply being informed in a TED talk, we are being asked to do something about an idea.  TED speakers are often agents of change, whether a large change or a small one.  They make a demand upon their listeners.  We, too, can make greater demands upon our audiences and look at each presentation as a chance to cause action.
  4. TED speakers communicate first from personal stories. This speaks to two things:  the way we all respond to stories and our desire to get a personal glimpse of the speaker.  Stories are the oldest way we learned and communicated.  They are part of our cultural DNA and how we learned the norms of our groups.  We also want to get a sense of who it is that is speaking to us, of their real character and values.
  5. Every TED talk is brief – no more than 18 minutes. TED speakers are forced to choose what exactly it is they want to say and to focus on that.  There is no time to drag in every bit of research, every fact or every slide.  They must decide what is important and focus their talks around that.  While I am not suggesting that every talk or presentation needs to be 18 minutes or less, I do think we all do well to think more carefully about what is essential in our talks and presentations.  What do you want to say?  If you had to express your message in one sentence, what would it be?  What must be said in order to get that message across?  What can you leave out?

There are many other aspects of a successful TED talk, but I believe these five themes point us to a way of communicating more effectively and successfully.  Since I have talked about being concise, let me leave you with this summary:

  1. Bring your big ideas and make sure you are personally connected to them
  2. Challenge your audience to see differently
  3. Aim to cause action
  4. Use stories and let them see who you are
  5. Focus the talk around one key message and be certain what must be said

Your audiences will be grateful.


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