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Five tips to developing a successful TED talk

by Shari Graydon

Even if you’re telling people 10 things they didn’t know about orgasms, or describing the experience of having a stroke from the inside out, it’s a lot harder to engage an online audience for your TED talk than it is to gather eyeballs for a celebrity meltdown or political sex scandal. (Partly because those options are among your competition!) But having watched some or all of several dozen talks in preparation for my own remarks at an upcoming TEDx event here in Ottawa, I’ve been reminded of a few things.

The following tips on developing a talk reinforce the advice we offer on writing commentary.  Next week I’ll share another five suggestions on delivery. And then (experience being the best teacher of all) after the December 2nd event, I’ll confess what I learned from trying to practice what I preach.

1. Organization counts: You don’t have to stick to the clichéd “tell ‘em what you plan to say, say it, and then tell ‘em what you said” approach, but adopting some kind of organizational strategy – even if it’s not articulated – makes it easier for an audience to trust that you have a plan and stick with you. A numbered list may be overdone, but that’s precisely because it gives your listeners a road map. Other options can be equally useful. In a tight time frame, for example, approaches that match a problem with its solution, counter myths with facts, or support a proposition with evidence, provide a built-in structure and facilitate transitions from one point to another. The added advantage of such structure is that the remarks become easier for you to remember, too.

2. Humility is appealing. The very act of speaking to an audience requires a certain hubris, but when a presenter’s ego – rather than her original content or conviction in relaying the message – constitutes too big a part of what’s on offer, it’s a turn-off. So leavening the references to one’s personal experiences or accomplishments with self-deprecating humour or bigger picture context is crucial.

3. Ideas matter: In an age dominated by diminishing sound bites, 140-character tweets and a relentless array of superficial imagery, it’s tempting to believe that substance is passé. But one of the reasons people still show up to hear live speakers is because they’re hungry for something different. And so even if you don’t have a remarkable new discovery or wholly original information, the expectation is that you will at least present your material in an interesting and engaging way. Unexpected juxtapositions, authentic personal stories, research-informed analysis – all of these are helpful if you’re not able to deliver genuinely new insights.

4. Language is powerful: I’ve been teaching various kinds of writing for 15 years, and one of the first lessons I learned from a mentor-instructor remains one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, and continue to give, encapsulated in the acronym PAC: Make your language Precise, Accessible and Concise. Use vivid verbs, specific nouns and adjectives that paint a strong image in your audience’s mind. Ensure you choose words familiar to the audience you’re addressing; jargon and acronyms are fine for insiders, but otherwise, aim for language that an 8th grader can grasp. And never use five words when one will do, or take 10 minutes to tell a story when the punch line only warrants two. But precision, accessibility and concision are just the starting point. The use of active verbs, lively metaphors, and judicious repetition can also make the difference between pedestrian and arresting.

5. Slides can undermine:  We live in a visual world, and so if the words you’re speaking – as compelling as they may be – have to compete for attention with a lot of text on your slides, they’re going to lose. (Unless the text is too small to read, in which case everybody loses.) So most of the time, it’s better to use images that illustrate, clarify or enhance your words. Look for strong, simple, clear photos or graphics, the significance of which can be immediately grasped or easily understood with the help of the words you speak.

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