How To Give A TED Talk-Worthy Presentation

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Michele Weldon10
July 13, 2024 at 12:28AM UTC
It’s about more than 18 minutes on the round red rug.
If you are a TED Talk aficionado, you know that certain rules apply to the best speakers. You know, the ones that earn the most views on any subject under the sun and stars? Yes, they all stand on a stage with the signature red rug for the required 18 minutes, but what else do they do to be such excellent speakers?
Chris Anderson, the chief curator of TED and author of TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, has much wisdom to impart on becoming a successful TED speaker — and he should know.

How to deliver a TED-worthy talk.

For me, as a speaker of more than 200 keynotes over the past 20 years and co-director of TEDxNorthwestern in 2014 — in addition to the official TEDx speakers’ guide to the branded, official events  — I've acquired a few lessons to offer, as well. How do you write a TED talk outline and deliver an exceptional speech? If you want to give a TED talk of your own, participate in a TEDx event, or generally improve your presentation skills for the office, here are some TED speaker-inspired best practices.

1. Determine if the idea is worth sharing.

According to the official TED guide, each different type of talks falls into a distinct category. They are:
  • The Big Idea: a new concept you are introducing
  • The Tech Demo: showing an invention that the speaker has created or been instrumental in creating
  • A Captivating Performance: the artist’s statement that showcases their creative process
  • Dazzle with Wonder: a talk about a scientific discovery
  • The Small Idea: a new point of view on a compelling topic
  • The Issue Talk: focusing on big concepts like sexism, discrimination, education, poverty or any important global issue

2. Write a great script.

“Great oratory magnifies the lessons of great writing.” Roy Peter Clark wrote in response to Michelle Obama's 2016 DNC Speech. “Written for the ear, memorable speeches tend to use certain rhetorical devices — such as parallelism or emphatic word order — in greater measure than less dramatic forms of communication.” Learn from the masters. If you know that repetition works well, use it. Just make sure to do so sparingly, not incessantly.

3. Offer a close-up.

The best talks include personal anecdotes. This can be a story that has a lesson or is revealing about the individual and offers some discovery. You must avoid the “me, me, me” approach and refrain from the use of "I.” Tell a story about yourself that is revelatory, not indulgent. This is the close-up shot.

4. Offer a medium-shot.

These are statistics, data, research and facts that support and bolster your idea. You need to offer real information that is attributed, real and well-documented. Make sure it is the latest research and the most current numbers so you offer the best and latest information and insight.

5. Give the overview (or long-shot).

If your friend showed you pictures from her trip to the Grand Canyon, but they were all hotel room selfies, wouldn't you be missing that classic, wide landscape shot? Offer big insights and takeaways, answering or posing questions about what all this means. How is this part of our humanity? People attend TED talks to be informed and inspired, so show the biggest picture you can with authenticity and authority.

6. Combine these three different views into one seamless talk.

A good talk includes a shift from a personal story to an overview and then transition into facts and figures. You don't have to offer these views in any particular order, just make sure you do so smoothly. Do what's best for the story that you're telling and the point you're making.

7. Never speak extemporaneously.

Do not stray from the script. You may think it will suffice, but it will likely annoy the audience, making them feel as if you did not value their time enough to make it worthwhile.

8. Have a clear beginning, middle and end.

I suggest a small story at first; an anecdote to get the audience to like you. Be vulnerable, be accessible and also be personable. The entire speech should be building to a crescendo where you have an amazing closing line, or you ask a question that brings the listener back to the beginning. If you start with a question, the last line should recall that question and offer a solution.

9. Hit a new note every few minutes.

Ask a question. Change it up with a quote, or introduce a new idea. Do not clump stats together, but integrate all the information as seamlessly as you can.

10. Be careful and deliberate with language.

Your talk should be quotable, so think about using metaphors and comparing this to that. In an ideal world, you'd want people to want to share your talk on social media. It's important to style your language to make it as memorable as possible.
Be careful with your body language as well. A well-placed hand gesture can emphasize your point and bring audience attention back to your speech if you find it waning. You have the whole stage — use it!

11. Name your talk with a great title.

It should be inviting, inspiring and curious. It's likely the title of your presentation will be communicated in advance, so be sure that it focuses on the topic on which you're speaking, is provocative and is searchable. Utilize interest-grabbing titles, like ones that start with "Why," "The Answer To..." or "X Ways to..."

12. Create a memorable phrase.

Name a movement. Identify a trend. Commit eloquent phrasemaking. Identity a concise thesis statement for your talk that you want listeners to remember and emphasize that throughout. If that is difficult, then pepper your speech with marvelous, eloquent quotes from others that are attributed and precise.

13. If appropriate, use humor.

Never include a joke that could be considered in bad taste. It's okay to tell a funny story or repeat a G-rated joke that applies to your content. Be sensitive in your humor and know that any joke at other people’s expense is not okay. When in doubt, always go with self-deprecating humor.

14. Know your stuff.

Practice dozens of times, especially before friends and colleagues who can be critical. Prop up your phone to record yourself so you can watch and see where you stumble.

15. Do not oversell yourself. Avoid repeatedly referencing your books, your company or your brand.

There is a fine line here between being a voice of authority and one who is selling herself too hard. Your books and offerings will be in your bio. Make your speech a soft sell, not a hard infomercial. Audiences resist that.

16. Dress simply.

Bold colors, little jewelry and no wild patterns; don't wear anything distracting. The audience will be looking at you for a long time, so you want them to listen and not be distracted by your outfit.

17. Embrace mistakes.

Accidents happen to everyone. If you make a mistake or totally skip a section, do not ever go back and start over. Recollect your thoughts and keep going with your speech. Public speaking is where you should be vulnerable, but you want to remain polished.

18. Make your visuals extremely simple.

No more than one slide per minute. Avoid placing complicated graphs and statistics on your slides, as well as filling them with long sentences. (No more than five to six words on a slide, total!) You want the visual to augment your talk, not distract from it.

19. Assume the audience likes you.

Be friendly and smile. If it's not going well, or if you notice people are not paying attention, perhaps work on your delivery or speak louder or more slowly. Don't ever react to negativity and get defensive.

20. Close with a mic-dropping moment.

You do not have to actually drop the mic when you end your conference talk, but you should have an ending line that is powerful and to the point. Avoid what I call “Andy Rooney endings” at all costs; statements that can be trite and clichéd. You can be provocative and intriguing, but your closer must be a line that delivers an impactful punch. Then, pause and thank the audience briefly.
If (and when) you get your standing ovation from the audience, accept gracefully and congratulate yourself. You aced it!

Do TED speakers get paid?

TED speakers are not paid for their talks. However, the organization covers travel expenses, hotel accommodations and other benefits and perks such as networking events, a five-day pass to TED and training and coaching prior to the conference.
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist and editorial director of Take The Lead. She is a senior leader with The OpEd Project, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, mom of three sons and her most recent book is Escape Points: A Memoir. Many of these tips appeared originally in Take The Lead.

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