Recently my company Ideas on Stage was privileged to coach the speakers for TEDxESCP, a fantastic TEDx event at the ESCP business school in Paris. Working with an amazingly diverse group of fine speakers, we produced a show of which I am particularly proud, and with which the students and speakers should also be extremely pleased.
Following this, I have been asked for the recipe for a great TED talk, or indeed, the magic ingredients for any conference speech.
This is not an easy question, since with the ten speakers I coached, we produced some very different talks.
We had Emmy-winning film director Anne Aghion who spoke movingly about her experiences making films in Rwanda and Antarctica, with no slides but a couple of short video clips.
We had Alexandre Marchac who gave a brilliant talk about the advances in reconstructive surgery, illustrated with many photos and a couple of videos and a ‘TED moment’ in that one of his team’s face transplant patients was actually in the room.
We had Martin Kupp, who explained how students should take control of their education using three examples, illustrated by works of art.
We had Olivier Oullier, who used few slides, but did make good use of some amusing photos which completely contradicted what he was saying, and thus making his point about how our brains think one thing while our mouths say another.
We had Laszlo Laufer, who talked about the power of zoom using a Prezi illustration (and for once, one which I actually quite liked).
And we had Isaac Getz, with whom I performed a small sketch during his talk (is that a TED first?), and who ended up by throwing toy monkeys into the audience.
I’ve not even mentioned them all, but that’s already a lot of very different talks. In fact, the event would be rather boring if we used exactly the same formula for each talk. With any presentation, you have to consider the objectives, the context and the audience, and then choose some key messages, a suitable structure and a strategy to communicate each key message.
However, there are some characteristics which these different talks all share, and after much thought I realised that they are exactly the same ones I use to teach what makes a great slide. So here are the five characteristics of a great TED talk.
The first is that the message needs to be simple. In 18 minutes (or less) you don’t have time to deliver anything complex, and your audience wouldn’t get it anyway. Your presentation should not be like a crossword clue, where the audience needs to spend time working out what the answer is and what they should do with it. You should be giving them the answer so the audience can use their brain-time to think about what to do with your message.
In order to be simple, you have to be very clear in your objectives and your messages. First, set your objectives by completing this simple sentence:
“After my presentation, my audience will…”
(Of course the rest of the sentence should not read “…wake up”!)
So for Isaac Getz’s talk about how to liberate your company, the objective may have read:
“After my talk, my audience will want to liberate the power of their companies and their people, and will know the three key steps to implement.”
A last point about simplicity: one thing many of the talks had in common was the number three. Three keys, three steps, three examples… three is a very good number, since we can usually remember three points but rarely many more than three. I could write a whole article about the power of three, and perhaps one day I will.
So keep your message simple.
The next characteristic is clarity. Having a simple message is not enough: it also has to be clear to the audience.
In a slide, clarity is about using text which is big enough to read, about adding text to images so their context and meaning are clear, and about removing unnecessary noise and visual pollution. In the context of the talk, clarity is about giving your talk a clear structure so it is easy for the audience to remember what you said, realise where you are, and have an idea where you are going.
It is also about repetition, because as Lewis Carroll wrote, “What I say three times is the truth”. If you say a key message once, it will be forgotten. Twice is good; three times is better (yes, the number three again). If the audience can remember your key messages and the structure of your talk, then it was clear enough. Even a simple message like “Eat more vegetables” can get lost in a mire of graphs, statistics and boring facts. Don’t let that happen.
If you’re not sure your messages are clear enough, they’re not. Don’t compromise on clarity. Your audience is not psychic, and they are not detectives. They might be smart, but even if they are as clever and perspicacious as Hercule Poirot, your talk should not be an Agatha Christie whodunnit. If the butler did it, say so clearly – ideally three times.
Here is where many TED talks distinguish themselves. We can all remember Bill Gates releasing mosquitoes and Jamie Oliver tipping a wheelbarrow of sugar cubes onto the stage. Those are things that we hadn’t seen before, and they were memorable. So you should try to make your talk original in terms of the way you deliver your messages. There is no rule that says you can’t open a jar of mosquitoes to make people feel the immediacy of malaria. There is no rule that says you can’t use props. There is no rule that says you can’t bring someone else on stage to help you. In fact other than common sense and decency, there’s only one rule: don’t show the audience something they’ve seen before.
Originality is therefore partly in terms of your strategies to communicate your messages memorably, but it is also about the messages themselves. Al Gore gave fine TED talks about global warming, but that’s been done – a TED audience doesn’t want to see yet another talk about global warming, unless there’s some completely new angle to it. So if you want to talk about the reproductive habits of Andean llamas, first search on ted.com to see whether somebody’s already done that – and if so, find something different to say.
TED audiences expect new and interesting ideas – “Ideas Worth Spreading”. Audiences at other conferences may have different expectations. A good talk is one which meets or exceeds its audience’s expectations. So for a TED or TEDx event, the message not only needs to be original and simple: it also has to be relevant to the TED audience.
A simple test for this is as follows: at the end of the talk, will anyone in the audience shrug their shoulders and say “So what?” If so, that’s not a good sign.
What you want is that your TED audience thinks at the end “I didn’t know that, and I’m glad I do now” or “I must change how I act” for example.
So your original talk about the reproductive habits of Andean llamas might in fact not be a good subject for a TED talk. If nobody yet talked about your pet subject at TED, perhaps there’s a good reason for it. If the reason is that nobody else yet knows the results of your ground-breaking research, then perhaps you’re on to a winner. If not, ask yourself whether the world really needs to know more about the mating habits of llamas.
A word here to TEDx curators: don’t choose speakers based on how good they are. Choose speakers who have something original and worthwhile to share. Coaches like me can help average speakers to formulate and deliver their great messages memorably. But the greatest coach can’t do much even with the greatest speaker if their story just isn’t worth telling.
The final part is perhaps the most difficult but the most important. People do not pay good money to go to TED to be bored. They want to be entertained, and TED audiences know that if you enjoy something, then you are more attentive; and if you are more attentive, you take more in and remember more.
So you need to entertain your audience. This is partly in what you say and do, and partly in how you say and do it. This is where it is very important to ensure you have a good coach to help with both aspects.
You need to capture their attention at the beginning, and make them want to listen (for more, read my earlier post First Impressions Last). You need to keep their attention by being interesting and passionate, and by saying things in a clear and memorable way. Try to deliver at least one clearly tweetable statement every minute or two.
Use humour whenever you can (and assuming you are good at using humour – make sure it is properly rehearsed). Remember that humour is a high-risk strategy – see more here – but at TED, being humourless is also a high-risk strategy.
Be extremely careful with your slides, if you choose to use any. A long set of bullet-points in the middle of a TED event will stand out like a sore thumb, and simply signal to the audience that they can take their comfort break right away without missing anything worthwhile. SCORE applies just as much to your slides. They need to be simple and clear; original (no over-used clip-art please); relevant to what you are saying; and enjoyable, i.e. well-designed and pleasant to look at. There’s more to say about TED slides but that deserves another post – watch this space.
There’s a way to make anything interesting and enjoyable, if you look hard enough. For example, Isaac Getz’s three steps to liberate your company (1. create an environment for intrinsic equality; 2. create an environment for personal growth; 3. create an environment for self-direction) could have been delivered in an extremely boring business-school-101 manner, with a monotonous voice and no passion. But we found ways to make his talk enjoyable with stories, examples, amusing metaphors, a sketch, toy monkeys and some playing with the audience, and Isaac did a fantastic job in delivering it. I’ll use this an example in an upcoming post once the video is available.
So that’s the last part: make your talk enjoyable.
Simple, Clear, Original, Relevant, Enjoyable. If you can take a simple, original and relevant message, and deliver it in a clear, original and enjoyable way, then you will certainly SCORE with your audience.
With that, you should be well on your way to producing a fantastic TED talk. And if you happen to be speaking at any other conference, putting this into practice will make your talk stand out. And your audience will certainly thank you.