Summary : For over three decades, TED has been captivating audiences with talks from exceptional speakers at their conferences. This article delves into how these speakers prepare for their presentations at TED. The president of TED shares five tips for delivering a powerful presentation, including structuring your story by determining where to begin and end.
A little over a year ago, BSRBD met a 12-year-old boy named Richard Turere during a visit to Nairobi, Kenya. He told us an incredible story. Richard’s family raised livestock in the national park, where one of the challenges was protecting the animals from lions at night. Richard noticed that the lamps in the garden at night did not deter lion attacks, but when he walked through the field with a flashlight in his hand, the lions did not come near him. From a young age, he had a keen interest in technology and used parts from his father’s radio and solar panels to create a system that could turn lights on and off at specific times. He succeeded in creating a sense of movement with a motorcycle indicator and hoped this would protect the animals from lions. After installing his devices, he saw that lion attacks had dramatically decreased.
Richard soon began to install his “Lion Lights” elsewhere in Kenya. His story was inspiring and caught the attention of our TED conference proposal. Richard was considered an unlikely candidate to speak at TED due to his shyness and limited English skills. When he tried to describe his invention, it was difficult to imagine a teenager standing on stage in front of 1,400 famous people like Bill Gates, Sir Ken Robinson, and Jill Bolte Taylor. But Richard’s story was so compelling that we invited him to speak a few months before the 2013 conference. We worked with him to flesh out his story and develop it in a concise and logical manner. Richard won a scholarship to a school in Kenya where he had the opportunity to give several lectures in front of a live audience. It was challenging but he managed to project his confident and bright personality. When he finally gave his talk at TED in Long Beach, you could tell he was nervous but his story was so compelling that people hung on his every word. He grew more confident as he spoke and the more Richard smiled, the more enthralled the audience became. When he finished his speech, everyone immediately stood up and applauded him.
Since the first TED conference was held 30 years ago, speakers have included politicians, musicians, TV personalities, and even lesser-known individuals such as academics, scientists, and writers. Some of these speakers may feel uncomfortable presenting in front of a crowd. Over the years, we’ve sought to help novice presenters create well-structured, practiced, and engaging presentations that people will enjoy. This process usually starts six to nine months before the event and involves creating (and revising) a script, rehearsing repeatedly, and improvising while maintaining control during rehearsals. We are constantly changing our approach because the art of presentation is evolving in real-time. The basic rules of our work can be improved based on public feedback. Since we started streaming TED conferences online in 2006, the program has been viewed more than a billion times. Based on this experience, I am convinced that giving a good presentation is a skill that can be learned.
In just a matter of hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can deteriorate if not properly prepared. While my team’s experience has focused on the 18-minute-or-shorter format of TED, the lessons we’ve learned have certainly been useful for other presenters.
How to structure a story
Giving a good speech is impossible without something to talk about. The most crucial part of preparation is having the right idea and structure for what you want to say. We all know that people love hearing stories, and behind the smooth structure of those captivating tales are hardworking storytellers. When I think of an engaging presentation, I imagine taking the audience on a journey through the speaker’s imagination. A successful talk is one that helps the audience see the world differently afterward. To develop a speech as an imaginary journey, the biggest decision is where to start and where to end. Begin by finding the right place to start the discussion, considering how much the audience knows about your topic and how interested they are in it. If you assume that your audience knows more than they do or is more interested than they are, or if you start with meaningless sentences or are too wordy, you will lose them. The most engaging speakers do an excellent job of quickly introducing their topic and explaining why they care so deeply about it.
One of the biggest problems I see in presentations is speakers trying to cover too much ground. You can’t wrap up your entire journey in a short talk. If you try to cram everything you know into it, you won’t have time to include key details and your words will become gibberish that might make sense to you but will be completely opaque to your audience because it’s all new to them. Instead, limit your speaking time and use it to explain the main points, providing examples as needed. After the initial analysis, we often suggest broadening the scope rather than going too deep. So instead of discussing your entire contribution in depth, break it down into smaller parts.
A successful speech can change the audience’s perspective.
Over-explanation can be harmful and there are different remedies. Remember that the audience is intelligent, so you have to let them figure things out for themselves and form their own judgments. Many of the best talks have a narrative structure that follows an effective story. The speaker may begin by presenting the context of a problem and then describe the search for a solution. They may start with an “aha” moment and change the audience’s perspective in a meaningful way. A speech fails only when the speaker does not frame their discourse properly, either by misjudging the audience’s interest level or neglecting to tell a story. Even if the topic is important, if it is not clearly described, the audience will be deeply dissatisfied and feel like they are not learning anything.
I recently attended a large conference where two speakers – one the mayor of a city and the other a former governor – presented back-to-back. The mayor’s speech was basically a list of impressive projects in his city. It came across as an advertisement for his re-election and quickly became boring. On the other hand, instead of listing achievements, the governor shared his personal experiences through stories from his time in office. The central idea of these stories was clear and they were explanatory, illustrative, and even humorous. As a result, his talk was much more engaging. When the mayor said in his speech “here is a magical idea that will benefit us all,” his underlying message was about how great he is.
How to tell a story that Inspire and Move Audiences?
As a general rule, people are not very interested in talks about organizations or institutions (unless they are members of them). Stories and ideas captivate us, but discussions about organizations usually bore us. This can be particularly challenging when dealing with business people. Entrepreneurs should take special note: don’t brag about your company; instead, tell the audience about the problems you’re solving.
Make your plan.
Once you’ve settled on your structure, you need to focus on delivering your speech. There are three main ways to do this: reading directly from a script, creating a set of bullet points that outline what you’re going to say in each section, or memorizing your speech and rehearsing it to internalize each word.
My advice would be to avoid reading directly from a script. It usually disconnects you from your audience because they can tell you’re reading. As soon as they realize this, their perception of your speech changes and the intimate connection that was built with the audience is lost, making everything feel too formal. At TED, we usually consider reading from a script to be off-limits. We made an exception for a man a few years ago who insisted on using a monitor. We set up a screen at the back of the auditorium, hoping the audience wouldn’t notice. At first, he spoke naturally but soon settled into a rhythm and a sense of disappointment ran through the audience as they realized he was reading. His words were great but the talk was rated poorly because it was obvious he was reading.
Many of our best and most popular TED talks have been memorized word for word. If you have an important speech to give and enough time to prepare, delivering it from memory can be very effective. But don’t underestimate the work involved. One of our most memorable speakers was Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher who had a stroke. It took her eight years to recover and she spoke about what she learned during that time. She spent many hours alone crafting her story and also gave her presentation in front of an audience many times to ensure it was well-rounded. Of course, not every presentation is worth this level of time investment. If you decide to memorize your speech, be aware that there is a steep learning curve. Most people go through a moment of what I call “differential embarrassment” when they haven’t completely memorized their speech. If they get stuck, the audience will notice. They may repeat words or have painful moments where they look away or up as they struggle to remember their lines. This creates distance between the speaker and the listener. But fortunately, this situation is easy to overcome with enough rehearsal until the speech comes naturally. Then you can focus on delivering it with meaning and authenticity.
How to give a good presentation?
If you don’t have time to thoroughly memorize a speech, it’s better not to try than to fall into that awkward valley. Instead, you can make use of bullet points on paper. As long as you know what you want to say for each point, you’ll be fine. Focus on memorizing the transition from one bullet point to the next and pay attention to your tone of voice. Some speakers may want to come across as authoritative, knowledgeable, powerful, or enthusiastic, but it’s generally much better to just have a conversation with the audience. If a successful speech is like a journey, make sure you don’t start annoying your travel companions. Some speakers are so focused on finishing their talk that they ignore the audience’s reactions and continue speaking even if the audience has lost interest. This should be avoided.
How to improve stage presentation?
For inexperienced speakers, one of the most difficult aspects of giving a presentation on stage can be their body posture. People tend to underestimate its importance. A huge determinant of success or failure in conveying your words, stories, and ideas is how you stand and whether you appear nervous. A little training in stage presence can go a long way. One of the biggest mistakes we see early on is people moving their bodies too much. They may sway from side to side or shift their weight from one leg to the other. People naturally do this when they’re nervous, but it’s distracting and can make the speaker appear weak. Instead, it’s better to improve your stage presence by standing still and relying on hand gestures.
Another important aspect of stage presence is making eye contact with the audience. Find five or six friendly-looking audience members and look them in the eye as you speak. Imagine they are friends you haven’t seen in a year and you’ve brought them to your event. This eye contact is incredibly powerful and can help expand the reach of your speech. Reading from a script can interfere with this connection, so it’s important to maintain eye contact.
Another challenge for inexperienced speakers is dealing with nerves before going on stage. People handle this in different ways. Many speakers stay away from the audience until moments before their talk to avoid distractions, which can work well. It helps keep their mind focused on their speech and reduces nervousness. Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School professor who studies how certain body postures can affect power, has one of the more unusual preparation techniques I’ve seen. She recommends holding a power pose – standing tall with your arms raised – for a few minutes before speaking to feel more confident. But I think the single best piece of advice is to take a deep breath before going on stage.
The audience expects you to be nervous!
In general, people worry too much about nervousness. Nerves are not a disaster. The audience expects you to be nervous and it’s a natural body response that can actually improve your performance by giving you energy and keeping your mind sharp. Just keep breathing and you’ll be fine. Admitting nervousness can also create engagement with the audience. Sometimes, showing vulnerability through nerves or an emotional voice is one of the most powerful ways to win over an audience, as long as it’s authentic. Susan Cain, who wrote a book about introversion in 2012 and spoke at our conference, delivered her words on stage in such a way that it created an emotional connection with the audience. Everyone wanted to hug her afterward. We knew she was putting up a brave fight to hold her own on stage and her talk was one of the most popular of the year.
Our lives are inextricably linked with technology and it’s often assumed that using slides for a presentation is mandatory. However, the advice most people give about using PowerPoint is to avoid using slides as a substitute for notes (it’s better to list the bullet points you’ll discuss on paper) and to not simply read the words on the slide out loud. This is a common problem with teleprompters as well. Don’t let the audience think “Oh no, they’re just reading to us!” The advice to make information interesting and avoid repetition may seem universal, but presenters flout it every day. Many of the best TED speakers don’t use slides at all. If you need to bring your topic to life, consider using photographs or illustrations. If not, consider going without slides altogether. If you do decide to use slides, consider exploring alternatives to PowerPoint. For example, TED has invested in a company called Prezi that makes presentation software offering a camera’s eye view of a two-dimensional landscape. Instead of a flat sequence of images, you can move around and zoom in as needed. Used strategically, this can enhance the imagination and meaning of a talk. Artists, architects, photographers, and designers have the opportunity to showcase their work in the best possible way. Slides can also help maintain the pace of a talk by providing visual cues for the speaker and audience. I’ve seen great presentations where the artist set their slides to change automatically every 15 seconds or where the presenter used a video accompanied by their speech.
Another way for creative individuals to present their work is to let it speak for itself. Kinetic sculptor Reuben Margolin used this method effectively by silencing his speech and allowing his work to take center stage. Instead of focusing on the impact of the concept, think “I’m giving a speech. I want to give this audience a powerful experience of my work.” Artists and architects can sometimes retreat into abstract or conceptual language, but video can be a powerful tool for many speakers. For example, a TED talk about the intelligence of crows featured a clip of a crow bending a hook to retrieve food from a tube – essentially using a tool. It illustrated the point much better than anything the scientist could have said. Video can be very effective when used well, but there are some general rules to avoid mistakes. A clip should be short – if it’s longer than 60 seconds, you risk losing the audience’s attention. Don’t use videos for self-promotion and be careful with soundtracks as they can sometimes be off-putting. And don’t show a clip of yourself being interviewed – audiences are already listening to you live, so why would they want to watch you speaking on a screen at the same time?
We help speakers prepare their talks for six months or more, starting early so they have plenty of time to practice. We aim to have the talk finalized at least one month before the event so they can spend the final weeks rehearsing. Ideally, they’ll practice on their own and in front of an audience. Be smart about rehearsing in front of others and choose people who will give constructive feedback and criticism. Often, responses from different people will vary or even contradict each other, which can be confusing or even paralyzing. That’s why it’s important to carefully consider whether you’ll use the feedback and only invite people whose opinions you value. The more experienced the presenter is at giving feedback, the better.
I learned many of these lessons myself in 2011 when my colleague Bruno Giussani, who curates our TED Global event, invited me to give a talk. Although I had worked at TED for nine years and had coached many speakers, I had never given a TED talk myself. I accepted his invitation but found it more stressful than I expected. While I spent my time helping others frame their stories, telling my own was difficult. I decided to memorize my talk about how web video is powering global innovation and found it really hard. Even though I had hours of coaching and received good advice from my colleagues, I hit a point where I started from scratch again because I was so nervous. Right up until the moment I stepped on stage, I thought I might bomb. But in the end, my talk went well and received a positive response – and I survived the stress. Through this experience, I learned firsthand what our speakers have been discovering for three decades: that delivering a great talk is about substance – the idea, narrative, and emotion – not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics.
It’s relatively easy to “coach out” issues in a talk but there’s no way to “coach in” a basic story or underlying message if it’s not there to begin with. If you don’t have something worth saying, it’s better to decline an invitation to speak and wait until you have a compelling idea that’s really worth sharing.
The most important thing to remember is that there is no one right way to give a talk. The most memorable talks are those that present something fresh, something no one has seen or heard before. Follow the advice we offer here and confirm it by writing it down, but make the talk your own. You know your ideas best and can present them in a unique way that feels true to yourself.