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Inspiring TED Talks
(And What You can Learn from Them)
Giving presentations is an art form—there’s a lot of work that goes into it, from creating the script to deciding on images and the actual delivery. Thankfully, perfecting it has fantastic results. But don’t take my word for it - just look at one of many TED presentations to see how practice can bring a project together.
Watching TED talks is inspiring, both for the content and for how the speakers pull off their speeches. It can also be somewhat daunting to think about reaching that level.
So how can you get the most out of these wonderful works? We’ve examined several TED talks and listed their lessons - and their videos - below.
1. Vary Your Speech Patterns
One of the greatest tools presenters have is their voice. Naturally, this means that, to be a good presenter, you have to have mastery over it.
Julian Treasure not only demonstrates amazing use of his own voice in this popular TED talk, but offers ways to improve your own vocal performance.
He lists six particular ways you can alter your voice - register, timbre, prosody, pace, pitch, and volume - and gives examples of each. For example, with pace, he speaks extremely quickly, then very slowly, to show the effect each has. At the end of his presentation he demonstrates several voice warm-ups to help prepare for using these tools.
Practicing each individual aspect can help you get a better grasp of what’s going to work best for each situation. Taking the time to study each aspect can help grab your audience’s attention and keep it.
2. Have a Stellar Opening (and Ending)
There’s an old saying that claims what people remember the most about a story are the beginning and the ending, since the first is what catches the reader’s attention, and the second is the last thing they take away. It’s the same for presentations - having a great beginning and a great closing are key.
The TED talk above is one of my favorites, and it’s at least in part because of the amazing way it opens and the interesting way it ends. Larry Smith, the speaker, starts by saying, “I want to discuss with you this afternoon why you’re going to fail to have a great career.” We’re instantly drawn in, more curious than offended and worried, and the talk doesn’t let us down - he proceeds to explain exactly why we won’t have a great career, just not in the way listeners might imagine.
“Unless…” he finishes. Just that word. It’s a very open-ended finale, but one that strikes a powerful chord. It puts the ball in our court. “You will not have a great career unless…” and you fill in the blank with whatever works for you.
The presentation, because of its powerful bookends, is very difficult to forget.
3. Practice Self-Confidence
We are naturally drawn to more self-confident, charismatic people. We’re more likely to listen to people who sound sure of what they’re saying.
Naturally, this is something many find difficult to project in front of crowds.
Dr. Ivan Joseph knows that feeling well, and admits in his talk that once, he struggled with self-confidence. “I had to bring out my self-confidence letter,” he states. “I had to bring out that letter and read it time and time again for a period of about two weeks to weather me through that storm.”
Joseph goes through the best methods to help improve self-confidence, all of which are very simple. One of the top? Practice. Just continuing to practice something - such as a speech - over and over in a safe environment can help you feel more prepared when the time comes to actually present.
4. Do Something Unexpected
Following a tried-and-true formula is something a lot of us do - we’d prefer to stick with what we know. However, while we may excel at a presentation doing this, that isn’t always the best way to make sure your audience remembers.
Sometimes it’s best to do something different or surprising - something that will remain in your audience’s mind.
An excellent example is Bill Gate’s talk on malaria. While he spends most of his talk giving facts, perhaps the most powerful moment is at the end, where he opens a jar of mosquitoes.
After just having listened to how serious malaria can be, and now having the real chance of being exposed to the disease, this shocking act not only drives the point home, but it sticks. Needless to say, most people would be unlikely to forget the experience.
5. Be Authentic
Generally speaking, we prefer when others are honest, and when they aren’t making an effort to be someone else. As Julian Treasure states (in his TED talk, linked above), being authentic is one of the best ways to get an audience to really listen to what you have to say.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert shows exactly that. In her talk she speaks about the reservations that people had about her continuing to have success, and, even before that, about their reservations on her choice of career. She admits very early on that yes, she was afraid that she wouldn’t make it, and that she is still afraid that her best work is behind her, and then goes on to describe how she deals with the situation.
These honest admissions help humanize and endear her to us - we believe her and relate to her, because maybe we have the same fears about other things. They make us more invested in her story, and also more likely to take her advice.
There’s a similar case in Zak Ebrahim’s talk on having a terrorist father and how he managed to overcome the prejudiced upbringing that entailed. He speaks about people we would only know as ‘terrorists’ with familiarity, stating he considered many of them “uncles.” He goes on to explain his journey of learning how to be more tolerant, and eventually decries their actions.
Listening to people speak honestly about themselves and their own lives helps listeners not only to trust the speaker, but to take their information to heart.
6. Know Your Facts
One of the most obvious things in giving presentations is, of course, to know the subject matter you’re speaking about very well. People are less likely to trust you if they discover you’ve been giving them false information, and it greatly undermines the validity of your work.
Dan Pink exhibits clear knowledge of his subject in his TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation.” He describes several experiments in great detail throughout the course of his work, specifically giving the names and professions of those he uses. He also makes sure to provide references for each study in his slides.
Pink’s information not only gives insight into his project, but the fact that he’s so well-versed on his topic allows us to trust him better and makes us really believe what he has to say.
7. Use Body Language
If voice - the first thing we covered on this list - is a presenter’s primary tool, then their body should be considered their second. Not looks, mind you, but the way an individual holds themselves and the gestures they use.
Take Diana Nyad’s talk. The talk itself - about never giving up, which is something important to remember in its own right - is inspiring, and she uses hand gestures to emphasize certain points, such as when she quotes Teddy Roosevelt. Other times she uses it to mime actions she took.
When not motioning, her hands are securely folded behind her back, her posture erect, giving her a calm, confident appearance, with her hands ready to support her words only when they’re needed.
Body language is something we use in everyday life, and mastering it can help project different feelings to your audience, or can help emphasize certain important points in your work.
8. Use Humor
It’s no secret: people are much more likely to be invested in a presentation if they’re having fun. How many times have you zoned out to the tune of a boring lecture? Simply adding humor can be a great way to draw in your audience.
Many of the above presentations use this to great effect. For example, Larry Smith (from the second example), uses a lot of wit throughout his talk, making his audience laugh despite what might be otherwise heavy subject matter. Dan Pink (example six) uses humor in his opening, describing what we would normally assume to be a horrible mistake in his past, only to discover that mistake was going to law school.
Morgan Spurlock is an amazing example of this. He explains his search to sponsor a film on brand sponsorship, and the surprising adventure it involved. He make humorous comments throughout, such as when he compares transparency to a bear, or when the “proposed” title of this talk appears at the beginning.
Spurlock excels because his comedic antics support his point, rather than just being thrown in for the sake of being funny. These kind of words enhance the final product, rather than detract from it.
And, most obviously, the best way to pull off a good presentation?
Create a presentation and work on it in front of a mirror or an audience. Experiment with different software, such as PowerPoint, Keynote or online presentation alternatives such as Visme, or go old fashioned with just a pen and paper. Ultimately, the choice is up to you.
About the Author
Payman Taei is an avid technologist and the Founder of Visme, a Do It Yourself platform allowing everyone to easily create, manage professional presentations & infographics right in their browser.
He’s also the Founder of HindSite Interactive an award winning web design and web development company.