He used that experience to devise a system of lights that would turn on and off in sequence—using solar panels, a car battery, and a motorcycle indicator box—and thereby create a sense of movement that he hoped would scare off the lions. He installed the lights, and the lions stopped attacking. The story was inspiring and worthy of the broader audience that our TED conference could offer, but on the surface, Richard seemed an unlikely candidate to give a TED Talk. He was painfully shy. His English was halting. When he tried to describe his invention, the sentences tumbled out incoherently.
And frankly, it was hard to imagine a preteenager standing on a stage in front of 1, people accustomed to hearing from polished speakers such as Bill Gates, Sir Ken Robinson, and Jill Bolte Taylor. In the months before the conference, we worked with him to frame his story—to find the right place to begin, and to develop a succinct and logical arc of events.
It was critical that he build his confidence to the point where his personality could shine through. When he finally gave his talk at TED, in Long Beach, you could tell he was nervous, but that only made him more engaging—people were hanging on his every word. The confidence was there, and every time Richard smiled, the audience melted.
When he finished, the response was instantaneous: a sustained standing ovation. Since the first TED conference, 30 years ago, speakers have run the gamut from political figures, musicians, and TV personalities who are completely at ease before a crowd to lesser-known academics, scientists, and writers—some of whom feel deeply uncomfortable giving presentations. It typically begins six to nine months before the event, and involves cycles of devising and revising a script, repeated rehearsals, and plenty of fine-tuning.
Conceptualizing and framing what you want to say is the most vital part of preparation.
Most presentations lie somewhere on the continuum between a report and a story. A report is data-rich, exhaustive, and informative—but not very engaging. Stories help a speaker connect with an audience, but listeners often want facts and information, too. Great presenters layer story and information like a cake, and understand that different types of talks require differing ingredients. If your goal is to communicate information from a written report, send the full document to the audience in advance, and limit the presentation to key takeaways.
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Satisfy their analytical appetite with facts, but add a thread of narrative to appeal to their emotional side. Then present the key takeaways visually, to help them find meaning in the numbers. Instead of covering only specs and features, focus on the value your product brings to the world. Tell stories that show how real people will use it and why it will change their lives.
Anticipate questions and rehearse clear and concise answers. Formal talks at big events are high-stakes, high-impact opportunities to take your listeners on a transformative journey. Use a clear story framework and aim to engage them emotionally. We all know that humans are wired to listen to stories, and metaphors abound for the narrative structures that work best to engage people.
When I think about compelling presentations, I think about taking an audience on a journey. A successful talk is a little miracle—people see the world differently afterward. If you frame the talk as a journey, the biggest decisions are figuring out where to start and where to end. To find the right place to start, consider what people in the audience already know about your subject—and how much they care about it.
The most engaging speakers do a superb job of very quickly introducing the topic, explaining why they care so deeply about it, and convincing the audience members that they should, too.
5 Tips For Powerful Audience Participation
The biggest problem I see in first drafts of presentations is that they try to cover too much ground. You need specific examples to flesh out your ideas.
So limit the scope of your talk to that which can be explained, and brought to life with examples, in the available time. Much of the early feedback we give aims to correct the impulse to sweep too broadly. Instead, go deeper. Give more detail. Of course, it can be just as damaging to overexplain or painstakingly draw out the implications of a talk. And there the remedy is different: Remember that the people in the audience are intelligent. Let them figure some things out for themselves.
Let them draw their own conclusions. Many of the best talks have a narrative structure that loosely follows a detective story. The speaker starts out by presenting a problem and then describes the search for a solution. Even if the topic is important, random pontification without narrative is always deeply unsatisfying. I was at an energy conference recently where two people—a city mayor and a former governor—gave back-to-back talks.
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It came off as boasting, like a report card or an advertisement for his reelection. It quickly got boring. Yes, she recounted anecdotes from her time in office, but the idea was central—and the stories explanatory or illustrative and also funny. It was so much more interesting.
How to Structure a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Presentation
There are three main ways to deliver a talk. You can read it directly off a script or a teleprompter. Or you can memorize your talk, which entails rehearsing it to the point where you internalize every word—verbatim. And as soon as they sense it, the way they receive your talk will shift. Suddenly your intimate connection evaporates, and everything feels a lot more formal. We generally outlaw reading approaches of any kind at TED, though we made an exception a few years ago for a man who insisted on using a monitor. At first he spoke naturally. Many of our best and most popular TED Talks have been memorized word for word.
One of our most memorable speakers was Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher who had suffered a stroke.
She talked about what she learned during the eight years it took her to recover. After crafting her story and undertaking many hours of solo practice, she rehearsed her talk dozens of times in front of an audience to be sure she had it down. Obviously, not every presentation is worth that kind of investment of time. If they give the talk while stuck in that valley, the audience will sense it. Their words will sound recited, or there will be painful moments where they stare into the middle distance, or cast their eyes upward, as they struggle to remember their lines.
Part 2: Delivering the Content
This creates distance between the speaker and the audience. Getting past this point is simple, fortunately. Then you can focus on delivering the talk with meaning and authenticity. Go with bullet points on note cards. Focus on remembering the transitions from one bullet point to the next.
Also pay attention to your tone. Just be you. Some speakers project too much ego. They sound condescending or full of themselves, and the audience shuts down. For inexperienced speakers, the physical act of being onstage can be the most difficult part of giving a presentation—but people tend to overestimate its importance.
And when it comes to stage presence, a little coaching can go a long way. The biggest mistake we see in early rehearsals is that people move their bodies too much.
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They sway from side to side, or shift their weight from one leg to the other. Simply getting a person to keep his or her lower body motionless can dramatically improve stage presence.