Since the first TED conference, 30 years ago, speakers have run the gamut from political figures who are completely at ease before a crowd to lesser-known academics – some of whom feel deeply uncomfortable giving presentations. Over the years, we’ve sought to develop a process for helping inexperienced presenters to frame, practice and deliver talks that people enjoy watching. I’m convinced that giving a good talk is highly coachable. A speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from muddled to mesmerising.
1. Frame your story
There’s no way you can give a good talk unless you have something worth talking about. Conceptualising and framing what you want to say is the most vital part of preparation.
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.
If you frame the talk as such, the biggest decisions are figuring out where to start and 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. If you assume they have more knowledge or interest than they do, or if you start using jargon or get too technical, you’ll lose them. 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.
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. There’s an ‘aha’ moment, and the audience’s perspective shifts in a meaningful way.
If a talk fails, it’s almost always because the speaker didn’t frame it correctly, misjudged the audience’s level of interest or neglected to tell a story.
2. Plan your delivery
Once you’ve got the framing down, focus on your delivery.
There are three main ways to deliver a talk. You can read it directly off a script or a teleprompter. You can develop a set of bullet points that map out what you’re going to say in each section rather than scripting the whole thing word for word. Or you can memorise your talk, which entails rehearsing it to the point where you internalise every word – verbatim.
My advice: don’t read it, and don’t use a teleprompter. It’s usually just too distancing – people will know you’re reading. 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.
Many of our best and most popular TED Talks have been memorised word for word. If you’re giving an important talk and you have the time to do this, it’s the best way to go. But don’t underestimate the work involved.
If a successful talk is a journey, make sure you don’t start to annoy your travel companions along the way. Some speakers project too much ego. They sound condescending or full of themselves, and the audience shuts down. Don’t let that happen.
3. Develop a stage presence
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. Getting the words, story and substance right is a much bigger determinant of success or failure than how you stand or whether you’re visibly nervous. 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. They sway from side to side, or shift their weight from one leg to the other. People do this naturally when they’re nervous, but it’s distracting and makes the speaker seem weak. Simply getting a person to keep his or her lower body motionless can dramatically improve stage presence.
Perhaps the most important physical act onstage is making eye contact. Find five or six friendly-looking people in different parts of the audience and look them in the eye as you speak. Think of them as friends you haven’t seen in a year, whom you’re bringing up to date on your work. That eye contact is incredibly powerful, and it will do more than anything else to help your talk land. Even if you don’t have time to prepare fully and have to read from a script, looking up and making eye contact will make a huge difference.
4. Plan the multimedia
With so much technology at our disposal, it may feel almost mandatory to use, at a minimum, presentation slides. By now most people have heard the advice about PowerPoint: Keep it simple, don’t use a slide deck as a substitute for notes, and don’t repeat out loud words that are on the slide. Many of the best TED speakers don’t use slides at all, and many talks don’t require them.
If you have photographs or illustrations that make the topic come alive, then show them. If not, consider doing without, at least for some parts of the presentation. Artists, architects, photographers and designers have the best opportunity to use visuals. Slides can help frame and pace a talk, and help speakers avoid getting lost in jargon or overly intellectual language.
When used well, video can be very effective, but there are common mistakes that should be avoided. A clip needs to be short – if it’s more than 60 seconds, you risk losing people.
Don’t use videos that sound self-promotional or like infomercials; people are conditioned to tune those out. Anything with a soundtrack can be dangerously off-putting.
And whatever you do, don’t show a clip of yourself being interviewed.
5. Putting it together
The single most important thing to remember is that there is no one good way to do a talk. The most memorable talks offer something fresh, something no one has seen before.
The worst ones are those that feel formulaic. So do not on any account try to emulate every piece of advice I’ve offered here. Take the bulk of it on board, sure. But make the talk your own.
You know what’s distinctive about you and your idea. Play to your strengths and give a talk that is truly authentic to you.
Chris Anderson is the curator of TED.