[dropcap]T[/dropcap]ED Talks have come to represent the pinnacle of effective presentations. They are concise, engaging, and memorable. They are also, increasingly, the yardstick by which speakers—including university faculty—are measured.
“Not fair!” you say, and you’re right. TED Talks, even when delivered by academics, are meant to be entertaining first and educational second; not so for lectures. The TED audience participates by choice; they are enthusiastic and willing, while students can be a much tougher crowd. TED Talks are generally a one-shot deal, a single, 20-minute talk for which the speaker prepares meticulously. Faculty, on the other hand, must give dozens if not hundreds of lectures per year, shoehorning class preparation into a schedule already packed with professional commitments. They may be teaching material that is familiar to the point of boredom, moreover, while TED Talkers are fueled by the excitement of a novel, high-profile event. Finally, TED speakers receive editorial and design assistance and are coached extensively, while faculty generally receive no help at all.
All true. Yet despite these differences, there are lessons to be learned from TED Talks. I’m convinced that by applying five TED principles, we can make ordinary lectures and presentations more compelling.
As Chris Anderson, the founder of TED says: “Your number-one mission as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and to rebuild it inside the minds of your listeners” (2016, 12). Every TED Talk has a single, central idea that the speaker wants others to understand better or care about more, an idea about which the speaker feels passionately.
To identify your central idea, first ask yourself why the content matters. Of the many things students could learn, why this
and why now
? Then consider why it matters to you
. What is it that you find so entrancing, important, or useful about the lecture content that you think students need to know it, too? If on closer inspection, you realize that you don’t, in fact, find it entrancing, important, or useful…er…why are you teaching it? Perhaps it’s a required part of the curriculum or a necessary course component, but not your favorite thing. In that case, ask yourself why
it’s required and how it fits into the big picture. Would the picture be complete without it? Work to create that sense of importance, for you and for your students.
Use the discipline imposed by a single, central idea to prioritize the knowledge and skills that students need most at their particular stage of learning. Strip away anything that could obscure that primary focus and zero in on the core nugget of meaning. Having identified that single, central idea, flesh it out with analogies and examples that help students understand it more deeply. Be ruthless as you prioritize and prune, understanding that you are not watering down the content but rather distilling it to its essence. For long-term retention and effective application, depth of understanding matters more than superficial coverage so, as Brene Brown, a popular TED Talker advises: “Plan your talk. Cut it in half. Grieve the loss, and cut it in half again.”
In every TED Talk there runs a clear, discernable throughline. Often the throughline boils down to a one-sentence take-away, for example: “The 21st
century is far less violent than past centuries” (Steven Pinker
) or “The way we think about charity is wrong” (Dan Palotta
). Notice that these sentences are surprising or counter-intuitive; they spark curiosity. They’re also identified up front, often at the beginning of the talk, sometimes even in the title. While academics are taught to slowly build an argument, with the conclusion at the end, TED speakers begin with the take-away and use their talk to explain how they arrived at that conclusion.
It’s helpful when planning a lecture to write down your throughline and keep it firmly in mind as you plan. A lecture throughline might be: Assumptions about gender roles in other cultures can lead to serious policy mistakes. Or: Not reporting null results is unethical. Identifying your throughline—however roughly—at the planning stage will help you design your lecture more logically. But don’t neglect to state it explicitly in the lecture itself. It’s astonishing how often we leave out the single most important message because we assume it’s obvious. Don’t bury the lead!
If you watch the first three minutes of any TED Talk, you’ll notice that speakers take their time to establish a relationship with the audience. They use questions, stories, and vulnerability to draw us in and disarm our natural skepticism. They want us to trust them. In the most watched TED Talk of all times, Bryan Stevenson (“We Need to Talk About an Injustice”
) uses a full five minutes at the beginning of his talk to tell a story. By the time he gets to his actual content, the audience is rapt. In “How to Make Stress Your Friend,”
Shelly McGonigal, starts by saying “I have a confession to make...” We are immediately on the edge of our seats, wondering what she plans to confess.
The lesson for us? Invest time in planning those first few minutes. Think about how you will establish a connection with students, how you will spark their curiosity. Is there an object you could bring to make the content come alive? UC Berkeley professor, Marian Diamond, famously brought a pickled human brain in a hatbox to the first day of anatomy class, using it to reinforce the centrality and power of the brain in human biology. A compelling beginning is not a gimmick, but a lever for establishing personal and intellectual connection. Everything else—student’s attention, their openness to learning—depends on whether they are with you from the start.
Storytelling is at the heart of TED Talks. Sometime they’re dramatic stories (see Leslie Morgan Steiner’s “Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave”
); sometimes they’re everyday stories that nevertheless capture an essential dilemma and drive the momentum of the talk (see Dorothy Robert’s “The Problem With Race-Based Medicine”
Like stories, good lectures have a narrative arc, so consider the five Cs of storytelling as you plan.
- Conflict. Offer the audience a problem, a conundrum, or a paradox. It could be as simple as the tension between what we assume and what is actually true, or the disconnect between what we do and what makes sense. Conflict begs for resolution and makes the audience want to hear more.
- Causality. One thing must lead to another or it’s not a story. Make sure all the parts of the story connect logically.
- Character. You need a compelling protagonist or antagonist, someone or something that is the focal point of the action. It could be a liver enzyme or the spread of fascism; it need not be human.
- Complexity. A problem too easily overcome isn’t interesting, so explicate the challenges, setbacks, and trade-offs along the path to resolution.
- Closure. You should arrive at a place that brings closure to the conflict (or leaves it open in a satisfying way), thereby reinforcing the throughline.
Specificity and sensory information make stories come alive. Compare these two sentences: “I was speaking at a conference a few years ago…”/“It was 2015 and I was speaking to 500 cardiologists at a conference in L.A.” Or these two: “He didn’t look like an abuser”/“He looked like a farm boy. He had big apple cheeks and wheat blond hair.” The first of each is generic; the second paints a vivid picture. When giving a lecture, think about how to bring sensory information and detail to the story.
TED Talks often appear to have a complex organizational structure, with threads weaving together artfully in a way that seems virtually impossible to replicate. In reality, though, most follow a very simple structure. For example, Sir Ken Robinson, famous for his TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”
uses the same structure for every talk: introduction, context, main concepts, practical implications, and conclusions. Most of the TED Talks that involve the demonstration of an innovation, like Markus Fischer’s robotic bird, follow a structure like this: teaser, background, demonstration, implications. The beauty of a simple structure is that it makes the trip through the content seem easy. Those listening can connect the dots. Once a structure is developed, it can be repeated lecture after lecture, a bonus for busy faculty. To find a simple, reusable structure, pay attention to the structure of your best lectures. Can you abstract a general outline to reuse?
In a nutshell, TED Talks teach us that effective lectures focus on a single, powerful idea, pare away anything that does not support it, and reinforce that idea with stories, examples, and analogies. They provide a clear, compelling take-away, and do so upfront. Effective lectures establish a strong connection with students, one that generates trust and draws them in. They use the five Cs to create a narrative arc that keeps students engaged on the journey and follow a simple, repeatable structure that marks the path along the way.
Applying these principles won’t guarantee you a spot on the TED Main Stage, but they’ll help you deliver more captivating and memorable lectures. Take it from TED.
Anderson, Chris. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking
. Boston: Mariner Books. 2016.
Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds
. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2014.
Karia, Akash. TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED Talks
. Copyright @ Akash Karia. 2015.
TED Talks referenced
Kelly McGonigal: How to Make Stress Your Friend
Dan Palotta: The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong
Steven Pinker: The Surprising Decline in Violence
Dorothy Roberts: The Problem with Race-Based Medicine
Leslie Morgan Steiner: Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave
Bryan Stevenson: We Need to Talk About an Injustice
Marie Norman is associate professor and director of the Innovative Design for Education and Assessment (IDEA) Lab at the Institute for Clinical Research Education in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, where she spearheads online and hybrid educational initiatives. A cultural anthropologist by training, Norman has taught in higher education for more than 20 years, consulted with faculty from a wide range of disciplines, and led workshops and seminars on teaching and learning at institutions in the U.S., Colombia, Qatar, Australia, and Russia. Norman is a member of
The Teaching Professor editorial board and is co-author of the book
How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. She continues to find anthropology an excellent springboard for understanding different disciplinary cultures and their approaches to teaching.