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What TED Talks Teach Us about Teaching

Teaching Strategies and Techniques

What TED Talks Teach Us about Teaching

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TED Talks captivate us because their speakers apply fundamental principles of communication that are lost on 99 percent of speakers. Because teaching is fundamentally about communication, these principles apply just as well to teaching, especially to online teaching with videos, which is still stuck in a mentality that runs counter to basic communication principles.

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TED Talks captivate us because their speakers apply fundamental principles of communication that are lost on 99 percent of speakers. Because teaching is fundamentally about communication, these principles apply just as well to teaching, especially to online teaching with videos, which is still stuck in a mentality that runs counter to basic communication principles.

The most fundamental principle is that imagery in either a live talk or online video is not for projecting your notes. It is not a big 3 x 5 card—it is for amplifying the message with an image that provides a visual analogue to the spoken message. This means that TED Talks never use bullet points. Too many online course developers simply read bullet points to their audience when making videos. Bullet points are for documents and merely distract the viewer in a video or presentation.

But even when course developers use imagery, many choose the wrong types of images, thus undermining their message. Here are a few simply rules for using visuals that will produce real learning and lasting retention.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Many course developers, as speakers, load their visuals with so much content that they cannot be read. They project complex graphs that cannot be deciphered, use tiny text that cannot be read, or add multiple images that are too small to see. Clutter is the enemy of good visual design, and the number one rule for visuals is “simplify, simplify, simplify.”

It is best to just provide one item at a time that represents your point. If you are talking about how penguins march in a line, show a photo of penguins marching in a line. Don't add text such as “penguins march in a line.” Your viewer can see that. Remember: your narration conveys the message; visuals are only for amplifying it. Furthermore, don't try to cover all penguin behavior in one visual with multiple images. If you are talking about the entire mating process, then use one image at a time for each step, basically filling the screen with that image. 

This means that when searching for images, it is better to find larger ones than smaller ones. You will expand smaller ones to fill the screen, which usually makes them blurry. I try not to use any image that was not originally at least 600 x 600 pixels in my videos. When you hover your cursor over an image, it normally will tell you its size before you download it, so use that as your guide.  

Of course, there should be a closed captioning option or a transcript for those with visual problems, but that is separate from the content itself and only used by those students with a disability. Do not embed closed captioning or a transcript into your visual—that turns it into a document, and at that point you might as well just save it as a PDF and let students download it themselves to read at their leisure over a latte.

Use striking photos. The second rule of visuals is that all communication begins with getting the listener's attention, and thus visuals should be striking and memorable. Unfortunately, too many people reach for the ugly stock photos that marketers use—the ones of good-looking businesspeople smiling at the camera in a line. This is just wallpaper. It means nothing to the viewer, who immediately shuts down upon seeing them.

Instead, think of a way of illustrating the concept that will get the viewer's attention. I begin a module on how teaching is like coaching with the line “I have a confession: when I started teaching, I thought teaching was lecturing.” The first image was of a prisoner making a confession in an old black-and-white movie, whereas the second is of a giant lecture hall with a small instructor at the front. Both are striking. All movie images carry a kind of hipness to them that resonates with viewers, whereas the second one illustrates the passive and isolating nature of the traditional lecture in a slightly comic way. If you want to get the viewer's attention, you should use an unusual font, rather than a larger or more colorful font. The mind is attracted to novelty, so an image that captures an idea in a slightly novel way is best.

Many faculty have a hard time coming up with images to illustrate concepts, as they are used to illustrating them by writing text on the board. But they are usually overthinking it. If I am building a video about surrogate decision making in medical emergencies, then I can simply remember that it normally involves an older person with a variety of family members in a hospital setting. I can begin by searching those key terms to find what I need.

Use meaningful graphs, not Smart Objects. Another common mistake is to represent concepts with Microsoft Smart Objects, which is probably a residual effect of using PowerPoint. These images should be avoided as they are similar to bullet points or marketing stock images in that they are basically ugly wallpaper. Plus, they seldom represent what the person is actually talking about. I have seen that Smart Object image of three concentric circles overlapping at the boundaries and in the middle used in dozens of places, and never once did the concept discussed actually fit with the part–whole relationship represented by the circles. 

Similarly, don't put up a complex graphic with hundreds of data points. If the information cannot be read, it should not be there. Instead, ask what is relevant about the information and highlight that. If the point is that the stock market has trended generally upward over the past 90 years, just make a simple graph showing that trend using a handful of dates. Don't try to squeeze every year into one graph.

Image repositories

So where are you to find all of these images? My go-to location is Google Advanced Image Search, which is by far the largest image resource on the Internet. Just type a descriptive term into the search box and see what comes up. One nice feature is that when you click on an image that you like, you have the option to reload the view with similar images. This can help you hone in on the type of image you want by branching off in different directions or narrowing your search. You can also search by copyright status, such as “Free to Use Non-Commercially.”

Another good resource is Flickr Commons. People who post to Flickr have the option of tagging their post with a Creative Commons license, which allows the author to control how it is used, including making it freely available with attribution. The result is a large image library of photos taken by private individuals, offering photos other than the professional images that tend to come up first in a Google Advanced Image Search.

The Creative Commons site (https://search.creativecommons.org) is another good choice for grabbing images under the Creative Commons license. It also draws from a number of difference sources, including Google Images and Pixabay. Plus, it allows users to search for specific types of media, including music and video.

I find it fun to search for images, often yielding unexpected results that will perfectly capture my idea and even give me new ideas to add to my content. You can do the same to improve your online content and exercise your own creativity at the same time.