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The Secret Sauce That Makes for a Good Talk


Ask people in our business the first thing that comes to mind when they hear someone say TEDTalks, and probably the most repeated comment will be: “great presenters and great presentations.”

No argument.

I’d argue instead that because the speakers and their talks are so good, why not spend some time watching videos of the presentations and find out for yourself what makes them so compelling? In keeping with its mantra, “ideas worth sharing,” TED has been routinely posting videos from its conferences online since 2006, essentially offering a virtual tutorial on effective presentation techniques.

The good news is that you don’t have to spend hours watching TEDTalks, taking notes, and trying to figure out how to emulate the best of the best.  A team from Hattaway Communications has already done that to create a valuable tool available on the firm’s website that tells you everything you need to know about giving great presentations.

Researchers reviewed TEDTalks that were considered “highly engaging” based on an index of their web traffic, Facebook posts, tweets, and coverage in new and traditional media.

The site features 10 handy tips drawn from 9 presentations, including two by Bill Gates.  The other presenters were Dan Pink, Michael  Pritchard, Jamie Oliver, Jill Bolte Taylor, Hans Rosling, Ken Robinson and Jane McGonigal.

So what makes a good presentation?  What techniques do speakers use?  What seems to really help them connect with listeners?  How do they make complicated topics accessible to lay audiences?

Here are just a small sampling from the list of 10 tips for a memorable talk:

  • Show your passion

The most common trait of successful talks was the personal energy of the presenters, which engaged the audience and conveyed the speakers’ passion…Presenters move about the stage to engage the whole audience, modulating their tone and demonstrating their frustration, excitement, hope, and curiosity. None of the presenters read off of notecards or Teleprompters.

  • Create a learning experience–and a dialogue

Successful presenters created an atmosphere of learning during their talks. Some use the technique of posing a question to the audience, which got them thinking actively and piqued their curiosity about the topic at hand. Dan Pink, for example, began his “On the Science of Motivation” talk by asking: “How do you lift a small candle off of a table and burn it without getting any wax on the table – using only a candle, matches, and a cardboard box full of thumbtacks?”

  • Make People Feel Hopeful

Even talks that dealt with seemingly intractable global problems carried a tone of optimism. For example, in “Mosquitoes, Malaria and Education,” Bill Gates maintained an upbeat, hopeful attitude, providing information about the encouraging advances being made to battle malaria. 

The rest of the list includes:

  • Use visuals to create human connections or convey facts
  • Maintain focus with a simple, unifying concept
  • Use humor, even with sobering topics
  • Use props to make abstract ideas tangible
  • Connect yourself to the topic
  • Use statistics selectively to emphasize the scope of a problem—or the power of an innovation
  • Call the audience to action

Anyone who’s given talks, prepped speakers, or spent time watching TED videos shouldn’t find any of the ingredients of a successful presentation surprising.

Rather, the only thing that should surprise, says Doug Hattaway, CEO of Hattaway Communications, is that “given TED’s reputation for highly engaging speakers, we were surprised at how the best TEDTalks stuck to the basics: Passionate speakers with provocative ideas, communicated through narrative. They used powerful visuals, not distracting bells and whistles. And the speakers succeeding in both educating and inspiring their audiences.”

See (and hear) for yourself.

–Bruce Trachtenberg

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