Top Tips on How to Give a TED Talk

In my role as a TEDx speaker coach, I’ve met many people who’ve wondered how to give a TED Talk in order to inspire their audience and maximise the number of views their talk receives. And while no TED Talk need necessarily follow a specific structure or formula, there are a few key things to keep in mind in order to deliver a great talk. Here, I’ve put together a handy list to help you give the best TED talk you can.

My top tips on how to give a TED talk are:

  1. Have something interesting to say
  2. Keep it conversational
  3. Get to the point and get rid of jargon
  4. Use slides sparingly or not at all
  5. Practice so that you feel comfortable

#1 Have something interesting to say.  

You might think this is obvious, but the first step is to get selected. Whilst your idea does not have to be something brand new, whatever you are talking about does need to be your original thoughts and unique spin on the topic. TED talks are all about having an idea worth spreading – that’s why you’ll find a TED talk for just about any topic you can imagine. If you’re wondering how to give a TED Talk, first think about what makes your talk interesting. What is your unique angle, the thing that makes you different? As expert, Chris Anderson, says, “your number one task as a speaker is to transfer into your listener’s minds an extraordinary gift – a strange and beautiful object that we call an idea.”  

Unless you can clearly and concisely articulate your ‘idea worth spreading’ to the selection committee, you won’t get on the stage. Before you apply, or if you are approached to be on the TED stage, think about your idea and how you can articulate that in a way that catches the attention of others.

#2 Keep it conversational.

A TED talk is not a presentation, as such. In fact, a TED talk is much more of a conversation to be had with the audience. When learning how to give a TED talk, create your presentation with this in mind: Don’t talk at, talk with. Your aim is to present of stage just like you would if you were having a chat with a friend, personable, relatable and with the gestures and animation that you normally would. TED talks are not super polished performances, remember it is first and foremost the idea worth spreading. Technique is secondary to the idea. In order to adopt a conversational way of speaking, practice in front of different sized audiences and imagine you are speaking to just one person while you look to all. If you are conversational, you will connect.

#3 Get to the point and get rid of jargon

Kate Torgovnick May puts it bluntly in her TED blog, 12 Pieces of Advice for Giving Talks That Have Impact, when she states, “jargon is death”. The best TED Talks tend to be jargon-free zones. Those talks which are short and get straight to the point in the first few seconds are the ones that tend to achieve the most views. This is especially true for audiences watching via YouTube, where people’s attention spans are short. If you are speaking on a technical topic, change the language so that the audience do not have to work hard to think or wonder what you said. If you do need to use a specific technical term then a brief example or explanation will suffice.

#4 Use slides sparingly or not at all

It can be tempting to use slides to back up any presentation, but many TED talks don’t need slides at all. The presenter themselves should be engaging enough to be the major focal point of the talk. Don’t distract your audience from your charisma by overkilling it with slides. Let your voice, your message, and your passion speak for themselves.  If there is a particular slide that will enhance your message, such as an eye popping visual, an audio clip or short video, then include it but if you are used to presenting with bullet points, numbered lists or slides with dull pictures, then think again. Some of the best TED talks are slide free. If you are using slides, ensure there is a seamless interaction between you and your slides – no click and talk! An example of a stunning creation by David McCandless who in this TED talk he shares the beauty of data visualisation, he turns the complex into the simple and eye-catching and he designs information so that it makes more sense and tells the story of the data.  

#5 Practice until you feel comfortable.

Be sure to practice enough that you know your content but be careful not to simply memorise it. Memorising your content can make your presentation feel forced and unnatural – less of a conversation and more of a lecture. Will Stephen’s hilarious TEDx Talk on how to ‘sound smart while giving a TED Talk’ does a fabulous job of showing just how confidence and practice can make your audience believe that you’re an expert, and someone worth listening to – even when you’re nervous.

Push past polished. It’s not about delivering a perfect presentation; the most important thing is the idea that will lead to a change in thinking. When you structure your talk effectively with a natural flow it will be easier to remember. Rather than rote learning your talk, get really comfortable with the opening and the closing statements. If you try and remember the talk word for word, you can come unstuck if one word escapes you and it can sound robotic. When you practice your talk, mix it up. Start from the middle or the end, so that you get really used to it chunk by chunk.

Above all, enjoy the opportunity.

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