TED Talks (www.ted.com) began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment, and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Each talk is a presentation of 18 minutes long. The brevity of the speech requires each presenter to determine how to distil down their thoughts so as to present something powerful and cogent. The result is that presenters are forced to ask this question:
If I could leave my audience with only one key takeaway, what would it be?
Why is it that these talks are so revered – yet the vast majority of us read blog posts with no point, experience presentations that are mind-numbing, read PowerPoint decks with no end, and suffer through meetings where we say “well, there’s an hour of my life I’m never getting back.” Having studied the best of TED talks, I conclude that each follow a formula for presenting – namely a formula for storytelling. This formula can be used in any type of content you generate, making you more effective.
The most compelling TED talks are delivered by master storytellers. What makes them memorable, powerful, and convincing, is how they tell their story to create understanding. That formula is:
- Painting a picture from the outset
- Setting up a Conflict
- Be authentic
- Show more than tell
- Resolution Presents Wisdom
- Make it Simple & Memorable
Susan Cain’s talk The Power of Introverts, illustrates this point beautifully – come to the point early on and paint the scene as quickly as you can. Her introduction is without peer in this regard:
When I was nine years old, I went off to summer camp for the first time. And my mother packed me a suitcase full of books, which to me seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity. And this might sound anti-social to you, but for us it was really just a different way of being social. You have the animal warmth of your family sitting right next to you, but you are also free to go roaming around the adventure-land inside your own mind. And I had this idea that camp was going to be just like this, but better…
Watch Susan Cain’s talk The Power of Introverts
Now for a talk about introversion and the challenges introverts face with society – what do you imagine comes next? Can you see difficulty? Do you have a serene image in your mind of a happy family reading by a fire? The phrase, “Wow, that was an amazing introduction telling me useless things I can’t recall,” said no TED audience member ever. Come to the point of the talk early.
Simon Sinek’s presentation is among the best at setting up conflict early. He asks:
How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example: Why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, after year, after year, they’re more innovative than all their competition. And yet, they’re just a computer company. They’re just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants, the same media. Then why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? He wasn’t the only man who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. And he certainly wasn’t the only great orator of the day. Why him? And why is it that the Wright brothers were able to figure out control-powered, manned flight when there were certainly other teams who were better qualified, better funded, and they didn’t achieve powered man flight, and the Wright brothers beat them to it?
Watch Simon Sinek’s talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action
That’s a conflict – of logic, participants, and understanding. Resolution of that conflict creates understanding for Sinek’s singular idea – start with why. No conflict – no curiosity – no interest.
You know what story you never read – one that ends, “And the faceless corporation lived happily ever after.” We love to identify with characters, storytellers, and invest our emotion and sympathy in their plight. One of the most painful examples of this is Leslie Steiner’s Why Domestic Violence Victims Never Leave. In talking about her own experience, she tells the audience:
Conor used my anger as an excuse to put both of his hands around my neck as and to squeeze so tightly that I could not breathe or scream, and he used the chokehold to hit my head repeatedly against the wall. Five days later, the ten bruises on my neck had just faded, and I put on my mother’s wedding dress, and I married him. Despite what happened, I was going to live happily ever after, because I loved him, and he loved me so very much…
Watch Leslie Steiner’s Why Domestic Violence Victims Never Leave.
I’m not suggesting painful personal details are the key to a good presentation – however, you must provide your audience a reason to invest in championing your cause. If they cannot empathize, they will not stay motivated to pay attention. Without investment, there is no reward.
It was a dark and stormy night is perhaps cliché. Nevertheless, it sets up a visual. All of the examples I’ve laid out for you set up powerful visuals early on. This is accomplished through the telling of relevant detail. This is essential because ultimately we are visual creatures. People remember only two things about content – what they saw in their minds, and how they felt about it. Engaging an audience is more than presenting information – it’s about engaging senses and emotion. I have no doubt you can see a battered Steiner hoping for the best in the future, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and a shy little girl of 9 years old heading off to camp hoping for the best. Show more than tell.
Conflict creates interest, but resolution of conflict should create wisdom. Put simply, the greatest Ted Talks follow this formula – development of a character (or set), conflict, a moment of understanding (sometimes call “the spark”), changes the character’s life, and that process gives wisdom in terms of the takeaway message. Again, watching Leslie Steiner’s talk is perhaps most instructive. In her final moment of understanding, where she decides that resolution of the conflict can only come through a change in behavior, she says:
I was able to leave, because of one final, sadistic, beating, that broke through all of my denial. I realized that the man who I loved so much was going to kill me if I let him. So I broke the silence. I told everyone: the police, my neighbors, my friends and family, total strangers…
Think about A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Scrooge is convinced to change his ways because he is terrified by the prospect of a future where Tiny Tim dies and he is absolutely despised as a human being. He is pushed and prodded by the three spirits to understand and overcome his challenge in a deficit of empathy. When he sees himself in the grave, despised by humanity, and tormented for all eternity, he is so moved so as to plead to change his life. In resolution, present wisdom.
Simon Sinek’s takeaway is simple – start with why. It may lead to an entirely bigger discussion, but the phrase is short – start with why. Amy Cuddy’s talk, which is utterly fascinating, gives you a remarkable takeaway – your body can change outcomes. Leslie Steiner’s takeaway is painful, but simple – if you stay in an abusive relationship, you will die.
The most popular TED talks boil down to simple ideas expressed in three or four words. Those ideas are presented at the outset, and reinforced at the end. Takeaways can’t be “In order to have a happy life, eat 1700 calories of fruits, veggies, and low fat meats, followed by five daily bouts of exercise, and at least three episodes a week of strenuous physical activity.” That indeed may all be true, and even be useful, but it’s not something we can remember.
Copywriters are paid fortunes to come up with simple, memorable, takeaways. Leo Burnett is famous for having said “Make it Simple. Make it Memorable.” He made millions for clients distilling down their complicated offerings into iconic, simple, ideas. Make it simple. Make it Memorable.