Want to present like a TED Talk? Whether you are going to be presenting at the TED conference or simply delivering a TED style talk in the boardroom, this guide will help you master the art of preparing and presenting your message with confidence and poise.
If you’ve ever watched a TED Talk, you’ve most likely been captivated by the speakers you’ve seen on the stage. Speakers on the TED stage are some of the best public speakers on the planet.
Over the last decade as a speaker coach, I’ve studied over 200 TED talks and written 3 books on the subject. This article distills some of the key concepts from my bestselling book, “How to Deliver a Great TED Talk.”
Note: If you came here because you read the book “How to Deliver A Great TED Talk”, then you can find links to all the talks referenced at the bottom of this post.
What Makes A Good TED Talk?
A good speech is one that:
Engages the audience
Takes them on a journey
Provides the audience with a new perspective or insight
Leaves the audience inspired to take action
And does all that in only 18 minutes – i.e. a tight time limit.
In this post, you will discover 15 public speaking tips from the best TED speakers. These include:
How to choose a TED Talk topic
How to write a TED Talk outline
How to open your presentation
How to end your presentation
How to build the body of the speech
Books you should read to level up your presentation skills
Before you dive into writing your speech or creating your presentation slides, it’s important that you find a message that’s worth sharing. But, how exactly do you come up with a TED Talk topic?
TED’s mission is “to discover and spread ideas that spark imagination, embrace possibility and catalyze impact.”
This means that the message matters more than the delivery.
While having charisma and being able to present with confidence help, what truly matters is the idea you are presenting.
The first step is to ask yourself: What is my message? What is the core idea I want to share?
Whenever I coach leaders and executives, I ask them to write out their core idea out in 3 short sentences or less. If you can’t summarize your core idea in less than 3 sentences, then you probably don’t have a clear grasp on your message.
But, what exactly makes a good TED Talk topic?
Tip 1: Uncover Your Message from Your Mess
I once asked a friend who went through a messy divorce how she was able to rebuild her life so quickly afterward.
“I looked for the gift in the tragedy.”
Isn’t that remarkable?
No matter what mess you’ve gone through, if you’ve emerged on the other side of it, you’ve probably done so with valuable lessons and insights. Consider how one of your messes might actually be a message worth sharing.
For example, brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor shared on stage the lesson she learned when a blood vessel exploded in the left half of her brain. She used that as the personal story to lead into a message about brain health:
Related: Storytelling Training for Leaders
Tip 2: Use Their Problem to Share Your Solution
Your message might also lie in providing a solution to a challenge that the audience faces.
What’s a struggle that you’ve had to overcome? A problem that you’ve had to tackle? What there a specific solution you uncovered that helped you, that you’re convinced would help the rest of the world?
Here’s an example:
Have you found it difficult to pay attention? How you found that you’re always feeling stressed? Overworked? And unable to stay focused and present?
If you’re like most people, you probably answered yes to the above questions. Which is why Andy Puddicombe – a man who left college midway through a sports science degree to become a monk – has made it his calling to help people restore mindfulness.
What about you? What’s something you’ve discovered – no matter how small – that you think would benefit the audience listening to you? If you genuinely believe in the power of the thing you’ve discovered, then it’s your duty to share it with the world.
Tip 3: Delight Them with Your Discovery
If you’re a keen scholar or observer of human nature, you might have discovered a pattern to the way in which the world functions.
Perhaps you undertook a formal course of study. Or maybe it was informal observation and experience. But somehow, and in someway, you’ve uncovered a pattern into why things are the way they are. Or perhaps a pattern that suggests how things will be.
Patterns are particularly fascinating. And being able to codify those patterns could make for a very useful speech. In fact, it’s exactly what Simon Sinek did in his TEDx talk, which has since racked up over 10 million views on the original view:
Tip 4: Show Them The Future
If you’re working on a project or technology that will shape the future, then this makes for a particularly fascinating TED talk.
In his presentation, Pranav Mistry got a standing ovation for his talk on the thrilling potential of SixthSense technology. He gave his audience a glimpse into the future by demonstrating how his SixthSense device would allow people to browse the Internet on any surface, create a telephone keypad on their palm and draw on any surface:
Because it was such an exciting and new topic, Pranav had the audience hooked into his talk right from the start:
Now that you’ve learned how to choose your TED Talk topic, let’s move on to the next part of your process: how to write a TED Talk outline.
The second stage is to figure out an appropriate structure for your talk.
The mistake most presenters make is that they structure the message in the way that happened to them. Example:
I did this. Then I did that. And I found this problem. Then I tried this. And it worked.
See how that’s a very speaker-centered structure?
While that linear progression might make sense, there are many other presentation structures that you can use. Structures that are more audience-centered. Here are two of the most common ones:
The problem / solution speech structure
The step-by-step speech structure
Let’s have a look at these in turn:
Tip 5: Outline Using A “Problem-Solution” Speech Structure
In his fascinating presentation, Sir Ken Robinson uses a loose version of the problem/solution structure.
For example, most of his speech focuses on the problem with the current educational system.
Here’s a paragraph from the first half of his speech:
Tip 6: Outline Using A “Step-By-Step” Speech Structure
In this speech structure, you logically walk your audience through the different steps towards an event.
For example, in her TED talk on domestic violence, Leslie Morgan Steiner walks her audience through the different stages in a domestic violence relationship.
Tip 7: Outline Using A “3-Part” Speech Speech
Another very popular way to structure a TED Talk is to use a “3-part” structure.
With this structure, you make 3 main points. For example, you can see Steve Jobs using this structure as an outline in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address when he says:
“Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life…”
Simon Sinek also uses this 3-part speech structure in his TED Talk to make his key points:
Here’s what Simon Sinek’s TED Talk outline might have looked like:
Opening: Use questions to engage the audience
PART 1: Story about Apple + key point
PART 2: Story about Samuel Langley vs. Wright Brothers + key point
PART 3: Story about Martin Luther King + key point
Closing: Emphasize the main point, “start with why”
Of course, the above is a very simplified version of the outline. But you can see that it follows a very distinct 3-part structure.
Develop An Irresistible Opening
Now that you’ve figured out the right structure and outline for your TED Talk, we can move into developing a powerful opening for the talk.
The opening of your TED talk is one of the most important parts of your presentation.
It sets the tone for the rest of your presentation.
Here are two great tactics you can choose from:
Tip 8: Start with a story.
A story is a great tactic to grab attention and get transport the audience into your mental movie.
For example, this is exactly what Susan Cain does to open her TED Talk:
Tip 9: Start with a series of questions which creates curiosity.
Notice how Simon Sinek hooks the TED audience in with a series of questions that ignites your imagination.
If you want to learn how to present like TED, then you need to embrace using more rhetorical questions in your presentation.
Build A Compelling and Convincing Argument in the Body of Your Presentation
Building out the body of your presentation could entail:
Anchoring your points with statistics and data
Using analogies to make a point
And many more…
However, in this post, let’s explore two common ways to build out a presentation like TED:
Tip 10: Build the Story with the Sitation-Complication-Resolution Framework
In his TED talk on “Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce”, Gladwell brings to life the story of Dr. Howard Moskowitz.
To do so, he uses a simple yet powerful storytelling framework called SCR: Situation-Complication-Resolution
Situation: Pepsi came to Howard and asked him to figure out the perfect concentration of aspartame for a Diet Pepsi
Complication: Howard does the analysis, and the data doesn’t make any sense
Resolution: One day, while mulling over the data, Howard suddenly realizes that there is no such thing as a single perfect Diet Pepsi
Watch the talk and you’ll see this Situation-Complication-Resolution structure at play:
Tip 11: Draw on Academic Research to Build Your Argument
Using academic studies to back up your point not only anchors your point, but also adds credibility to it. Research studies, if told well, are usually very fascinating because they arouse people’s curiosity.
Consider the following portion of Dan Pink’s TED talk, where he talks about Dan Ariely’s research.
Research studies by nature try to answer questions.
Thus, an explanation of the research study followed by the words “What happened?” raises the audience’s curiosity.
If you are able to use an academic study in your speech to anchor your point, use it.
Explain the study in the form of a story, and use rhetorical questions to build people’s curiosity before you reveal the results.
Ending with A Clear and Compelling Call to Action
The final piece of a great TED Talk is a call to action.
What do you want your audience to think, feel or do differently as a result of your presentation?
In fact, the entire point of giving a talk in the first place is to drive change.
The change could be in how the audience does something. Or the way in which they look at something.
What’s the change that you want to drive with your talk?
Every part of your talk – from each story to statistic – should be built to drive that change.
Tip 13: State what you want the audience to do differently
For example, in her now scientifically-debunked TED Talk on body language, Amy Cuddy clearly states her call to action: “try power posing”:
“So I want to ask you first, you know, both to try power posing, and also I want to ask you to share the science, because this is simple…”
Leslie Morgan Steiner, in her talk, states her clear call to action in her talk on domestic violence:
“Recognize the early signs of violence and conscientiously intervene, deescalate it, show victims a safe way out. Together we can make our beds, our dinner tables and our families the safe and peaceful oases they should be. Thank you
Using Visual Aids that Will Add, Not Distract, From the Presenter
OK, so far in your journey to present like a TED Talk, you have discovered:
How to choose a TED Talk topic
How to write a TED Talk outline
How to create a powerful opening
How to craft the perfect conclusion for the talk
Now, you may need to consider whether or not to use visual aids.
It’s important to note that visuals aids are exactly as the name implies. They’re visuals for the audiences; not speaker notes for you!
The most common form of visual aid is a presentation slide deck. But before you start building your slides, consider whether you even need one to start with.
For example, speakers like Simon Sinek, Sir Ken Robinson and Malcolm Gladwell use no slides at all! And they have some of the most viral TED talks of all time. I believe this is partly because not using slides means that the audience can focus fully on them (instead of having to read what’s on the slide).
However, if you are going to be using visual aids, here’s what you need to consider:
Tip 14: Use a prop as a visual aid
Notice how Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor uses a real human brain as a prop to explain what’s she talking about:
Could she have simply used a slide showing a picture of a human brain?
Would it have been as effective?
Using a real human brain adds shock value that gets the audience to keep paying attention. And it also allows her to interact with the brain in a way that makes the whole talk more concrete for the audience.
Tip 15: If using a slide, make it visual
You do not want your audience reading your slides.
More importantly, you – as the speaker, do not want to be reading your slide.
You want your slides to be visual aids that complement what you are saying, not compete with what you’re saying.
What this means is that your slides should be mostly pictures, with as minimal text as possible.
Here’s a good example:
In her TED talk about escaping poverty, Jacqueline Novogratz displays photos of a slum she visited in Kenya.
The photos make the situation much more real for the audience and help them understand the poverty in Kenya because they can see proof of it.
Click the video below and it’ll play at the part with the slide:
Summary: How to Present like a TED Talk
Those are the elements that will help you become a powerful and persuasive speaker:
Uncover your message – build your talk around a message that’s useful, interesting and worth sharing
Structure your talk so that it’s clear and easy to follow
Craft a compelling opening that’ll captivate audiences – start with a story, a startling statistic, or a series of questions
Build the body of your presentation – use stories, case studies, research, examples, and statistics
End with a clear and compelling call to action – state what you want the audience to do, think or feel differently and paint the vision of a better future
Use visual aids that will complement your speech, rather than competing with you
Books To Level Up Your TED Talk Presentation Skills
If you are interested in some resources on TED Talks presentation skills books, then I recommend:
If you’re looking for a speaker coach to help elevate your presentation skills – whether it’s for a TEDx event, the TED conference or for daily work presentations – then get in touch to see how we can help you.
If you’d like to explore our Public Speaking, Storytelling and Communication workshops and programs for your team, then drop us an email and we’ll get back to you within 24 – 48 hours.
Full list of TED Talk Speakers Referenced in this guide: