Why you should read TED Talks even if you never give a TED talk

Why read TED Talks (the book)

How likely is it that you would someday give a TED talk? Right! About the same odds that I will someday give a TED talk.

Nevertheless, I learned a lot from reading Chris Anderson’s book and I will share that in this blog, providing page references if you want to read more and learn how to improve your own talks.

You’ll learn more about “starting with WHY”

I applaud Chris Anderson for starting with WHY[1]. He tells how and why he kept TED alive when it was in danger of going under (p. 7) and then leads into his argument that the only purpose of a talk is to give your audience “an idea that can forever be part of [them]” (p.11). He says, “That’s your mission…to take something that matters deeply to you and to rebuild it inside the minds of your listeners (p. 12).”

Anderson exposes “ugly talk styles” and tells you why not to use them:

  • The sales pitch
  • The ramble
  • The org bore
  • The inspiration performance

You’ll get help on structuring your presentations (talks)

Anderson shares Sir Ken Robinson’s potential structure for any talk. (Robinson is the most viewed TED speaker at the time Anderson wrote this book [p. 40]):

  1. Introduction—getting settled, what will be covered
  2. Context—why this issue matters
  3. Main concepts
  4. Practical implications
  5. Conclusion

Robinson says: “There’s an old formula for writing essays that says a good essay answers three questions: What? So What? Now What? [Structuring a talk is] a bit like that (p. 40).”

Once you have structured your talk, Anderson says that you have five core tools for developing your main concepts (pp. 43-110):

  1. Connection
  2. Narration
  3. Explanation
  4. Persuasion
  5. Revelation

Regardless of your structure, Anderson suggests that your talk is a journey and your job is to trace the “throughline” (Chapter 4), which is “the connecting theme that ties together each narrative element.”

What you will learn about developing and delivering your presentations

  • There are at least two methods of developing your presentations: Write out and memorize your talk or write key points and ad lib from those (134-137). The trick is to figure out which method works best for you and for your particular talk.
  • Always rehearse until you drop (kidding about those last three words), but you’ll be committed to compulsive rehearsing after reading pages 148-152.
  • Know that “Nerves are not a curse” (183-188) and learn how to harness your nerves to overcome your fear.

I disagree with Anderson on these points

  • Anderson is a fan of “builds”—clicking to add images and text to your slides to keep the audience focused on one idea at a time (known as “a build”). I believe it’s better to show each major idea on a separate slide where possible. Although I don’t agree with most of Edward Tufte’s pronouncements on slides[2], I do agree when he calls slide builds “the dreaded striptease.”
  • Anderson offers a rule of thumb: “Avoid nearly all [transitions]…They are gimmicky and serve to drop you out of your ideas into the mechanics of your software” (p. 125). But then he praises two transition types: None and dissolve. Um, in my mind, “none” is not a transition. And “dissolve,” at least in PowerPoint(R), is just too busy. Maybe it’s better in Keynote; I can only hope. I try to create transitions verbally: “As we see in our next slide…” or, “but wait, what about this sentence in the next slide?”

I saved the best for last

Maybe you feel by now that merely reading about TED Talks is not going to teach you enough about improving your own talks. I agree and so does Anderson, who has created a playlist of stellar TED Talks to reinforce your learning. However, I can’t share that link for copyright reasons. Instead, I urge you to buy the book or check it out of your library—I did that first and then I bought the book.

You and I will probably never present a talk at TED, but we can both can get better at the talks we do present.


[1] This is a great concept proposed by Simon Sinek in Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

[2] Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 2003. 28 pages, full color, $10 postpaid.

(Soon to be released: My new book, Webinar School, which will help trainers and presenters deliver the best webinars they possibly can!)

Leave a reply