The 5 Key Ingredients of a Great TED Talk (or any talk!)

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve seen, heard, or at least heard of a TED talk. Maybe you’ve dreamed of giving one yourself and joining the ranks of notable TED speakers like Bill Gates, Tony Robbins, David Blaine, Brene Brown and thousands of others.

Or maybe you’ve just wished you had the chops (and/or the confidence) to walk into any room or onto any stage and deliver a commanding, memorable talk that keeps the audience hanging on your every word, and inspires them to say TAKE ACTION.

The thing is, YOU CAN. And you don’t need an MBA or a PhD or a formal invitation from TED curators to give an electrifying talk—whether it’s literally on the TED stage, in a windowless conference room, or anywhere else.

All you need to do is apply the five key ingredients of a great TED talk to your talk. And it’s simpler than you might think.

THE 5 KEY INGREDIENTS OF A GREAT TED TALK (or any talk)

TED’s tagline, Ideas Worth Spreading, sums up the essence of what makes these short (18-minutes or less) presentations so compelling.

It’s not because they’re delivered on a round red rug by someone famous or extraordinary.

It’s not because they often include childhood stories, personal revelations, or inspiring calls to action.

It’s not because they’re designed specifically to educate, inform, inspire, persuade, influence, or entertain the audience (though most TED talks do all of these things).

It’s because they’re designed to spread ideas.

“Your number one task as a speaker is to transfer into your listeners' minds an extraordinary gift — a strange and beautiful object that we call an idea.”

— Chris Anderson, TED Curator

Ideas are more than just stories or facts (the building blocks of most presentations) — they’re the seeds of change.

A good idea is interesting. A great idea is new and surprising; it’s something your audience has never heard about or considered; or it offers a new perspective on an old idea that challenges beliefs and compels the audience to draw fresh conclusions.

And when it’s delivered in a short amount of time, with the 5 Key Ingredients outlined below as its ‘structure,’ it demands the audience’s attention.

And those 5 Key Ingredients are…

1. AN IDEA WORTH SPREADING.

Most talks, pitches and presentations fail to be “TED-worthy” and demand the audience’s attention for one simple reason: because they don’t prioritize the audience above all else.

“It’s not about you.”

— Chris Anderson, TED Curator

TED Curator, Chris Anderson, points out that most business presentations are sales pitches or brags disguised as great ideas. They’re born of a “look how great we’ve been” sentiment rather than one that focuses on “here’s what we’ve learned.”

So the first step in creating your own TED-style talk is to identify your great idea that’s worth spreading.

And if you don’t immediately know or see what your “great idea” is, use any or all of these questions to help you uncover some possibilities:

  • What work have you done or knowledge have you gained in the past year or two that really stands out?

  • What was the last thing you felt deeply passionate or excited about?

  • What do you deeply wish would change in the world?

  • What are you deeply curious about?

  • What lessons have you learned that, if shared, could improve the lives/businesses of others?

2. A RUTHLESS COMMITMENT TO DELIVERING VALUE TO YOUR AUDIENCE.

I’ll say this again, because it’s worth repeating: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.

When you give a talk or presentation, you’re technically asking for something even before you’ve opened your mouth: your audience’s time and attention.

Your job, then, is to deliver something of value to them in the time allotted.

Make the time they’ve given you WORTH THEIR WHILE.

Delivering value, by the way, requires you to FOCUS. So strip out everything that isn’t essential, and double-check that every slide, story, and statistic helps to illustrate your core point.

If it doesn’t, ditch it.

3. A STRONG START

Your audience is most attentive during the first 10-20 seconds of your talk or presentation. Capitalize on this by using a strong, compelling opening that sparks interest and curiosity and makes it more likely that your audience will stay engaged.

The best kind of opening is one that unequivocally answers this question (which implicitly lingers in your audience’s subconscious): “Why the hell I should pay attention to you?”

Here are three tried-and-true formats for strong openings (and examples of TED Talks that open with each):

4. SLIDES “AS NEEDED”

You don’t need ANY slides to give a great talk or presentation; because it’s not the slides that spread the idea — it’s YOU.

That being said, visual aids can be helpful if used strategically and judiciously. In other words, don’t use crappy slides just to have something for people to look at besides you.

If a diagram, photo or video will help you illustrate your idea or drive home the core message, by all means, include it.

If you don’t have any visual aids that would help, or don’t need them to tell your story (even if it’s in the middle of your talk), that’s perfectly fine. Just use an empty black slide or hit “B” to blank the screen and allow the audience to focus their attention on you.

5. A CLEAR & SPECIFIC TAKEAWAY

I often tell my clients to “script the critical move” that they want their audience to take. It should be crystal clear, super simple, and easy-to-remember — because ideas that are too complicated, verbose, or confusing, aren’t going to “spread” at all.

A couple tips that might be helpful:

  • Follow the 1:7:140 rule:

    • ONE key takeaway (not 3, not 5, not a dozen);

    • SEVEN words or less (emphasis on LESS);

    • 140 characters or less (to increase tweet-ability, which is a word I don’t enjoy, but have respect for as it’s the reality in 2019).

  • Write your “key takeaway” out on the last slide in simple, bold white letters on a black background.

WAIT — ISN’T PRACTICING A KEY INGREDIENT?!

If you read my blog often or follow me on other social platforms, you know that I strongly believe that “practice makes perfect.”

I’m not including that advice in this post on the “5 Key Ingredients,” simply because no amount of practicing will help you deliver an electrifying talk or presentation if you’ve skipped one of the five things I have outlined above.

Once you’re 100% certain that all five Key Ingredients are present and accounted for, by all means practice the shit out of that thing. Even if you’re a performer by trade or a “real natural” in front of a live audience, it’s not going to hurt (and will most likely help) to run through the full presentation at least once or twice.

For bonus points, ask a friend/colleague to deliver your talk or presentation TO YOU.

Yes, you read that right. Ask someone familiar with the subject-matter to be the speaker while you play the part of “audience.” This can be a very eye-opening exercise, and one that shines the light on any “missing” or “weak” key ingredients that could use an extra helping or two.

Don’t have someone who can help you score those bonus points? Book a 30-minute “Presentation 911” session with me, and I’ll happily help you whip that baby into shape!