Lessons from TED: how not to be a shmoozy motivational speaker

I am a bit of an obsessive TED Talk watcher.  As a presentation coach and speaker myself, I suppose that's an important part of my job. I watch talks, and I analyze them. And I am often moved by them. Hey - I believe that a good talk can move the world. And I also believe that a bad talk can stop it in its tracks.

Here's the thing: there are some key lessons that I have culled from 15+ years of creating TED-like presentations that help distinguish those talks from, say, the dude who spoke at your conference last week who met your understandably low expectations. Yep, we've all seen those talks. The "motivational" talk that didn't so much motivate as aggravate. They are all too common. And gosh darnit, we can do better!

So what are some lessons from TED talks that we as speakers can apply to our next presentation so we can create not merely "motivational," but "memorable"?  Take a look:



#1: It's Not About You.

It's about your message and your mission - it's not about you. Like too many speakers who are "selling" you something–they want you to join their organization, or buy their book, or even get on their mailing list - the desperation of the ask gets in the way of the message. You have to let your IDEA sell that organization/idea/book/mailing list. Not that there isn't a time and a place to promote - but if you want people to care about your message as much as you do - your talk is not the place.

It's a TED rule that you cannot promote, and I honestly think it's one of the reasons why people trust these talks, and look to them. The focus ends up on the IDEAS - not the organizations or even the people themselves.


#2: Keep it short.

Some of my favorite TED talks are short! There are strict time restrictions in TED for a reason: there are too many people whose ideas need to be heard. (We cannot spend all day on just you.) But it's also because if you can't say it succinctly, you're not quite ready to say it. (Not that 20-minutes is succinct, mind you...)


Here - one of my favorite short talks:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V74AxCqOTvg]


#3: You Don't Need Visuals; They are Listening to You. (But, you know, if you use visuals, make them... visual.)

It seems to me that TED was the place where the idea of a VISUAL slide (vs. the bullet-point power-pointy text slide) came into the norm and earned its place in our expectations. It was a refreshing show of restraint - a refocus on our words, and the "performance."  The simplicity of it brings us back to the real craft of speaking, and of creating talks with substance.  And, we cannot hide behind the visuals. With the exception of a few TED talks that I can think of, the focus is on the person - on her message, or his idea. It's not on the visuals, even when there's a huge screen in the background.

Take, for example, this talk (which, by the way, is considered the talk that put TED talks on the map):


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyyjU8fzEYU]

Use your visuals sparingly; focus on your story.

#4: Say Something New

At this point, there's a TED talk about pretty much everything. And, for any of us in the creative world, our job is not so much to create an entirely new idea but to find something new to say about it. Say something new, even if it's about something familiar.

There are two main parts to a story: 1) the story, and 2) what you say about the story.  (This is echoed in Ira Glass's thoughts on the building blocks of a good story, an awesome little video series.)  You might tell a great story, but if you say nothing new about that story, who cares?  This to me is a key distinction between a great speaker - and a TED-like speaker.  What new insight are you bringing to us?

#5: Your Talk Can Live Beyond the Room!

These opportunities are powerful. The TED machine can catapult you into infamy, which is why speakers clamor for the opportunity. And whether you're speaking at an official TED event or not, it's now so easy for any opportunity to live beyond 'the moment.'

Our messages can live in a radio broadcast, online, via Twitter, a mere video clip. It's about what happens in the room, yes - but it's also about sharing our stories with a broader audience. That is possible now more than ever. And it makes our work more important - and more alive - than ever before.

Here - one of the most viral TED talks that exists - and one of my all-time faves:


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o]

#6: But it's Still a Live Performance

My love of talks and my belief in the power of performance is about what happens 'in the room' - the live performance, the electricity in the air, the possibilities of the unknown. So, though the performance may outlast what happens in the room, your focus as a speaker must always be in the room, paying attention to the fact that you are in the middle of a live performance.

Do you respond to what's really happening? Can you set aside your agenda to acknowledge a shift in the room? It takes agility. And you can tell which ones do that well, and which ones don't.

Like this one, where Tony Robbins calls out Al Gore - and they have a rare 'real' moment in what can otherwise be a very scripted talk. I don't always loooove Tony Robbins. After all, he is the poster boy for "motivational" speakers! There's a lot that rubs me the wrong way about Tony's content (a post for another time, perhaps?), but you've gotta give him this - he is IN THE ROOM.  Check it out:


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cpc-t-Uwv1I]


#7: You Don't Have to Be Tony Robbins

One of the most important lessons we can learn from TED talks are that though Tony Robbins can give a great TED talk, you don't have to be Tony Robbins to have a TED moment, and to impact people. If you have discovered a new idea - share it; if you have a funny story that illuminates something, share it; share it, share it, share it.  Whatever you want the world to know, you have an obligation to share it.




A good talk can move the world. Maybe even yours.


Sally Koering Zimney is a presentation coach, speaker, and host of This Moved Me, a podcast about the art of public speaking. She lives in St. Paul with her husband, three kiddos, loads and loads of laundry, and her attention-starved dog.

photo credit: TED-talks-Somerville-2012-0495 via photopin (license)

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