Present the way you converse: the TED speech epiphany

Today in Professional Communication and Presentation, my amazing students this month delivered their TED analysis speeches. This assignment has been a staple in my class since I discovered TED three years ago. I was and am consistently amazed by the humanity, passion, compassion, humility, energy, empathy, enthusiasm, innovation, genius, wisdom, and spirit of community embodied and lived by TEDsters (those of us who consider ourselves complete lovers of TED, those who present at TED, those who attend TED, and the geniuses who began–Richard Saul Wurman–and grew–Chris Anderson–the wonder that is today’s Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference).

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TED has grown from a rather elitist, by invitation only, extravagantly expensive conference to a creative commons, open sharing, open conversing, education-driving, source for all ideas worth spreading. Either way, I love it. I love TED. Not only for what it teaches me and my students about the human condition, but also for its ability to transcend barriers–socio-economic, cultural, gender, racial, sexual, environmental, political, and ideological.

My students are given the task of choosing a TED talk to analyze. They must choose something that grabs their attention, resonates with them personally, and that embodies the TED Commandments, a set of unofficial rules or caveats given to TED speakers before they present (they also get copies of my two favorite books: Presentation Zen and Slide:ology by two of my gurus, Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte). This month’s students are an eclectic mix, a delicious spectrum of humanity–from the introverted intellectual to the deeply passionate, emphatic, (and vocal) extrovert.

Their chosen talks were a reflection of their personalities, interests, and whether they realized it or not, their needs and wants as audience members. Today, we discussed the harrowing child prostitution problem in India as eloquently and passionately told by Sunitha Krishnan; we explored how to truth seek with Pamela Meyer and heard the tale of Norden’s bombsight as told by master storyteller Malcolm Gladwell; we learned of John Francis‘ story, the story of a man who neither used motorized transportation nor spoke for 17 years, yet taught earned a PHD, taught at the college level, and worked as a UN Ambassador; and we marveled at Jae Rhim Lee‘s amazing mushroom death suit. Yup, TED speech days make me feel like dancing a jig…with some unicorns…on a rainbow….made of all my favorite cheeses.

The speech that stood out to me the most was not delivered by the gentleman who proclaimed to all of us that he only prepared for the assignment the night before, chose his TED talk at random, and explained that he would be “winging” his presentation and he hoped this would not result in lost points. Surprising? No, not really.

The speech that stands out to me the most was delivered by someone who, upon first glance, one might dismiss as the sort of pensive, shy student who rarely makes ripples or an impact (though I must admit, I was enamored with him right away–he is, after all, a self-proclaimed nerd, and I can never resist a nerd!). This student’s speech was well-prepared, exquisitely delivered with the right amount of humor, personality, and relevant content (he went so far as to reenact Ken Robinson’s excellent opening to “Bring on the Learning Revolution!”). This student included personal experience, used storytelling, revealed his passion for the topic of education, and wholeheartedly shared his reaction to Robinson’s point. But, it wasn’t any of this that created a truly resonant moment in class, not just for me, but for everyone else in the classroom. What was this amazing, mind-blowing epiphany aka aha moment?

Present the way you would have a conversation. If you wouldn’t do it in a conversation; don’t do it in a presentation.

That’s it? Really? I’ve said keep your presentation conversational for years! How could this mere nerd show us public speaking teachers up with something we tell our students day in and day out?

The answer is in how he framed it. He managed to say what I’ve been trying to show and teach for years. His idea resonated with everyone in that cold, sterile room today:

How do you have a conversation with someone?

  • You maintain eye contact and work to even physically connect with whom you are conversing
  • You convey information through stories
  • You appeal to emotion (some conversations make you cry, some laugh, some rail at the injustices of the world)
  • You respect your conversation partner and listen
  • You focus on clarity
  • You illustrate empathy and goodwill
  • You don’t keep barriers between you and the person with whom you are speaking
  • You don’t memorize what you are going to say, but important and worthy conversations have some element of preparation to them
  • You are reactionary and adapt to the conversation partner
So, how does this relate to presenting? Can we really approach a presentation like a conversation? Will this somehow help people avoid some of the habits that make presentations sterile, robotic, forgettable?
  • Great speakers maintain eye contact; they also move away from a podium and detach from their notes. Great speakers “sweep the room” as my fellow Super Teacher Alex Rister asserts.
  • What sets apart a forgettable speech from a resonating, life-altering communication experience? Storytelling. As the Heath brothers say, by combining information, knowledge, context and emotion, “stories are important cognitive events.”
  • Great presentations make us FEEL. It’s not enough to know and believe; we are human, we are born knowing that emotion generates results (baby crying = some grown creature responding to said baby crying).
  • Great speeches are clear, direct, and specific. As Ben Zander put it, Martin Luther King did not add the caveat “I’m not sure they’ll be up to it” to his proclamation, “I have a dream!” Watch his TED talk, and see another wonderful example of humble wisdom. It’s my absolute favorite. Hands down.
  • I am still seeking the perfect way to emphasize the importance of empathy to my students. I often get the sense they think I am being “soft.” But, empathy is the driving force of the human universe. Empathy, as Jeremy Rifkin explores in “The Empathic Civilization,” is built into our biology. We are soft-wired, from our mirror neurons to our recognition of the human experience and its basis in suffering, for empathy. Empathy, or the need to belong and connect, is the invisible hand. The speakers I admire empathize with their audiences; they consider what their audience needs, wants, and what’s in their best interest (not the speaker’s own agenda).
  • One reason great presentations resemble great conversations is that great speakers erase the barriers between themselves and their audiences. Garr Reynold’s discussed this beautifully in The Naked Presenter–podiums, lecterns, technology, dimmed lights, busy slides–all of these are barriers (as is poor preparation).
  • Great speeches are often extemporaneous, at the very least, even with rehearsal and practice, the speeches we remember, for instance, MLK’s “I Have a Dream” contain moments of improvisation, speaking entirely from a place where the message is internalized, so that speaking and digressions from prewritten plans or ideas are second nature.
This student’s words truly made an impact on me. I say this gladly after watching hundreds of speeches each year both on campus, online, at TEDxOrlando or PechaKucha Orlando, and at school workshops. One simple idea, constructed in a way that resonated with a small group of people became the idea I share with you now. Present the way you converse!
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