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Tips from TED: Presenting ideas to engage your teams

I’ve watched Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” at least 20 times, and I still laugh at his jokes. I could recite the stories alongside Sir Ken but I still find myself totally delighted by their clever endings. And every time someone wants to debate about education, I always cite his wisdom.  

So what is that? What is that X factor that makes someone else’s words stick to your brain and alter the way you think? How can you present ideas in ways that really truly engage your teams? I realize I’m biased (I’m a speaker coach and speechwriter), but from my perspective, that X factor is really more like a communication superpower. And lucky for all of us, it’s a superpower we can learn to wield.  

There are many tried-and-true (and heavily researched) tools that can help make your next speech, presentation, 1:1, board meeting, sales call — or any other communication — engaging, persuasive, and memorable. Here are some of my favorites and, not coincidentally, many of the same tools that make TED Talks so sticky.  

Audience before content. Always.

Most of us actually communicate in the wrong direction. By wrong direction, I mean we draft our talking points, we build our Powerpoint slides, and fire off emails before we stop and ask ourselves, “What does my audience expect out of this communication? Why are they taking time out of their busy days to listen to me?” Here’s the deal: If your audience doesn’t see themselves in your presentation, or doesn’t care about your meeting or, worse yet, if they don’t understand how your pitch applies to them, then there’s no point to opening your mouth! That’s why the best communicators always think about their audiences before their content.  

The acronym A.B.C. for Audience Before Content originally came from Jim Wagstaffe, a former colleague of Briar’s at Stanford. While TED uses this concept frequently in their work with speakers, TED does not claim it as their original idea.

Here at TED, we always ask our speakers to identify the ‘gift’ they want to give to the audience. If you want to knock your next communication out of the park, ask yourself that same question.  

Frame your communication around a unique idea.

I’ll never forget the moment I realized everyone in business was saying the same thing. I was reviewing draft talking points for three different CEOs from three different companies and each one was planning to talk about how culture eats strategy for breakfast. I remember thinking this was so funny at the time.  But it’s no laughing matter.  

There’s so much content out there and as a result, everyone’s attention spans are practically below zero. So, if your audience thinks they’ve already heard what you have to say, they’ll move on. Or let’s say you’re on a sales call with a potential new vendor, and they don’t articulate why their offering is unique or helpful to your specific needs. Would you buy? 

So, to identify your unique idea, it’s helpful to think about the difference between an idea and a topic:

  • A topic is the general guidance you’re given before a presentation, meeting etc.  Topics are high level.  But, if you create your communication around a topic, you’ll end up with too much information.
    • Example Topic: “Could you give us a presentation on the future of work?”
  • An idea is a unique angle of your topic. When you share your idea, your goal is to make your audience see your topic in a new or nuanced way.
    • Example Idea: “When robots take over our jobs, we’re going to be happier and more creative. Today, I’m going to tell you why.” 

It’s time to ditch the jargon.

No one probably thought twice when the first person said “we need to shift the paradigm.” But when catchphrases are used too often, they lose their meaning. This means, when too many of them sneak into your communication, your entire idea can lose its meaning. Yikes!

The best way to avoid jargon is to ask yourself how you would articulate your message if you were having coffee with a friend. Would you really say “we need to shift the paradigm”? Or would you say “we need to make some changes”? 

Use data – but put it in context.

Data can be a great way to add credibility to any communication.  But, too many stats can actually diminish the weight of the really important ones.  So if you’re going to use data, force yourself to edit! Then, try to put each number in context. For example, what does $10M in annual sales really mean?

I find TED’s astrophysicists do this really well. I remember one speaker helped us understand light year distances by explaining that if someone lived 4.4 light years away, they wouldn’t get their Amazon delivery for 50,000 years!  

And finally, stories are great, but only if they’re apropos.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story about storytelling.  

Our ancestors sat around the campfire telling stories. As a result, we’re “hardwired” to connect with each other through stories, so you must tell stories in order to connect with your audience.  

Yes, stories help us connect. But I’ve met so many speakers who feel they must tell very personal stories in order to create that connection.  But you don’t need me to tell you that sharing a story about your grandmother during a strategy meeting is more distracting than helpful, right?   

The real reason we’re “hardwired” for stories is because it’s easier for our brains to understand information in narrative format vs. a list of facts. Which means effective stories don’t always have to be deeply personal, but they do have to be apropos to your idea. And, they must always follow the correct narrative structure: Setting → Characters → Conflict → Climax → Resolution.  

Let me leave you with one last thought. You don’t have to wait for a turn on TED’s big red carpet to test your new superpowers. Try them tomorrow at your daily stand-up, try them in your next meeting! Opportunities to turn mundane words into delightful, persuasive and memorable communications are all around us. And I, for one, hope you use your powers to do so.  

Learning teams! Want to share inspiring and sticky TED ideas with your learners? Visit get.degreed.com/tedatwork to learn more about TED@Work for Degreed!

About the Author

Briar Goldberg is TED’s Director of Speaker Coaching and is a public speaking and strategic communications expert. In addition to coaching hundreds of TED speakers, she’s worked with leaders from some of the world’s largest companies including the CEOs of Facebook, Ford and Levi’s. She’s also coached and written speeches for Grammy winners, Nobel Prize winners and several government officials. She also conducts training for companies on behalf of TED. Briar formally taught communications at Stanford University and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Her advice on public speaking and effective communication has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Fortune, CNN and ABC News. 

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