How to Give an Academic Talk, TED-Style

Giving an Academic Talk in the TED style? Start with a Big Idea and Passion!

If you’ve ever seen a TED, TEDx, or TED-style presentation, you already know that they’re very different from standard academic research-based presentations. (They’re different from standard business presentations, too.)

This means, to use an expression that I love,

You can’t get there from here.

You can’t begin with a traditional academic presentation and then morph it into a TED talk. You have to start with an entirely different process and frame of reference.

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Here are the two concepts that anchor a TED frame of reference, with some tips about how to get them solidly in mind before you begin preparing your TED talk:

1. TED Talks are Built on a Single Big Idea

If you work in academia, you’re very familiar with topics, hypotheses and conclusions. But topics, hypotheses, and conclusions don’t make a BIG IDEA.

A TED “big idea” is second cousin to these things, with a very specific difference: A big idea is personal, punchy, and passionate.

Here are some TED and TEDMED titles that illustrate the difference:

  • How we’ll become cyborgs and extend human perfection
  • What would happen if you didn’t sleep?
  • Teach girls bravery, not perfection
  • Why hospitals are making us sick (by my awesome client Robin Guenther)
  • The next outbreak? We’re not ready

You can imagine the academic versions of these, right? (“How we’ll become cyborgs” might be “Enhanced brain augmentation: pros and cons of a hypothetical mind-machine interface.”)

These titles are actually TED big ideas. They cover a wide range of topics, but they have one thing in common: lots of attitude. 

You know, before you hit play, that the speaker has a powerfully felt position, and a point of view that is not trying to be “objective” (even though the research that’s presented will be).

You know one other thing, too: The big idea referenced in these titles will be front and center throughout each of the talks.

Which bring us to a corollary that can be difficult for people who are experts in their subjects to accept: Prioritizing one idea in the design of your talk requires that lots of other, related ideas, are not going to be explored.

As Chris Anderson, current owner of the TED franchise, says,

Ideas are complex things; you need to slash back your content so that you can focus on the single idea you’re most passionate about, and give yourself a chance to explain that one thing properly. Everything you say [should link] back to it in some way.”

So find your big idea, then focus on it.

2. TED Talks are Personal, Not Cerebral

We often give presentations that are loaded with information and argument, perhaps believing that the sheer weight of our evidence will persuade our listeners.

TED talks take a different approach — one in which your audience’s connection with an idea is based on your relationship to it. (Note Anderson’s use, in the quote above, of the phrase “the single idea you’re most passionate about.” Passion is not incidental to a TED idea; it’s essential.)

So if you’re presenting academic research, be ready to share not just the thinking behind your work…  not just the conclusions from your work…   but also the feelings, fears, hopes, frustrations, etc., it generates for you.

Yes, this means that you will be a factor in your talk. You will be talking about — wait for it — yourself. 

But never fear, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck making direct emotional statements. Your passion, your emotions can also be expressed through stories about your experience.

The essence of a “story” is that it has a beginning (the “precipitating event”), a middle (actions taken, often to overcome obstacles), and an end (which ideally “pays off,” or completes, the beginning).

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How to Find the Stories Connected to Your Big Idea

Your research and professional life are rife with events that can be construed as “stories.” To find them, try this exercise: Complete the following phrases (or answer the following questions) out loud:

  • “When I first thought about this project…”
  • “What I didn’t realize was that…”
  • “That’s when it occurred to me that…”
  • “I’ve often thought that…”
  • “In spite of what we expected…”
  • “Now, you may wonder…”
  • “At that moment, I suddenly…”
  • Why does it matter? (ask that out loud before you answer it)
  • What did we learn?
  • Was it worth it?
  • What’s next?

So, What Is Next?

Now it’s time to put these insights into action.

Here is a comprehensive list of steps to follow to create your TED talk. Not all of them apply to academic or conference presentations, but most do.

Image by Mikito Tateisi | Unsplash

Have fun creating a TED talk that’s passionate, personal, and relentlessly focused on your big idea!

And if you need help with speechwriting or presentation, coaching, be sure to contact me!

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Categories: TED and TEDx Talks
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