Anatomy of a TED talk - RED - Relevant. Essential. Denver.

Anatomy of a TED talk

TEDx is returning to MSU Denver. What's the 'secret sauce' to those ideas worth spreading? Here's insight - and 5 expert tips to help your presentations connect.

May 19, 2021

By Cory Phare

TED talks are a global phenomenon – the phrase alone conjures images of slick staging, headset mics and, of course, snack-sized learning on a variety of topics.

At the core of every TED talk, though, is the nonpartisan nonprofit’s devotion to “ideas worth spreading.”

“If you have an idea, someone needs to hear it,” said Dafna Michaelson Jenet, co-founder of TEDxCherryCreek, curator for TEDxMSUDenver 2019 and member of the Colorado House of Representatives (D-30).

This fall, the Metropolitan State University of Denver community will have an opportunity to have their ideas heard at Ready to Rise: TEDxMSUDenver 2021. The event is Sept. 10, and presenter and performer applications are open now through May 31.

Launched in Silicon Valley in 1984 as a conference focused on Technology, Entertainment and Design, TED now covers almost all topics, and videos of its signature talks have well over a billion views. Offshoot TEDx takes the mission to local communities around the globe through independently organized events and now boasts more than 100,000 video talks available online.

TEDxMSUDenver 2021 will provide presenters three hours of coaching to help them hone their respective deliveries. The focus of those sessions is helping presenters deliver a talk that elevates, empowers and engages, said Michaelson Jenet.

“You’re giving your idea away – the goal is to have folks follow along,” she said. “And at a place like MSU Denver, the ideas are percolating everywhere.”

So, what makes a great TED Talk? MSU Denver RED connected with Sam Jay, Ph.D., associate professor of communication studies and Alex McDaniel, M.A., associate director of instructional design at the Center for Teaching, Learning and Design, to find out. Check out their advice and watch videos of their hand-picked exemplars.

Narrating the personal

When it comes to effective presentations, story is king.

“One of the most effective ways of connecting is making information personal through the use of story,” McDaniel said. “It’s a challenge, but one of the reasons TED is so popular is the successful way of taking a broad topic and have it appeal to individual people, as people.”

The key is relaying our personal experiences in the way others are already wired, Jay added.

“Our brains think narratively and linearly,” he said. “Regardless of the presentation’s intent, you have to tell the story for it to stick; people will naturally follow along. It’s the same basic approach used by Dr. Seuss.”

Show and tell

As an accompanying element, visuals are undeniable a key part to an effective TED talk.

“Good presenters use dual-coding theory,” McDaniel said. “Whatever imagery is displayed serves to support what is being talked about.”

One example he offered was the pairing of a scary situation description with the picture of a frightening face. This is more effective at encoding information as opposed to a written definition of something scary, which would distract the audience.

Make sure visuals “support, don’t compete – that’s really important,” McDaniel added.

Keep it simple

Jay reinforced the importance of simplicity and brevity in helping attendees retain information.

“When you don’t have a long time to talk, it really forces you to hone in on one particular, salient idea to hit the audience with,” he said. “You really want to make things as easy and accessible as possible.

“The best TED speakers do that by keeping things as simple as they can.”

Prime the audience

Newsflash: Contrary to what modern workplace jargon would have you believe “multitasking” doesn’t exist. This is due to the concept of cognitive load, which posits a finite amount of working memory resources available for processing and storing information.

“We can only focus on one thing at a time,” McDaniel said. “Think of it this way: Your brain has buckets, and the more you try to fill them, the shallower they become.”

The solution for speakers? As any expert in sleight-of-hand will tell you, it’s all about directing peoples’ attention.

“The best speakers will prime the audience for their message,” McDaniel said. “How you set it up determines heavily how people will encode, store and recall information.” 

Find your sweet spot

One of the things TED speakers are great at is finding the sweet spot between breadth and depth. That involves making sure the content isn’t completely inside baseball.

“If you’re too niche, you’re not reaching the majority of your audience,” McDaniel said. “In a TED talk, you want everyone to be nodding their head by the end – not scratching it.” 

At the same time, however, subject-matter success comes back to making a lesson relatable by anchoring it to the individual.

“There’s an authenticity that really resonates when you’re talking about a personal experience,” Jay said. “We’re all good at something – find your expertise, that thing you know, then go from there.”

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