The anatomy of a great talk

TED talks are compelling; they keep your attention, they communicate complex ideas simply, they inspire, and utimately they are about sharing a great idea. The format is simple – one idea, eighteen minutes maximum, no reading and no complex slides.

How do you create and give a great talk? Or how do you support your speakers to give a great talk? Whether for a TEDx event or another type of public speaking engagement, I created some simple guidelines to help me coach my speakers and earlier this year helped me give my own TEDx talk:

1. Ideas worth spreading
Let’s start with some basics. A great talk doesn’t try to cover too much. Focus on one idea – a core message you want to communicate.

If you get to choose the topic of your talk it should be something you are passionate about – something that you can’t stop talking about because it is a topic that inspires you and you want to share with the world. Your enthusiasm should be contagious! Now ask yourself – what one thing about this topic do you want your audience to walk way with and remember? Get it down to one sentence – and voila – this is your idea worth spreading.

2. Put some meat on the bones
Now you can start putting together your talk, adding layers to tell a story. All my favourite talks tell a story and take the audience on a journey. I find it helpful to think about:

  • The BEGINNING: set the scene, give context, grab your audience’s attention. Do not apologise about your voice or ask people if they can hear you in the back. Often there is no need to introduce yourself, as the host will do that for you. Start strong with an idea, question or statement. Check out Pamela Meyer, Dan Pink, Johann Hari and Ash Beckham to get some ideas on how you can start your talk. And if you only remember one thing: don’t start with “So…”!
  • The MIDDLE: The middle is the meat of your talk. Break it down into parts. What does the audience need to know to understand your core idea? Use examples and evidence, or even better tell a story that illustrates your point. Don’t skip on details that add richness to your talk – if the audience can picture it in their mind it will help you take them on a journey. If appropriate set up a problem you are going to then give a solution to.
  • The END: where do you want to end up? What do you want to end on? Present your solution or resolution and reiterate your core message. If it makes sense give the audience a call to action. And please don’t trail off: end strong and let the audience know you are finished.

The above is an example of one format and I usually start by thinking about the end, then the opening and that helps me to see what I need to say in the middle. Depending on how much experience you have, you can play with the format, but regardless you must start and end strong!

3. Timing is everything
One of my favourite TED talks, which has almost five million views, is three minutes long. A longer talk doesn’t mean the topic or the speaker are more important or better. TEDx talks can be a maximum of eighteen minutes long, but in my experience talks over ten minutes are very hard to do well. Giving an eighteen minute talk that will keep people’s attention is very difficult and requires a lot of practice. Most of the speakers I have worked with find the time restriction difficult, but if you spend some time watching talks online, you’ll see how even the most complex issues can be communicated simply relatively quickly.

4. Visual aids
The visuals you use can have two purposes – to help you or to help your audience. Let’s look at two types of visuals – slides and props.

Props (physical objects) – I love props (as long as they are relevant and easy for the audience to understand). A prop that takes more than a few sentences to explain can be a distraction. Using props well illustrates your point and ideally reminds the audience of your core idea.

Slides – when TED started to get popular one of the things that set the talks apart was that they avoided death-by-powerpoint. It is ok for your slides to help you remember your talk, but only if they are not distracting. Here is a quick checklist of dos and don’ts for slides:

  • Don’t have loads of text that you read out; the audience will be unable to help reading it instead of listening to you
  • Don’t use overly complex graphs or graphics
  • Don’t use slides because you feel that you should
  • Do use one concept, quote or image per slide
  • Do use simple graphs or images to visualise what you are saying.

5. Practice makes great
Once you have your idea, your script written and your visuals ready, you are half way to a great talk! The rest is practice. The goal is for your talk to be a conversation with the audience – for it to flow and feel and look effortless. Think about your favourite stand-up comedian – even when they look like they are improvising or ad-libbing, they have carefully crafted every word and practised for it to look spontaneous.

I’m not just talking about remembering the words. Although you do start there, your practice will go through three stages:

  1. Memorise the structure and outline
  2. Memorise the full talk
  3. Memorise the intonation and delivery.

Lots of people stop at point one, and most stop at point two, which can make your talk sound flat. So even though you’re not reading your talk, it can sound like you are. The most common protest I hear from people is that they don’t want to sound overly rehearsed – they want to sound natural and off the cuff. Unless your job is to give talks about your core idea everyday, this attitude doesn’t work. Even the most experienced speakers know that they have to practice. It is what makes a good talk into a great talk.

This is what happens to most people as they practise:


You start off pretty good, as you are often talking about something you know well. You’re spontaneous and it can sound and feel good. But it is not reliable and you can’t consistently deliver. As you practise more, your talk can start to feel more forced, a bit flat and you keep forgetting things. Lots of people stop here; they feel frustrated and want to go back to feeling natural again. However, the key is to keep going. To get to a point where the words flow like a conversation. At this point, you won’t be actively trying to remember your talk, instead you will just know your talk – like driving a familiar route – and you can now focus on delivery, intonation and using the stage.

6. Stand & Deliver
Now it is time to start thinking about how you will deliver your talk. First off, please don’t start talking at all until you are properly situated on stage or at a podium. Walk to the point you are aiming for, stop, look at the audience and start.

Think about how you will use the stage. Will you walk around? Will you use your hands? Have you practiced pausing? If you can get on the stage where you will deliver you talk and practice before the event then this is ideal. It is always better if your first time on that stage is not the moment you’re delivering your talk to a live audience. Get up there and get comfortable with the space, the lights and the way the clicker works in advance.

Finally, if your talk is being recorded think about how it will look on camera. Are you moving around too much or not enough? Are you looking down all the time or only looking at one part of the audience? Do you keep turning around to look at your slides? In fact – think about all of this even if you’re not being recorded!

Now let’s say you do all this, but you’re still nervous and want to have notes with you. Hopefully you won’t, but if you do, then here is one idea. Take an index card and for each part of your talk write one clear word or phrase that will prompt you. Put that card in your pocket, or on the floor,table or podium – even tape it to your water bottle! Now that you know it is there, if you panic or forget your talk, you can look at the card, take a deep breath and keep going.

Unless you are Ed Miliband and have sent your speech to the press in advance, only you (and the conference producer) know if you have missed something or said things in the wrong order. Don’t apologise or try to fill in with new material. It is OK to pause or take a drink of water and collect your thoughts. Remember, if you have practised lots if will all come back to you.

Hopefully the above fills you with confidence about giving your own TED style talk and know that anyone can be a great speaker – all it takes is a great idea and practice.

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