What makes an “idea worth spreading”?

Last week I was fortunate enough to see the opening session of TED 2016: Dream. It got me thinking about TED’s famous tag line: ideas worth spreading. What makes one talk stand out? What makes you share a talk and tell your friends about it? Why did I immediately share one talk when it came online and not another?

While working with two of the speakers for TEDxEastEnd’s January 2016 event – Magnus Lindkvist and Greg Constantine – we discussed what makes a great “TED-style” idea. More specifically, we discussed, how do you tell a story about an idea that engages your audience, compels them to want to talk about it more and spread your message with their networks?

When working with speakers, I explore seven elements that help them communicate their ideas using the TED format in the most compelling way:

1. Authentic

Authenticity has as much to do with your idea as it does with you. Being authentic makes your idea authentic. What is your natural style? Bring your personality into your talk. Trying to be funny or serious when that isn’t who you are will ring false with the audience and this superficiality will transfer to your talk. Be honest, be open, be passionate and connect with your audience as if you’re having a conversation. If you are passionate about food waste tell them; if you are excited by binary code share it; if you’re angry about the human rights situation in Sudan don’t be afraid to express that anger.

The other component of being authentic has to do with the idea you’re talking about – is the idea authentic to you? By this I mean is this something you have worked on, laboured over, thought about deeply and kept you up at night? In short – are you committed to your idea or is this just a superficial interest? I’m not saying you need to be an “expert” – whatever that means – I mean, can you speak about this topic in a way that will reflect your interest and provide your audience with a new insight or understanding? You don’t need to be a computer scientist to talk about technology, or a CEO to speak about business, but you do need to connect the dots for the audience – why are you talking about this idea and why should they believe you?

Here is an talk I think embodies the idea of being authentic: Linda Cliatt-Wayman: “How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard”.

2. Relatable

Can you present your idea in a way that the audience can understand and relate to? Let’s say you’re talking about giant squids or quantum computing – can the audience connect to some part of your story? Perhaps it is a feeling – frustration, joy or excitement – or an everyday situation that led you to a breakthrough? Perhaps it is about linking your audience to a shared reference point – a work of art, a film or a sporting event etc? Maybe it’s a good old love story or a story of self-discovery? All of this makes you more relatable as a person and brings the audience closer into your world. One of the talks I heard last year which resonated with me the most was by Taiye Selasi: “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local”.

3. Shareable

Can you summarise the key message of your talk in one sentence? Can the audience walk away and say to their friends “I heard a great talk about…” or “did you know that…”? If you want people to spread your idea, then you have to make sure people both understand it and can summarise it with confidence.

If you want people to share a video of your talk online, then make sure you give a stellar performance on stage. This performance comes through thorough planning and rehearsing, creating simple and beautiful slides (if they are necessary), coming up with a great title and sharing the talk on social media, your website – everywhere! The more you shout about your talk, the wider an audience it will reach.

4. Contrarian

Presenting a contrarian opinion is one technique to use sparingly: you will be challenging the audience and you need to be able to back this up! Nevertheless, when done well, presenting an alternative viewpoint, challenging a popular assumption and daring the audience to think differently can be very powerful. Think about what people’s gut reaction will be – can you address this reaction in your talk? Pair this reaction with a relatable story and you may actually change what people think. To see a great example of this watch Johann Hari explain why “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”.

5. Inspiring

I would say the biggest mistake TEDx speakers make is trying too hard to be inspiring. That being said, an audience loves being inspired. So how does this work? Simply, don’t force inspiration, your story or idea may be inspiring without you even realising it. Get feedback from others and then think about details you can put into your talk that will make it rich and bring the subject to life. Being able to communicate feelings is key and don’t be afraid of showing your feelings; if you know the emotional journey you want to take the audience on, the effect can be very powerful. Remember being an inspiring person and having an inspiring talk are different and you don’t have to try to be either. If you’re not one of the 25 million people who have watched Simon Sinek’s talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” I highly recommend it to help you think about how you can communicate your ideas and what you do in an inspiring way.

6. Thrilling

Does your story have heroes and villains? Does it keep your audience wanting to know more? Having a thrilling talk isn’t easy, but it does make for a great experience for your audience. Basic storytelling techniques are very important if you want to give a thrilling talk. Think about the arc of your story and what conflict or challenge your hero will have to face. What details can you use to keep the audience on the edges of their seats? Last night I got to see Shonda Rhimes give an incredible and thrilling TED talk! It is a must-watch and also demonstrates how pace, repetition and a bit of drama can come together to create something incredible.

7. Intimate

One of my favourite TED talks starts with a confession and it’s a technique I used in my own TEDx talk. What works well about a confession is that it creates a sense of intimacy with your audience. You’re sharing something personal, you’re being vulnerable and you are trusting the audience with your feelings. It can be serious, it can be funny (or a bit of both), but sharing some of your true self can help reduce the distance between you and you audience by getting them to care about you, and, by extension, your idea.

In writing this piece, I’ve realised these seven elements that make an “idea worth spreading” aren’t purely about the idea: they are equally about you and how you present that idea. There is one thing I like to remind all the speakers I work with – there are lots of people who can talk about a certain topic or field, the key is to understand what you bring to the table that is unique. How you can use your experiences, feelings, stories and personal style to communicate the idea you want to share?

Read more event insights on my blog: www.maryampasha.com/eventsblog

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