How to Give a Killer Presentation – Lessons from TED

I found a true gem for presenters on the Harvard Business Review website: Lessons from Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference series.

Chris starts out with a story to demonstrate that giving a good talk is highly coachable.

He recalls meeting Richard Turere, a 12-year old Masai boy, who came up with a solution to one of the biggest challenges livestock farmers in Kenya face: protecting their animals from lions and other wild animals. He devised a system of lights that created a sense of movement that scared off lions at night. The lights worked as imagined by Richard and soon villagers in other part of Kenya started installing Richard’s “lion lights”.

This is the kind of inspiring story that is perfect for a TED Talk. The only problem: Richard seemed not an ideal candidate to give a presentation to a large audience used to listening to polished speakers like Bill Gates and Al Gore. Richard was painfully shy and when he tried to explain his invention, the sentences came out incoherently. Despite of this, Chris invited Richard to tell his story at at the 2013 TED conference.

In the months prior to his presentation, the team at TED coached Richard to frame his story – to find the right place to begin, and to develop the story into a killer presentation.

Chris Anderson writes in the HBR article, “When he finally gave his talk at TED, in Long Beach, you could tell he was nervous, but that only made him more engaging — people were hanging on his every word. The confidence was there, and every time Richard smiled, the audience melted. When he finished, the response was instantaneous: a sustained standing ovation.”

So how does the TED team coach their presenters to frame, practice, and deliver their stories? The process to create a killer presentation starts six to nine months before the event. That’s right!

A real killer presentation requires lots of planning, devising, rehearsing, and lots of fine tuning along the way. The actual task of transforming a presentation from muddled to mesmerizing is a matter of hours…spread over a longer period of time.

How to Give a Killer Presentation Anywhere – Not Only at TED

Frame Your Story

We all have good stories to tell. The most vital part of making your story compelling is to conceptualize it and put it in a frame that people want to hear.

Think about taking your audience on a journey. As with any journey, how you start it and where you finish it is vital to the entire experience. The most engaging speakers quickly introduce the topic, explain why they care so deeply about it, and convince the audience members that they should as well.

Don’t cram everything you know into your presentation. Instead, use a few specific examples to highlight your ideas. Your presentation won’t be rated by how broad it is, but rather by how deep you can involve your listener into a few well explained details about the problem you are solving.

Plan Your Delivery

There are three main ways to give a talk. You can read it off a script or teleprompter. You can develop a set of bullet points that map out what you’re going to cover in each section. Or you can memorize your talk to deliver it word for word as you have practiced it.

Of course, the last method is the most time consuming during your preparation. It will require hours of rehearsing. Memorizing your talk, however, is also the most effective once you are in front of your audience. It is the one the TED team recommends to their presenters for a good reason: many of their best and most popular talks have been memorized word for word.

What if you don’t have the time or the presentation is not as significant as a TED Talk with 1,400 people in the audience and millions behind their computer screens? Go with bullet points on flash cards. As long as you know what you want to say to each point and transition well from section to section, you’ll be fine.

Another point Chris makes in the HBR article is to sound naturally. Present your information and story in a conversational tone. Don’t orate, don’t lecture. Be as natural as if you would talk to a group of your friends.

Develop Stage Presence

Just the thought of standing in front of an audience can be extremely frightening. To take off some of this edge, always remember that your words, story, and substance is much more important to the audience than the way you stand or if you are visibly nervous.

Richard seems quite nervous in his presentation about the “lion lights”, but people in the audience didn’t care at all about that. In fact, he built better rapport because the audience members could identify with this nervousness. Furthermore, they sensed that he is confident talking about his experience and story. That’s one of the reasons his talk was receiving such a positive feedback.

One of the biggest mistakes the TED team sees in early rehearsals is that people move their bodies too much. They sway from side to side or shift their weight from one leg to the other. They coach their presenters to keep their lower bodies motionless, which can dramatically improve stage presence. Although there are some presenters that are able to walk around the stage during their presentation (the late Steve Jobs was very natural doing it), the majority of presenters is better off standing still and relying on hand gestures and facial expressions.

The one aspect that will do most for your successful presentation is eye contact.  Pick a few audience members and imagine them as friends you haven’t seen in a while. Make solid eye contact with them while you update them on your work.

Plan the Multimedia

You probably have heard the advice about PowerPoint (or similar presentation software): Keep it Simple!  Don’t use your presentation deck as a crutch, as a substitute for notes. And never, ever read from your slides. It will only make the audience think that they could do that themselves in the comfort of their home or office. Instead, use powerful images that visualize the key points of your presentation.

In Richard’s presentation about his “lion lights” there are not text slides. They are not needed. There are, however, many photographs that engage the reader to take a short journey into Richard’s world.

If you’re going to use slides, it’s worth exploring alternatives. Prezi, for example, makes presentation software that offers a camera’s-eye view of a two-dimensional landscape. It allows the creator of the presentation to zoom in and out and rotate elements for maximum impact. But use those features sparingly. You wouldn’t want your audience to become dizzy while listening to your talk.

Putting it Together

The TED team starts helping their presenters at least six months in advance so that they’ll have plenty of time to practice. They want people’s talks in final form one month prior to the event. Why? The more practice the presenters can put in during the final weeks, the more compelling the presentation will be.

The most important thing to keep in mind though is that presentations rise and fall on the quality of ideas, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker. It’s about substance, not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics. If you have something to say, you can build a great talk.

Remember, there is no one good way to give a killer presentation. The most memorable talks offer something fresh, something that is engaging, and relevant to the audience.

Read the full article on the Harvard Business Review website.

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