Learning from TED

I was fortunate to have attended the fantastic TEDxStanford event the other day (videos to be posted soon). It was my first time attending any TED event (although I’ve viewed various TED talks online) and it was even more impressive, inspiring, thought-provoking, creative, energizing than expected. There’s something about “being there” live that made it quite impactful, all of the short 15-20 minute talks and performances, nicely “lighting up different parts of the brain”, as the host described.

Also it got me wondering just what is that makes a TED talk so memorable and special? What’s that secret sauce (and primary ingredients) that we could adapt into our own presentations at work? Based upon my own personal recollection and experience, here are my quick takeaways:

– There is a vivid, powerful, personal emotional connection to the topic…such as a family member, close personal friend, or even yourself as the ultimate protagonist who suffered severe trials yet overcame them to achieve a more enriched, positive outlook on life.

– A strong sense of storytelling, not just fact-conveying. While many speakers had Powerpoint slides, and some were even quite dense or visually just ugly, they didn’t detract because the speaker was telling a vivid, authentic story that moved the audience.

– Use of familiar analogies or metaphors to relay and distill highly complex ideas. Of note was one speaker describing his methods of investigating cancers via novel molecular cell technologies. He used the metaphor of “molecular spies” using “walkie-talkies” to send reverse signals about possible cancerous developments in the body. Such familiar phrases made the concept approachable but also the speaker seemed more genuine and casually “down-to-earth”, despite being a truly brilliant PhD scholar.

– Lots of imagery, from the shocking and disturbing (like various physical medical disorders) to the hilarious and wonderful (like self-parodying images or videos). Minimal text and more visual and auditory stimulation.

– Very well polished, rehearsed, practiced, and researched talks. How many times did these speakers say “umm” ? Not much if at all. It truly seemed they were speaking from their heart or mind, authentically, not just trying to verbalize memorized lines. There’s a certain embodiment of the message that makes conveyance very real and meaningful. As EM Forster said, “only connect”, and indeed the best TED speakers do just that at a very profound level.

– Every talk compelled me to think about my relationship to my friends, family, and world in a different way. There was some appeal either explicit or implicit to affect change in the world for the better, either through specific action or critical thought about mundane issues.



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