The 7 Steps To Delivering A Mind-Blowing TED Talk

Transform your run-of-the-mill presentation ideas by applying the "seven Cs of original messaging."

It's been said that there are no original ideas. But what may seem like old hat to you could become the next compelling TED talk.

You can transform your presentations by mining your expertise, experience, and epiphanies. Start by writing down things about your work; your best practices, non-negotiables, and the things you'd like to pass on that you think would open people's minds and get them talking.

Next, take those ideas and run them through the “Seven Cs of Original Messaging.” These criteria can be used both as a guide and a litmus test to come up with a big idea that pops you out of the pack.

1. Clear

A Hollywood producer once told me that directors can predict when their movies will make money. How? Simple. Do people walk out of the theater repeating something they heard word for word? If so, they become word-of-mouth advertisers. When people ask, “Seen any good movies lately?” they’re talking about your movie and marketing it to profitability.

The same applies to your TED talk. Can listeners repeat your big idea word for word? If they can, they’ll become your advocates. If they can’t, your big idea will be in one ear, out the other.

Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech for Philadelphia’s University for the Arts shows the payoff of distilling your big idea into a crystal-clear sound bite. "Make Good Art" resonated so powerfully with the initial audience of hundreds, the video went viral within days and was turned into a best-selling book.

2. Compelling.

You’ve got 60 seconds to capture an audience's attention or else they’ll start checking email.

No perfunctory opening. No, “I’m glad to be here today and want to thank the organizer for inviting me.” That’s predictable, and predictable is boring. Pleasantly surprise everyone by jumping right into your origin story or into a compelling, counterintuitive insight that flies in the face of current beliefs.

Test your premise beforehand with colleagues. If they say, “I already know that,” it’s back to the drawing board. Or, as comedian George Carlin said, “What did we go back to before there were drawing boards?” Keep tweaking your idea until people’s eyebrows go up (a sure sign of curiosity) and they say, “Hmmm. That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

3. Current

The keynote speaker at a recent conference used the often-referenced “Pygmalion in the Classroom” study of how teachers’ expectations affect student performance as the basis for her presentation. Really?! That study was done in 1989! She couldn’t find any current studies to make her case? Referencing such an outdated source undermined her credibility.

Recency = relevancy. What just-released report can you reference to prove your point? Recent research will get their attention, and respect.

4. Congruent

After you’ve come up with a big idea, run it by your gut. Ask yourself, “Is this congruent with my voice, my vision, my values? If someone suggests a topic, but it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong for you. A TED talk is your point of view, not someone else’s. What do you passionately believe? What is a heartfelt legacy message that sums up what you’ve learned from life?

An executive called me a week before his program and said, “I hope you can help. I’ve been traveling almost nonstop, so I asked our company speechwriter to help prepare my talk. It’s well-done, it just doesn’t sound like me.”

I told him, “You’re right. A TED talk has got to be your voice. Get a recorder and ask someone to take notes while you read the script. Every time you read something and think, ‘I would never say it that way,’ say out loud how you would say it. Don’t censure or second-guess yourself, don’t try to be eloquent, and don’t overthink it. Just keep moving forward, rewording it into your natural voice. Ask your assistant to integrate your phrasing into a new version and then read it out loud again until you wouldn’t change a word. Now, it’s your talk.”

5. Commercially Viable

The purpose of a TED talk is not to sell your products or services, and it shouldn't be your first concern. The fact is, though, an excellent talk will scale your visibility and viability. It will drive business to you.

Witness what’s happened to Brené Brown. Brené was a professor when she spoke for TEDx-Houston. She was popular at her university, but hardly a household name. Her talk on vulnerability was so evocative, it was quickly uploaded to the TED.com site and has since received 11 million views. Her resulting Oprah appearances have made her an international fan favorite, generating lucrative book deals and high-five-figure keynotes.

6. Consistent

It’s important for your TED talk to be consistent with your brand positioning and primary focus. Ask yourself, “What do I want my next one to three years of my life to look like?”

For example, a colleague was asked to give a TEDx talk about bullying since she’d had a horrific experience being bullied at work. She feels strongly about this issue, and has a lot to say about the importance of speaking up instead of waiting for HR to rescue you (not going to happen). But she is a management consultant. She doesn’t want to keep reliving that negative experience by speaking, consulting, and doing media interviews on it. It wouldn't serve her goals to drive demand that’s inconsistent with her priorities and the quality of life she seeks. It’s smarter to select an idea that’s in alignment with what she wants to accomplish the next few years.

7. Competitive Edge

I had an opportunity to hear the Physics Nobel Laureate Dr. John Mather speak recently. Following his talk, I asked him, “What’s your next “big idea?” He said, “I’ve got one, but I’m researching to see if anyone else has gotten there first.”

Exactly. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead said, “It’s not enough to be the best at what you do; you must be perceived to be the only one who does what you do.” Once you have a clear, compelling, current, consistent, congruent, commercially viable idea, Google it to see if anyone else has gotten there first. If they have, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should abandon the idea; it just means you should design a provocative premise around it that hasn’t been shared before.

For example, watch Sir Ken Robinson, the most-watched TED talk of all time. Certainly, other experts have talked about the need for creativity in our schools, but no one does it quite like Ken.

Does your big idea meet all seven C criteria of Original Messaging? If so, great. If not, invest the effort to craft an original idea worth repeating. Your audience, career, and legacy will thank you.

Sam Horn is on a mission to help entrepreneurs create more compelling presentations, pitches, and proposals. She is the founder and CEO of the Intrigue Agency, where she writes, speaks, and consults on strategic communications.

[Image: Flickr user Anders Rune Jensen]

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