Presentation Lessons from the TED Stage

TED is a nonprofit organisation devoted to spreading ideas, in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984, where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics, from science to business to global issues, in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities all over the world.

This post takes inspiration from some of the best public speeches of all time, as witnessed down through the years on the TED stage. In it I outline ten common elements of TED talks, each of which can be used to increase the likelihood that your presentation will be a success, whether pitching to one person or speaking to a larger group.

Many people view TED Talks as the epitome of public speaking, a quality that is hard to achieve. That being said, there’s still plenty of little tips and techniques you can learn about good public speaking from TED. So let’s get starTed!

1) Show Up to Give, Not Take

Often people give presentations to sell products or ideas, to get people to follow them on social media, buy their books or even just to like them. Simon Sinek, one the most viewed TED speakers of all time, calls these kinds of speakers “takers”. According to Sinek, audiences can see through these kind of people right away. And, when they do, they zone out.


We are highly social animals. Even at a distance on stage, we can tell if you’re a giver or a taker, and people are more likely to trust a giver – a speaker that gives them value, that teaches them something new, that inspires them – than a taker.

2) Turn Nerves Into Excitement

As you are getting ready to speak, you will likely experience some nervous moments backstage. A certain amount of fear is natural. Taking the body’s signs of nervousness such as clammy hands, pounding heart and tense nerves, and reinterpreting them as side effects of excitement, can totally transform your senses of what you’re about to do. And, if all else fails just think back to TED star Amy Cuddy’s excellent pitch on how to power pose.


3) Tell Lots of Stories

Telling stories makes it much easier to connect with an audience by engaging the human brain. Quite simply, narratives, both oral and written, are the bloodline of humanity — there isn’t a single society that doesn’t tell stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. Why? Because stories connect us.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg took to the TED stage in 2010 with her presentation on women leaders. Her original TED talk was going to be full of facts and figures, and nothing personal. But in a last minute change to that plan, she decided to tell a story instead. As a playback of that speech reveals, the best way to connect with people emotionally is through stories.

4) Deliver a Simple Message

When delivering a presentation your aim should be to include only information absolutely crucial to your core message. Or in other words, keep cutting out the fat until left with only the meat. This core message is the only thing your audience really cares about. In fact, studies reveal that an audience typically retains only about 10% of the content they hear.


Astronaut Chris Hadfield received a standing ovation at TED for his presentation about facing fears. His slide deck contained 35 slides, 34 of which were photographs and short videos. There were a total of five words in his entire presentation. Hadfield delivered a simple, compelling message – and his presentation was a great success.

5) Make it Personal

In preparing a presentation you should look for ways to personalise it. Just remember that if someone else can deliver the presentation exactly the same as you then it’s not personal enough.

Bill and Melinda Gates appeared together at TED to explain why giving away their wealth has been the most satisfying thing they’ve ever done. The Gates’ show pictures of themselves and their children who, until that moment, had been largely shielded from the public. This personal touch added greatly to the presentation.


6) Provide the Unexpected

An unfamiliar, unusual, or unexpected element in a presentation will inject a shock into the audience’s seats and they will immediately begin to pay close attention to what you have to say.

Chris Anderson demonstrated this when he introduced Edward Snowden, famous for releasing thousands of classified NSA documents, to the TED stage midway through a his presentation. The audience was taken aback, amazed and curious. How could Anderson have got Snowden to make an appearance? Surely he would be arrested if he was in the US? As it turned out, there was a twist. Snowden did make an appearance, but it was via a screen mounted on a robot!

7) Add Some Humour

Humour is hugely powerful in presentations. It lowers defences and makes you seem more likeable to the audience. The most popular TED talk of all time is from educator Ken Robinson. In his speech on How Schools Kill Creativity, Robinson makes humorous observations about his chosen field, both educating and amusing at the same time. He packages serious messages around humorous anecdotes and asides that endear him to the audience, and make his speech hugely effective.

Related: learn about the public speaking secrets of comedians here


8) Just Smile

What is the easiest improvement you can make to your presentation? Just smile more! You will notice from Brene Brown’s TED Talk on Vulnerability that she smiles, a lot. In fact, none of what she says in the first few minutes is particularly interesting on its own, but her facial cues invite you in as more of a friend than an audience member. It’s such a simple way to turn any audience member into a keen listener.

9) Practice Relentlessly

Public speaking is not something you can just pick up overnight. You have to work at it, putting in practice and then more practice for various things like posture, diction, gestures, delivery, etc. That’s exactly what Harvard brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor did before her speech on the Stroke of Insight. In fact a little known fact about this presentation is that Dr. Jill rehearsed it over 200 times before she delivered it live. Relentless practice pays off.

Read about how I rehearse for a presentation here.

10) Keep it Short

A TED presentation can be no longer than 18 minutes. Science tells us that eighteen minutes is the ideal length of time to get your point across. To ensure you are equally effective, you should also adopt the 18-minute-rule when you make a speech.

Final Words

An ability to sell your ideas is the single greatest skill that will help you to achieve your goals. To make your next speech a success, follow the TED formula:

  1. Show up to give, not take
  2. Turn nerves into excitement
  3. Tell lots of stories
  4. Deliver a simple message
  5. Make it personal
  6. Provide the unexpected
  7. Add some humour
  8. Just smile
  9. Practice relentlessly
  10. Keep it short

Adopting these techniques – that have brought many TED speakers global acclaim – will make it much more likely that you will persuade your audience to act on your ideas.