The 10 Commandments Given to TED Talk Speakers


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Ziauddin Yousafzai TED2014, Session One - Liftoff! - The Next Chapter, March 17-21, 2014, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

When you happen upon a really good TED Talk, few things are better. One 15-minute video can change our entire outlook on a subject, and if it’s a particularly compelling one (like these favourites from last year), they can redirect our watercooler conversation from reality TV to concepts as deep as neuroscience and what it means to fail.

But there’s a reason the majority of TED Talks take us on such a journey – each speaker invited to present is actually given the 10 TED Commandments, in order to make their speech as engaging as possible. (That explains it.)

Are you preparing for a presentation or pitch? These commandments will help refine your talk into something that moves people and compels them to reassess what they thought they knew.

1. Thou shalt not simply trot out thy usual shtick.
You know when you hear an interview with your favourite celeb, and they make a hilarious joke, then you hear them make the exact same joke on the couch of some other late night show? Don’t do that. Don’t peddle out the same old stuff. No-one wants to waste their time hearing you tell them something they already know.

2. Thou shalt dream a great dream, or show forth a wondrous new thing, or share something thou hast never shared before.
Originality captures the imagination and leads to legions of inspired followers. As per the first commandment, who wants to hear what they’ve heard before?

3. Thou shalt reveal thy curiosity and thy passion.
The best talks tap into the true enthusiasm and energy the speaker has for the chosen subject. If someone is talking to you about a subject it’s obvious they couldn’t care less about, you could barely care less either. Keep that in mind.

4. Thou shalt tell a story.
Who doesn’t love when a greatly inspiring TED Talk circles cleverly back to the opening anecdote, tying up all the inspiration into a perfect bow? Great talks are anchored by a story, and because that’s a big part of our history as humans, it feels great to have a beginning, middle and end. Your speech isn’t a David Lynch film – give it some flow, clarity and structure.

5. Thou shalt freely comment on the utterances of other speakers for the sake of blessed connection and exquisite controversy.
Discussion is a bit boring if we keep pedalling out the same perspectives and answers – if your colleague has previously presented an idea you don’t agree with, tell people about it. Differences in opinion is how innovation is bred and if you tread lightly and intelligently enough, your colleague might even thank you for adding some fire to the argument.

6. Thou shalt not flaunt thine ego. Be thou vulnerable; speak of thy failure as well as thy success.
To err is most certainly human and no-one is perfect. Because we’re all alike in that way, it’s nice (note: inspiring, uplifting, though provoking, etc), when someone admits a fault, discusses a mistake, takes some blame in the face of failure. It’s what makes you you, but also what makes you like others, and the best part of mistakes is learning from them. Help your audience do the same by being honest about how you’ve bounced back – they’ll be grateful for your frankness.

7. Thou shalt not sell from the stage: neither thy company, thy goods, thy writings, not thy desperate need for funding; lest thou be cast aside into outer darkness.
There’s a reason that being sold to feels icky – it’s the desperation of someone to capture your wallet, rather than your interest, that seriously puts people off. Put away the rolling suitcase and forget the sales speak – if you concentrate on what someone might feel if they didn’t buy into your idea as opposed to why they should buy in, you’ll be much more successful.

8. Thou shalt remember all the while: laughter is good.
Laughter loosens people up and makes you a more relatable speaker. Try it sometime.

9. Thou shalt not read thy speech.
Probably the worst of all public speaking sins is the temptation to disappear into your notes and read, as opposed to speak, to your audience. If they wanted to be read to, you could’ve just sent them an email with your speech content – make sure you practice (in front of others too), so that you’ll only need a prompt when it comes to presenting.

10. Thou shalt not steal the time of them that follow thee.
How would you feel if you were the person waiting to take over during talking time? Waffling on is never a positive – make it (relatively) short and sweet, and give others the courtesy of enough time to speak.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson


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