Presentation Skills in English: How TED Talks Bring Presentations to Life

Make your presentation come to life with these classic techniques as used by TED talks

Perhaps you’ve learned that a good presentation has a clear introduction, main part, conclusion and possibly a question and answer session or workshop at the end? Well, yes, they do! But there’s more to a great presentation than that. If you want to make your presentations impactful, memorable and really resonate with your audience just like a great TED talk does there are various structures that you can integrate to do exactly that!

These structures may be revolutionary in terms of taking your presentations to the next level, but they’re not new, in fact they go back to the stories told by ancient cultures, stories that create drama, tension and were easy to remember even for people who couldn’t read or write.

In the 7th session of our Presentation Skills in English we explore these structures and look at how they are successfully integrated in some of the most important orations in history, right up to super popular TED talks nowadays.

Can you think of a story where a young person is reluctantly called to adventure, mentored by an older character and faces obstacles and challenges that they overcome by learning new skills, skills that transform them into a new and more able character? The Karate Kid? The Matrix, Dragonball Z? Star Wars? All of the above and many more follow what is called “The Hero’s Story”. This powerful archetypal structure is the basis for millions of stories, new and old and guess what? It is also the structure of great presentations like TED talks. Checkout this TED video to discover more about this structure.

But what does this have to do with presentations and how can you integrate this structure into a presentation? In this excellent TED talk, presentations guru Nancy Duarte explains. She also describes the secret formula that she discovered that is the key to engaging presentations and orations from masters like Dr. Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs!

There are plenty more techniques that you can use to get your audience’s attention. Check out this video which includes what we’ve already seen as well as a few more that you might see in adverts and infomercials.

Want to know more? check out this sample article and self-test from our Presentation Skills in English course to learn more and check your comprehension!

wonder woman illustration

What do great novels, superhero movies and great presentations have in common? How can sales techniques help you to get your point across? How can you incorporate the techniques used by inspirational speakers to make your presentation make a real impact on your audience? How can personal information, anecdotes and incentives help to bring your audience onside and keep them engaged? Read on to find out!

In this lesson we’ll be looking at some commonly used alternatives to the intro, main part & conclusion structure.

The Hero Story.

In 1871, anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor noted that many mythological stories had a common structure, which he described as “The Hero’s Journey.” Since then psychoanalysts, narratologists, mythologists and even people who study how to make great presentations have come to apply the pattern that Burnett Tyler described to their respective fields and found that remarkable similarities between the stories passed down by our ancestors to those found in everything from contemporary literature to our perception of the world and even in a great presentation.

This, surely, is no coincidence as the stereotype of an unwilling hero who (with assistance) can overcome obstacles to meet a challenge and in the process becomes transformed doesn’t just make for a gripping story, but also something that resonates with us as we attempt to overcome the difficulties and obstacles that life can throw at us.

Generally the hero is represented as an avatar of the audience themselves, representing how they are faced with some problem that they are reluctant to have to deal with. The hero then, successively, is obliged to face the problem, is tutored by a mentor and spends time “staring into the abyss” which results in new powers or abilities with which they overcome the original problem. At the end of the story the hero is empowered and transformed and the goal is achieved.

Often in presentations, the presenter takes on the role of mentor or tutor, an immensely powerful archetype which can create a sense of value in what you are saying. Think of classic cinematic mentor characters from modern media, like Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Star Wars films or Hagrid from the Harry Potter novels. These tutors are key to helping the hero to learn to develop new skills and powers.

Using the model of the hero story as a guide can make a good presentation into a great presentation by doing various things. Firstly you can create drama and interest which will increase impact. Secondly you are following a path that the audience has walked along hundreds of times in novels, films and tales so they will find your presentation easy to follow and satisfying.

white and red glass smoking pipe

Hook, Meat & Payoff

This model of presentations breaks the process down into three main areas, the hook, the meat and the payoff.

This structure is based in sales techniques and even takes a somewhat predatorial perspective.

“The hook” section is focussed on enticing your audience, attracting them or grabbing their attention. This could be by offering to solve a problem that they experience or some system or knowledge that they can benefit from.

“The meat” is the substance of your presentation, the information that you want to get across. This could be about a product, a service, a system, it doesn’t matter, this is where you get to show them how it all works.

“The payoff” is the reward, this is where you show the audience how the subject of your presentation is of value to them. Maybe they could be making millions of dollars using your simple trick, maybe they could be saving time by automating aspects of their jobs. Whatever it is doesn’t matter, the principle is the same, your audience should leave the presentation inspired and ready to meet a challenge. The payoff is your value added.

Tension and Release.

The concept of creating and then releasing tension is something that can be seen in all media, from music to big blockbuster films with cliffhanger endings. Good storytellers know how to create tension or drama and then create a satisfying moment when the situation is resolved. Whether this is a character facing certain disaster at the end of an episode of your favourite drama or a presenter explaining a problem that we can all relate to, the pattern is the same.

In her book “Resonate”, presentation consultant Nancy Duarte describes how when studying presentations and great inspirational speeches she found a commonality that helps her to create inspirational and engaging presentations. In her TED talk (which is in itself a great example of form following function) Duarte describes how she had a “eureka!” moment when comparing the structure of powerful speeches and effective presentations. She subsequently compared presentations with speeches by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” speech and found that there are similar patterns.

Duarte says that we should start by describing a normal, mundane situation which presents some difficulty, then we should suggest to our audience that they imagine an alternative, a world where whatever problem or obstacle we faced had been removed, or we had some novel way of overcoming it. Then, she says, we should bring them back down to earth with a further descriptions of the nature of the problem that we face, before again imagining how much better the world would be if this problem were solved. By continuously oscillating between these two states, Duarte claims that we can create a kind of dramatic tension that will help lead the audience to our conclusion and create a satisfying moment of relief when the audience is given the key to solve their problem.

Rhetorical questions

Rhetorical Questions.

Can you remember a time that someone used a rhetorical question well in a presentation?

A simple question that doesn’t really ask for an explicit response is a great way to get your audience actively thinking about your topic.

The more actively your audience are engaged in your topic, the more attention they will pay to your message. If your audience is passive it’s less likely that they will remember what you said.

Anecdotes or Stories.

Many people use anecdotes and stories to great effect in their presentations. These could be anecdotes about something that they have seen or noticed or something that happened to them or even about historical characters, literary tales or imaginary characters who will represent something to us.

woman reading book to toddler

By humanizing concepts and showing abstract things in contexts that we can easily imagine you can communicate ideas efficiently. Not only does this help your audience to comprehend and assimilate ideas, but by creating a relatable narrative your presentation will be more memorable which will help increase its impact. Another benefit of stories or narratives is that you can use them to invoke emotions that your presentation would normally not stir.

Looping Back

Another useful strategy to make your presentation resonate more with your audience is to use the previously mentioned technique of using an anecdote or a personal issue to make the information that you are imparting more relatable.

Looping back simply uses that anecdote or story to “encapsulate” the presentation. Imagine starting the presentation with a story about a girl who faced some problem, a problem that the audience can relate to. If after presenting your information or data, you have then imparted new insights or skills, looping back to that anecdote and showing how the application of the information presented can resolve that situation or overcome those obstacles not only gives your audience a satisfying narrative resolution but also emphasizes the practicality of what you have presented but can also inspire your audience to try their new skills for themselves.

This strategy is especially effective when combined with stories and anecdotes. By starting a story in your introduction and coming back to it at the end you can create a degree of suspense at the beginning of your presentation which is satisfyingly relieved at the end.

cheerful young woman screaming into megaphone

The Call to Action.

A call to action is exactly what you would imagine, this is a challenge to your audience to leave your presentation with a mission.

Perhaps they will be applying a new skill or ability to something, perhaps using a new awareness to identify opportunities. Whatever the subject of your presentation, the objective is that by having imparted this knowledge to your audience, the world is somehow different. Seeing how your topic can help them achieve their goals can be a great motivator and will really increase enthusiasm about your topic.

The call to action should be simple and explicit as imperative as possible, like

“When you leave this presentation, as you go home, I want you to be alert and count the number examples of what we have talked about you can see on your way home. You’ll be amazed at how many opportunities you were missing out on!”

or

“Now that you have seen the damage that can be caused and the good that can be done by choosing badly or well you can all leave here knowing what you need to do to make the world a better place!”

That just about covers all of the main techniques that you can see employed to make presentations as engaging as possible. Perhaps some of them seem a bit dramatic for your presentation about last months expenditure, but hopefully some of these ideas will inspire you to take your presentations to the next level.

Try incorporating them into your next presentation and see how effective they can be!

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