At TEDxPhilly I witnessed a beautiful thing – a community coming together to celebrate its changemakers. TEDxPhilly placed a premium on people who think and do differently. The interplay between technology and culture was fascinating. The focus on sustainable and accountable practices was both thrilling and daring.  Everyone was buzzing from the powerful ideas people were sharing.

And everything was gorgeous. Naturally, I am someone who revels in these things. The venue, The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.  The speakers. The attendees. The signs. The program. Gorgeous.

Some of the talks, however, could have been better.

I say this as a rhetorician. And as someone deeply invested in the art of the TED Talk. To date, I’ve helped 130 of my students give “mini TED Talks” – the talk of their lives in 5-minutes or less.

TED prepares TEDx organizers with a toolkit, tips for presenters, aka the TED Commandments.  I know, because I am a TEDx organizer for our campus event in March.  Then, there are the TED Talks themselves to guide speakers, a powerful collection of (mostly) exciting and engaging oral presentations.  But between the TED Commandments and learning by example, I feel there is much room in terms of providing guidance to speakers who are charged with “dreaming big” and sharing ideas that can change the world.

Many of the talks I saw at TEDxPhilly were good. But they could have been excellent– with some guidance. This is tricky because too many rules leads to a cookie-cutter presentation. And that would be the end of TED. We would stop watching the talks. What makes the TED Talks such a phenomenon is their creativity, their humanity, their diversity.  Give one person a data projector and 18 minutes and see what happens. The best ones use all of their available resources to find the freedom within the form.  It’s about getting back to storytelling.

Early morning, after TEDxPhilly, I began to draft some main topics I could develop to help people give these talks.

Things speakers need to consider:

  • Audience engagement/participation
  • Story/story arc/narrative thread
  • Point/purpose
  • Examples/anecdotes/slice of life
  • Delivery/style
  • Authenticity/voice
  • Pacing/timing
  • Structure/Organization
  • Visual engagement/slides/props
  • Meaning in the data
  • Take aways/ deliverables
  • Purpose/significance/the “so what”

When speakers are faced with a presentation, it seems there are three main questions to consider. I see these as the holy trinity of a good talk.

  • What is the story you are telling?
  • Why are you telling it?
  • How are you telling it?

Sounds simple. But each of these points can be an insurmountable hurdle in the quest for the holy grail – a brilliant TED talk.  I would like to hear from students and TEDx presenters about what they found useful in preparing for their talks.