I’m not Victoria Brazil either.
I’m not even Ross Fisher (sorry about the “even” Ross, but look at the company you keep!).
Still, I’m going to hit you with some advice.
And, no, this is not “How to give an unforgettable talk” redux.
Never take advice from anyone prepared to give it to youunknown source (perhaps Groucho Marx, but I can’t verify that)
The TED talk is now a “thing” and has been for some time.
Once upon a time, talks were good or bad for specific reasons. Now there are just “TED talks” and “not TED talks”. TED style talks have their merits: they have an engaging format, tell a story, make for easy listening/ viewing and are designed to inspire. At SMACC we once even sent out free copies of “Talk like TED” to all of our speakers prior to a conference.
However, TED talks are not always everything they are cracked up to be. In particular, if the “rules” are slavishly followed, the talks can become metronomic, repetitive and boring. Sometimes the complexity of the topic doesn’t lend itself well to being expressed by a single image of our ‘pale blue dot‘ floating through space. TED talks can be prone to over-simplification and facile predictions of a future that will never occur. Sometimes there is more style than substance and the whole thing just feels staged:
When you pack a bunch of talks like this together and tie them up in a parcel, you get accused of trying to spread awesome and inspirational ideas that cannot be challenged. TED has been accused of this, and SMACC sometimes elicits similar rumblings. This hurts, particularly, if you believe that absolutely nothing should be beyond challenge. Though I have to admit, I’m quite OK with trying to provide a stage for things that are both awesome and inspirational.
I think the TED talks that actually work adhere to sound presentation principles, like those of Richard Mayers’ Theory of Multimedia Learning. They tackle real problems realistically and avoid amorphous psychobabble about imagined possibilities. They are delivered by a speaker that succeeds in delivering her own personality, with her own individuality and imparts her own expertise and experience.
Nevertheless, some speakers break many of the rules and still make a great talk. I’m partial to the occasional ‘mad professor rant’ myself:
At smaccDUB I saw great, very different, talks delivered by people with notes in their hands and no slides on the screen — look out for Richard Smith discussing ‘The Perils of Peer Review’ and Christina Hernon on the “The Impromptu Immediate Responder” on the SMACC podcast soon. I saw John Carlisle talk about ‘Finding Fraudsters’ as if he was a small child describing the work her Daddy did, how he used Monte Carlo simulations to check for non-random (i.e. unreliable) data in randomised controlled trials submitted to journals. This talk inspired me to go away and read his journal article. I saw inspirational researchers like Steve Bernard, John Myburgh and Kathy Rowan presenting ‘science’, would you believe. I saw Iain Beardsell debate thrombolysis for submassive PE using song (!?!). I also saw Reuben Strayer and Ashely Shreves, with their own unique styles, give fantastic clinical talks on the management of agitated patients and palliative care respectively. These were just the tip of the iceberg. For me, in the audience, variety is the spice of learning.
So, what is the speaker’s secret to giving a ‘ripper’ talk?
I suspect the secret is to know what the experts say and know the principles that underpin effective talks in general. Perhaps, the best one-stop shop for learning these principles is the EM Cases’ Presentation Skills podcast and blogpost. However, once you know the rules, you may want to break them (George Orwell would approve). Break them if you think it serves a purpose. The purpose is whatever you want your audience to perceive. The ultimate purpose should be to challenge ideas, and spread challenging ideas. To do this you need to connect with the audience. You are giving the talk, not some TED clone. “Do it by the book, but be the author”. Figure out what works for you, and what works for your audience.
You won’t always succeed. This is OK, from failure we learn.