How to Prepare a 20-Minute TED-Like Talk

More and more the call is for short speeches. Of course, the popularity of TED and TEDx talks is one cause, but the impatience of the times is another, along with our shrinking attention spans and all the other distractions competing for our mindshare.

Keynote speeches, which used to be 90 minutes, are now 60, and our clients regularly report that they are often asked to give a 20- or 30-minute version of their keynote speech – and sometimes on the fly.

So you’d better have a short version of your talk ready to go, along with that splendid, full-bore, detailed, 60-minute masterpiece.  How do you shrink what you have to say into a 20-minute miniature version of itself?

The secret to saying something memorable in 20 minutes is to resist the urge to say too much.  Changing lives in 20 minutes takes focus.  And that’s something that most people have a hard time doing.  In 20 minutes, you can say roughly 2500 words, give or take, and that’s not very many if you’ve set yourself the task of changing the world.  So you’ve got to narrow the field, resist the urge to say it all, and pick your details judiciously.

A good 20-minute talk presents one idea, tells one story, and asks one question.

1) Begin by choosing one idea.  Try to make it an idea that has universal interest, but where your specific expertise can usefully be applied.  Then, narrow it down and focus it until you can sum it up easily in an elevator pitch of a few sentences:

“As a neuranatomist, I study the difference between normal brains and the brains of the mentally ill.  One morning, I suffered a stroke, and experienced a mental disorder of my own. I was fascinated to learn from the experience.  Here’s what I learned while I was dying, especially about the differences between the right and left hemisphere’s experiences of reality.”

That, roughly speaking, is what Jill Bolte Taylor might use as a guideline for preparing her TED masterpiece on her “stroke of insight.”  It’s one idea, her expertise is highly relevant, it’s focused and it’s inherently interesting.

2) Next, pick one story to go with the one idea.  Make it a story only you can tell.  And make it a story with a point or lesson.  In the Taylor example, her story focuses on the drama surrounding the moment of the stroke, and what follows from that.  The insight Taylor brings to bear on her stroke lets her tell the story in a way no one else can.

The lesson she derives from the story is all about learning to live, especially in that right-brain, non-judgmental world of affirmation, and in the end it’s her affirmation in the face of such a harrowing life-event that makes her perspective powerful and unique.

Note that your story doesn’t have to be as dramatic or life-threatening as a stroke, but of course it doesn’t hurt.  The further down you are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the more viscerally you will grab your audience.  The safety level is the best place to be, but don’t fake it.  If your speech is not about life and death, don’t distort it to try to make it so.  Just tell it in the way that only you can.

3) Finally, ask one question.  A good talk poses a question, for which it has an answer that might be sketched quickly at the beginning of the talk, but for which the talk itself is the fuller answer.  Don’t be afraid to make it a big question.  In Taylor’s case, the question she asks is “Who are we?” – plenty big – and the answer is that we are boundless beings that channel and embrace the energy of the universe – but that have the physical body to do something with that energy.

Audiences always start out asking why – why should I care, why is this talk important, why should I listen – and it’s good to give a provisional, brief answer at the top of the talk, so that the audience relaxes and listens to the whole talk as the fuller answer.

Taylor cheats a little on this one, opening with the statement that she studies the brain because her brother suffers from mental illness.  So she studies the differences between brains like hers that allow her to dream her dreams and yet bring them into reality, whereas her brother’s dreams never become reality.

That does answer the question why, but her speech is not really about normal vs. mentally ill brains.  Rather, it’s about the universal and differing experiences of reality offered up by the left and right brains.

But by the time we get to the end of the speech, most of us have forgotten that entry point, so compelling is her story.

One idea, one story, one question. That’s  how you focus your thoughts to produce a coherent, potentially powerful 20-minute speech.

About the Author:

Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and presentation skill coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication and the good and bad speakers of the day.  For more information on his company, visit

3 Hidden Presentation Lessons From TED Talks

By Susan Trivers

A brightly lit stage, huge screen and one speaker in a circle of light talking to an eager audience for under 20 minutes. That’s a TED talk, and the model is very popular. Groups and associations are adapting this style to their own meetings and the phrase “TED talk” is it’s own definition.

What should you, the typical business speaker, learn from the popularity of the TED talk format? While most people mention the short time frame and the image-only slides, they usually don’t mention TED’s tag line: “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

“Ideas Worth Spreading” is about content! What made TED attractive is the concept that ideas–content–should be at the forefront of speeches and presentations. It’s not about slides or gestures or body language.

It’s about your ideas and how you craft your spoken content to share them. And it’s about your presence during your time in the spotlight.

How do you learn from TED Talks?

1) Have an idea that grabs people.

a. How can you think “inside” the box and see what others don’t see?

b. How can you reason against a popular theory or idea?

c. How can you help others imagine themselves becoming more like their dreams?

2) Use your own natural language.

a. Make an audio recording as you talk through your idea. This is informal, just to capture how you think when it’s freshest, and what that sounds like.

b. Listen to this again and again to keep the authenticity while you’re writing.

c. Trust yourself. Use only trigger words, not full sentences, when writing.

3) Practice and rehearse dozens of times

a. Practices are for you. Listen to yourself, love your own naturalness, play with your voice, only fix sticky parts.

b. Rehearsals change your focus to the audience: see them, imagine their excited responses, feel yourself being present in the moment.

c. Spend twice as long on practicing as you spend on writing. Spend another two times as much on rehearsing. You will not know the difference this makes until you do it, but afterwards, you’ll always practice and rehearse like this again.

Use the TED Talk format and the tag line “ideas worth spreading” to help you craft and deliver speeches and presentations that grab and engage your audience. Great content, delivered with passion and authenticity–now that’s an idea worth spreading!

About the Author:

Susan Trivers runs The Great Speaking Coach, a presentation skills training and consulting company.


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