Hey Scientists, Be More Like TED

The collective phenomena of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks have changed public awareness, discourse and action around many large issues. They successfully connect complex issues to non-technical audiences, an ideal in science communication. Hans Rosling’s presentations brought to life big data around human population, health and income, while shattering long held beliefs about their connections. Simon Sinek made us rethink how to inspire action by focusing on the ‘why’. Nobel peace prize nominated, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg offers a powerful voice for climate change action, succeeding where many before her have failed.

We could keep listing equally compelling TED talks but this isn’t meant to be a list of our favorite presentations- though the names listed above will come up again. Instead, we wanted to address why TED talks are so effective at captivating audiences and what lessons they provide to inform more effective science communication.

With an 18-minute maximum, TED talks pack a lot into a relatively short time. This means speakers have to be succinct and distill big ideas into a tight delivery. Many presenters work with coaches to craft and deliver maximum impact- and so can you. These talks are also a very instructive model for scientists hoping to engage wide ranges of audiences. After reviewing dozens of TED talks and speaking with a few of their presenters, we have documented a few key lessons you can use for your next speaking opportunity.


Create a story that communicates why audiences should care

Scientists are used to the Introduction, Methods, Research, analysis, and Discussion (IMRaD) format, so it can be difficult for them to think about how to present information outside of that construct. That formula works well for scientific publications and presentations. Science communication needs to reach out and grab a more general audience.

Let’s consider a different approach. If you aren’t speaking to a scientific group, develop a story arc that engages audiences at the very beginning, starting with an attention-grabbing fact, then moves along to include compelling information that makes your case, and leaves your audience with a satisfying summary. Avoid jargon to keep things broadly understandable. Along the way, don’t forget to tell people why you were interested in this work to begin with. Personal stories engage people much more than pure numbers. Statistics don’t create an emotional bond with your audience; instead try pulling out a specific example or two that highlight the problem.

When thinking about the flow of your presentation, don’t neglect to identify your overall objective. Whatever it is you want people to know or do after your presentation, ensure that you are effectively communicating that to them. Sounds intuitive, we know, but you might be surprised at how often that isn’t done. We tend to think of the range of options for objectives as falling between increased awareness (education), dialogue and feedback (engagement), and action (effecting change).

Like in TED talks, help people understand how what you’re talking about is relevant to them. Just because you think they should care about it is not enough. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand the issue from their perspective. If you haven’t already viewed Simon Sinek’s TED talk, it’s worth a look. In it, he breaks down why defining and sharing your own “why” is so important.


Think visually

You just can’t beat good visuals. I mean, have you seen Hans Rosling’s presentation about big (in all senses of that word) data? Statistical formulas and p-values have their place, it’s just not in presentations to non-technical audiences.

The TED stage provides a huge canvas for images to really have an impact. Whether your backdrop is as impressive as their screen sizes or not, graphics help convey your messages in ways that a thousand words could not.

Compelling graphics can overcome language and jargon barriers often present in science communication. They can transcend knowledge gaps. Images are more readily understood than data tables or even verbal explanations. Humans are wired for pictures. Take advantage of how accessible graphics are and think about the best way to convey information through maps, infographics, conceptual diagrams, and other forms of visual communication.

If you need some help on how to get started with visualizing data, David McCandless has a great TED talk on the beauty of data visualization.


Be present and connect

Lastly, be present and strive to have a conversation with your audience. TED talk presenters are usually well-rehearsed before going on stage. Public speaking doesn’t come easy to most people. It may take a lot of practice to look and feel natural on stage.

Many people literally fear public speaking more than death. That’s some deep rooted fear! To quote Jerry Seinfeld –

“This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

To compensate for the anxiety of having to present in public, some speakers hide behind the podium and their Powerpoint slides, so they are completely disconnected with their audience.

Remember, people came to hear your ideas. They want you to share your expertise and excitement with them. Make eye contact while you’re speaking and don’t read off the slides. Slides should be a backdrop and guide for your presentation, not a literal translation of it.

It’s also helpful to assess the body language and facial expressions of your audience members. Takes cues from their responses. Do they seem to be following what you’re saying? Do the seem to agree or disagree? Do they look confused?

If your format allows, leave time for questions and create conversations around your topic. That will provide a much richer experience for you and your audience.


Want some assistance in creating your outreach materials? Contact us to create a customized strategy.