The 10 Commandments of TED Talks

I recently discovered a book titled “How to Deliver a TED Talk” by Jeremey Donovan. Now for anyone unfamiliar with, I warn you…once you go, there’s no turning back. To quote Jeremey, “TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to amplifying electrifying ideas from the domains of technology, entertainment and design.” And in the process, TED has developed a reputation as a hub and home to some of the best speakers and presenters on the planet. TED talks are a maximum 20 minutes long. And some of the best are under 10 minutes. But the content and delivery is often so engaging that you literally lose track of time. That’s why I offered the warning in the first place. But I’ve never regretted a minute that I spent listening to new ideas or experiencing new stories on Anyone familiar with TED and my material will attest that some of my best stuff is based on content originally discovered on TED. But this isn’t meant to be a TED commercial. Like Jeremey, I believe we can all learn not only from the stories, but from the storytellers.

TED has garnered its exceptional reputation by carefully selecting and vetting the talent they put on stage. And part of that defining process is what is known as the TED Ten Commandments. I had never seen them before and I recognize that a few of them may not easily translate to our own presentations and sales methods. For that reason, I’ve arranged the list in an order that I believe to be from the most relevant to our situation, down to those very specific to TED’s purpose.

  1. Thou Shalt Reveal Thy Curiosity and Thy Passion.
    If you’ve ever pitched to someone and their response was “I’m not interested”, it was because you weren’t interesting. If you’re not exciting, they can’t be. BTW…everyone in the room wants you to be interesting. So it’s up to you to deliver. Record yourself and then listen. Would you find yourself interesting? If not, rework and repeat.
  2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wonderous New Thing, or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before.
    No one really wants to hear “if Facebook were a country, it would be the 3rd largest”…unless they work for Facebook. Most everyone knows that. What your audience wants to hear is something unique…something fresh…something that makes them think.
  3. Thou Shalt Not Read Thy Speech.
  4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story.
    You can educate with data or you can enchant with stories. There are very few people who can make statistics and raw facts interesting. Jeff Jonas (an IBMer) is one of them. Chances are you’re not. Stories are data with a soul. Put some soul in your session.
  5. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee.
    TED talks are at the maximum 20 minutes. We often get 45-60 minutes to share. Consider what you have to say. You may only have enough quality material for 40 minutes…or 30. Know the most important things you need to say and make sure you get those in. Consider what you are going to say and for each topic ask yourself, “Would the audience suffer if they didn’t hear this?” If not, consider those topics as the ones that can go. If you want you can ask “Would the audience suffer if they did hear this?” In that case, put it immediately on the cutting room floor.
  6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt Thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of Thy Failure as well as Thy Success.
    It’s not about you or your career or your book. I don’t care who you are. It’s about your audience. It’s probably your credibility that got you the audience. Don’t prove them wrong. Come early to the session and interact with the audience before you start. Ask them why they came to your session. Ask them what they do. Be human. Those who serve are the best leaders. Be approachable. Be genuine. Be yourself. And if your character is one that is not approachable and humble, then be in the audience…not on the stage.
  7. Thou Shalt Remember All the While: Laughter is Good.
    I’ve never heard an exiting crowd say, “That session was awful…there was way too much laughter and fun.” People want to be pleased. They want to have fun. Laughter is a good way to get an emotional connection with your audience. It’s also a 2-edged sword. It has to be genuine and not at the expense of your audience. You can make fun of yourself, but not of them. And be VERY careful about “opening with a joke”. Try it on a number of people before your session. Unless you have comedic skills, a poorly executed joke at the start can set the tone for the entire session.
  8. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out Thy Usual Shtick.
    In conferences, remember that the audiences may have heard other speakers talking about similar topics. If all you do is draw from the same well, you’re wasting your time and worse, you’re wasting theirs. Think about what everyone else might be talking about and don’t talk about that. Be unique.
  9. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy.
    And if you’ve heard others say some insightful things, feel free to mention that in your session. Amplifying another’s message is a high complement. If you happen to disagree with another message, go for it. But in those cases, I’ve always tried to let my colleague know I was going to disagree, what I disagreed with, and welcome them to come to the session. Be open.

And the one most specific to TED that at first glance appears difficult for us:

  1. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither Thy Company, Thy Goods, Thy Writings, nor Thy Desperate Need for Funding, Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Utter Darkness.
    Before you dismiss this last one, I’ve tried this approach. I’ve found that when the story is “Wonderous” and a “Great Dream”, I’ve had audience members actually come up afterward and ask “That sounded incredible. Can I buy that?” If you’re “selling” an idea or a product and you can get them asking to “buy that”, you win.

Think about these commandments next time you are called upon to take a stage or honored with an audience. Did you just take the “usual shtick” from marketing and “read the slides”? Did you “flaunt thine ego” by arriving at the last minute and not connecting with the audience before the session began? Were you able to connect with them in such a way that there was “laughter”? Were you passionate about your “dream” and “wonderous new thing” or were you just reporting facts and features? Were you focused on the “sell” and not the “story”? Remember this; we have something to say…not just something to sell. Say it well and it will sell.

Remember this; we have something to say…not just something to sell. Say it well and it will sell.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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