How to Give a 'TED-Worthy' Presentation

Even though this year's TED conference wrapped up in February, I've been contacted multiple times over the past few months by executives who want advice on how to give "TED-worthy" talks in their own shops.For those unfamiliar with TED, the annual event brings some of the world's brightest thinkers to Long Beach, Calif., to share ideas on diverse topics with the goal of changing the world. Despite charges of elitism—or perhaps because of it—TED, which charges $6,000 to attend in person, offers videos of the presentations free on its website. The videos are inspiring, fascinating, and thought-provoking. Beyond that, the speakers' delivery is excellent. Here are pointers I've culled from the talks. I suggest business leaders consider using them to improve their own presentations.

1. Keep it brief. TED is notable for limiting presentations to 18 minutes. I've written previously about the power of brevity.If scientist Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, "the world's most powerful global computation system," can offer an 18-minute presentation on his quest to make all human knowledge computational and searchable, then you can surely deliver your team update in the same amount of time or less. Einstein once said that nothing is so complicated that it cannot be explained simply. TED talks prove it.

2. Talk about something you're passionate about. One of the most distinguishing traits of TED speakers is the most difficult to teach: The presentations are exciting and inspiring because the speakers are passionate about their subjects. Whether it's Al Gore talking about global warming or Ken Robinson discussing a new model for public education, the talks are powerful because they are delivered by people who care deeply about their topic and in many cases, have spent their careers obsessing over the content. If you're not genuinely thrilled to be sharing information, it will be very difficult to give a TED-worthy talk.

What does passion look like? In 2006, success guru Tony Robbins took to the stage to discuss his specialty, human motivation. Robbins has stage energy, lots of it. His body is in constant motion, his hand gestures large and expansive, he makes eye contact with every part of the room, and he even walks into the front row to high-five Al Gore. Great speakers bring all their energy to the stage.

3. Reveal a personal side. TED talks are often deeply personal. Activist Kevin Bales runs a nonprofit called Free the Slaves. His 2010 presentation on modern slavery began with a personal anecdote about how he discovered that slavery still exists in many parts of the world; 27 million people are slaves today, he says. While a sociology professor at a London University, Bales came across a leaflet that simply said: "There are millions of slaves in the world today." "No way," Bales recalled thinking. Then, he told his TED listeners, "I'll also admit to hubris. How could I be a hotshot young professor who teaches human rights and not know this? It can't be true." Curious and driven, Bales visited five countries and talked to slaves and slaveholders. His first-person experiences, stories, photographs, and videos formed the basis of his talk. Bales received a standing ovation.

4. Design simple slides. Speaker slides for TED talks are strikingly simple. Talented and confident speakers know that the more complex the topic, the more important that it be easy to understand. I was particularly surprised by one speaker in the 2010 conference—Bill Gates. The former Microsoft (MSFT) CEO was never known for visually simple slides while he ran the giant software company he co-founded. But as Gates has transformed into a global advocate for helping the world's poor, his presentations have evolved, with more photographs and less text.

In February 2010, Gates offered the bold proposition that the world must reduce its carbon emissions to zero in the next 40 years in order to avoid environmental and socioeconomic catastrophe. That's a tall order for an 18-minute presentation. Near the end of his talk, Gates said that if he had only one wish for the future of the planet, he wouldn't want to pick the next President or create a new vaccine. His "one wish" would be to reduce emissions globally, to zero. As Gates spoke about his vision and its implication, his slide showed a satellite photo of planet earth with the number zero in the center. The slides focused the audience's attention where it should have been—on the speaker.

5. Lose the slides entirely, sometimes. Jill Bolte Taylor was a 37-year-old Harvard University brain scientist when a blood vessel exploded in her brain. Her presentation about that stroke was memorable for her personal story and research—and for what she did outside the slide deck. To best explain how both hemispheres of the brain work, she put on some latex gloves and displayed a real human brain. Audience members squirmed, but they probably remember her talk.

You may never be invited to give a TED talk and you may never decide to pay $6,000 to attend the conference. If you work these suggestions into your presentations, though, you will face much better odds of impressing audiences.