How TED Changed Business Communication Forever

In 1995, Richard Saul Wurman, a renowned architect and graphic designer, called my shop. My friend who referred him gave me the heads-up that he ran some conference I’d never heard of in Monterey called TED. Wurman asked a handful of brilliant questions around the display of information (his area of expertise) and my answers sounded totally dumb. I was self-taught and just starting to bumble my way through defining presentation best practices. In my infancy, I was unimpressive.

I have had a couple of important moments in my career when I came up empty-handed like this. I rebounded by digging deeply into information visualization. I bought Wurman’s and Tufte’s books and devoured them. There wasn’t anywhere to get trained on the visual display of information for business communicators so studying these two masters was a great baseline.

Fortunately, I was ready for TED when Chris Anderson called 11 years later. Anderson changed the TED model from an exclusive event to an open-source media powerhouse with a vision to spread ideas instead of providing exclusive access to them. He, too, had high expectations for the power of a great talk. There’s no doubt that his efforts have paid off. In 2012, TED won a Peabody Award. Who would have thought that an organization that curates, captures, and distributes presentations would win one of the most prestigious awards in media?

TED’s success has changed the expectations of audiences everywhere. There’s a lovely phenomenon I call the TED Effect. It’s that moment, like the one I had when speaking to Wurman, where you know you’re not quite good enough, and if you don’t get better, it could impact your future. TED and Wurman helped me form my point of view on the importance of improvement. And along the way, they’ve helped many other people change the way they think about not only about the topics at hand, but also about the way we present those topics. Here are five ways TED has changed public speaking.

/01 Audiences have someone to compare you to:

It used to be that most people sucked at presenting. So if you sucked too, you were rarely called on it because so many people were just like you. But now, with TED talks, people have something to compare you to. If even the geekiest scientist can mesmerize you with her ideas on the TED stage, people start to realize that it’s no longer OK to be boring. Today, if you suck, it will hurt your brand.

/02 Audiences won’t sit still and take
it anymore:

Audiences have more distinguished tastes. If you do suck at a conference, people will get up and leave right during your talk. Audiences who used to suffer quietly, now use social media backchannels to see what their neighbors think of you. In the worst cases, people can use social media to revolt and cause walk outs. You can compensate for a bad talk by keeping it short. An audience can endure a bad, short talk better than a bad, long talk, but they still won’t like it.

/03 Audiences are used to shorter media

We’ve quickly become a culture that prefers information in short bursts. The popularity of social media, blog posts, and the thirty-minute sitcom are proof of that. If you have an hour to present, do not use the entire hour for a one-way diatribe. Mix it up with different speakers, vary the media types, introduce interaction, and save time for Q&As. The 18-minute TED talk length has proven that getting a great idea out succinctly—even if it’s somewhat complicated—creates greater traction than diluting your talk with a bunch of detail.

/04 Audiences can tell if you invested time in them

The quality of your talk is directly proportionate to the amount of time you spent on it. People are crazy busy. If you ask the audience to give you an hour of their time then ramble, meander and bore them, they feel like you didn’t care enough about them (or your idea) to prepare. When the presentation is high-stakes, you can’t afford NOT to invest the time. You need to treat their time as precious. There’s a real trick to fitting within a tight time slot. It takes a lot of work, but the payoff is worth it.

/05 Audiences will spread great ideas

When you make the sacrifice to do a presentation well, the reward is that your ideas will spread, get adopted and create great change. The sheer volume of views on TED.com is proof of this reward. Even in organizations, the people who present well are the ones who get their ideas adopted, funded or purchased.

TED taught me a lesson about constant improvement. Next time you present, think about some of your favorite TED talks and why they stuck with you. Hopefully, what you take away will make your ideas worth spreading, too.

Congratulations to Chris Anderson and the TED team on the 30th anniversary of TED. Here’s to many more years of shaping how people present and spread ideas!

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