Ted Talks (Book Review)

TED talks often get me intrigued and inspired about topics that I sometimes hadn’t thought about before. As someone who speaks to various audiences at work and at professional events, I’m always looking for ideas about how to be a better speaker, and TED Talks, The official TED Guide to Public Speaking sounded like a promising resource, and I wasn’t disappointed. The book provides some good guidance about everything from developing an idea to actually speaking on stage. Even if you never expect to speak on the TED Stage or any other, the book still has value. Anderson points out early and repeatedly that “presentation literacy” is an important skill for everyone. Even if you never present to a formal audience, learning how to organize and distill what you want to say is a valuable skill, and many of the concepts are relevant to writing as well. Keeping “presentation presence” in mind can be useful even if you are sharing an idea with a colleague. If you want to be a better presenter (in any context) this is a worthwhile book to read.

A key premise of the advice here is that an effective talk isn’t meant to convince or lobby, but to share your passion for an idea, and perhaps spread it to others. While this may sound like this book is not useful to those who are interested in selling ideas or convincing others, it may actually be. My first post-college job involved doing a bit of pre-sales technical support and the sales manager I worked with told me that “people told like to be sold to, they like to buy.” This resonates with my experience. If you can share well an idea that you are passionate about, you’ll find the people who are interested, and you avoid the discomfort that people often feel when they are receiving a sales pitch.

While reading I was both excited and saddened as Anderson explained why some conventions that you may have learned about presenting are a best not valuable, and at worst a distraction. I was excited because books such as Presentation Zen and Back of the Napkin helped me to understand that slides and other visuals are there to support your ideas, not be the medium for presenting them. But even with the popularity of TED and other approaches that get us away from the text heavy, read your bullet point slides approach Powerpoint presentations with dense bullet points seem to be an organizational standard that is hard to change. Even in elementary school, where powerpoint is a presentation option I cringe when I see the patterns that my son follows when doing a presentation for an elementary school class.

Anderson includes examples from a variety of good (and not so good) TED talks, which makes some of the abstract ideas more concrete. In some cases, he over does it, which makes the book longer than it could have been, but that is not a fatal flaw. When combined with the pointers to TED talks in the back, the examples make this book a bit of a “best of TED,” and a great way to learn more about the scope of TED topics if you have only seen a few.

Overall, this is a useful book that can inspire and guide you being a better presenter of ideas. Even if you don’t intend to present the first section will help you organize your ideas better. And the need to present may happen when you don’t expect it. The book ends with a survey of techniques to try and venues to practice. Even if you don’t expect to be a future TED presenter, this book can help you be a better presenter in any venue.