TEDMED: Top 10 Do’s and Don’ts

TED MED 2012TEDMED 2012 was simulcast to 2000 locations across the country last week, including UCSF. I was able to view a number of sessions, and paid close attention the presenters and their delivery. I was curious to see how these industry leaders would present their innovative ideas to a large audience. Would they use PowerPoint? Would they use the traditional lecture method? Would they use props, humor, or metaphors? Would the audience be given the opportunity to participate?

For the most part, the presentations were examples of good practice, but there were also a few examples of bad practice. I have identified 10 notable Do’s and Don’ts, and present these to you in the list below. We can learn a great deal from observing other presenters, especially during a showcase event like TEDMED. I encourage you to share your own thoughts in the comments section at the end of this post!

TED MED 2012: Top 10 Do’s and Dont’s*:

  1. DO – Tell stories. Storytelling is an art form, and one that is not easily mastered. A good story teller can draw an audience in, hold their attention, and then reward them with insight. Nearly all of the presenters told a personal story that helped the audience understand their point of view. For example, Bryan Stevenson began his presentation with a story about his grandmother, and explained how her influence on him as a child help to guide his successes as an adult. He related that story to his message, the power of identity and how it drives our actions, throughout the presentation. You could not help but feel inspired and empowered by his vision of equality and justice.
  2. DON’T – Neglect visuals. I was surprised and a bit disappointed by the lack of visuals used by a number of the presenters. In my opinion, many presenters missed a golden opportunity to use images that might have helped to illustrate their stories and give life to their data. Without these visual anchors, I found it difficult to stay engaged with some of the topics. I mean, did you see that GIANT screen behind them on stage?! There were exceptions, of course. I enjoyed the visuals presented by Mark Hyman, which were clean, clear, creative and complimentary to his presentation (as opposed to leading his presentation).
  3. DO – Show passion. If you want your audience to believe in your message, you have to believe in it first. I felt that the presenters all did a wonderful job of showing their passion for their topic. Showing emotion is a very powerful tool for a presenter if used at the right moment, and this can be done through body language (i.e. hand gestures), tone of voice (i.e. varying your tone for effect), and simply by using the right words (i.e. poignant adjectives).
  4. DO – Show personality. Nearly all of the presenters were able to exude some sense of their personality during their presentations, helping the audience relate to them. Too often, presenters are concerned with appearing “professional” and lose sight of their goals, which should be connecting with the audience and sharing their personal experience with the subject. From your choice of language and lingo right down to your clothing attire, it’s important to “be yourself” when presenting. A comfortable presenter is better able to read an audience and connect with them, whereas a rigid, overly formal presenter is more likely to talk at an audience.
  5. DON’T – Assume the audience understands. I thought that the presenters did a good job of this overall, but it’s worth noting. Anytime you are presenting to an audience of mixed backgrounds, it’s extremely important to provide them with bits of context and explanation of your topic throughout your presentation. The last thing you want to do as a presenter is lose your audience to some technical concepts that you tossed at them unexpectedly. And please always define your acronyms and abbreviations! For more info on “the curse of knowledge,” check this article and read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.
  6. DO – Use themes and metaphors. Effective and dynamic presenters use a variety of methods for reaching the audience, and they don’t just rely on their voice to do all the work for them. Themes and metaphors, which are typically used in conjunction with storytelling, add an element of interest to your presentation and provide your audience with another method of relating to and ultimately remembering your message. Ivan Oransky, a journalist, MD and editor of Reuter’s Health, used a baseball metaphor to help explain his thoughts on over-diagnosis. He likened an MD’s over-diagnosis of a patient to a baseball scout’s over-hype of a prospective player, and explained how that hype can affect a player’s future career. He tied it all together very nicely with a prop, which was a baseball that he held in his hands during the presentation. He did not waste time describing the prop, and instead let it serve as a subtle reminder to the audience of his underlying theme.
  7. DO – Polish your performance. There were very few “ummms” or awkward pauses in the presentations. Each presenter proceeded through their presentation clearly and concisely. This was no accident, I can promise you. I am sure the presenters worked and re-worked their talks over a number of weeks, and had help from their colleagues and the TEDMED staff during that process. It is also very likely that they practiced their presentations numerous times (in front of an audience), and rehearsed on the Kennedy Center stage. Being a content expert is one thing, but being able to clearly present your content to an audience of mixed backgrounds is something very different. It was apparent that the presenters put a lot of time and effort into their preparation… except for maybe Jill Sobule, who admittedly wrote of one her songs 5 mins before coming on stage (and still nailed it)!
  8. DO – Use humor. The power of laughter is undeniable. Even the most serious of presentations can benefit from a little humor. The challenge, however, is to make sure the humor is relevant, timely, and tasteful. There may be moments when a short comedic anecdote can effectively lighten the mood and refocus the audience’s attention. In other examples, creative humor can be used to make a point. My two favorites examples from TEDMED 2012 are both creative plays on words: “pharmageddon” was used by Mark Hyman to describe our obsession with using drugs instead of diet to treat many conditions, and Ivan Oransky used the phrase “pre-death disease” to describe our tendencies to place a label on every health issue.
  9. DON’T – Show your nerves. I did notice a few sweaty brows, dry mouths, and a few presenters who talked too fast and rushed through their presentations. These are all obvious signs of nerves, and completely understandable given the situation. Honestly, I’m surprised that I didn’t notice more nervousness, because although these great minds are content experts, and although they have given presentations before, it’s still nerve-racking to stand in a large performance hall under the lights! A bottle of water, which not only cures dry mouth but also forces you to pause and breathe, or a handkerchief in the pocket could have helped. Some may say that dabbing your brow with a handkerchief or drinking water in the middle of a presentation is tacky, but I say we’re only human and the audience understands! For more tips on overcoming stage fright, check these two previous posts (part 1 and part 2).
  10. DO – Involve the audience. Encouraging thousands to engage with a series of presentations on the scale of TEDMED is a daunting task. I felt the organization did a great job with their custom mobile app, which allowed viewers on site and off to chat with one another and post questions for the presenters. Some of that feedback was even incorporated into the presentations as a short Q&A exchange between the presenter and the MC. For more ideas on engaging the audience, check this recent post.

* Please note: My comments are based on only those presentations I was able to see live, which was approximately 15% of the 50 presentations. When the recorded videos are uploaded to the TEDMED website for public viewing, I will post the links here!

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