TED: Presentation Literacy for Our Times

Sometimes a book comes along that causes you to fundamentally change the way you think about something familiar.  

There’s a new book, TED Talks, which drove home the awesome potency of communication, something I’m afraid I’ve been taking for granted. I ran across a book review written by my colleague Dana Rubin that caused me set aside what I was doing and order it right away. Written by Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, it somehow manages to be both practical and profound.

I’d like to share just one big idea that landed for me in what I’ve read so far.

Anderson writes, “As a leader­—or as an advocate—public speaking is the key to unlocking empathy, stirring excitement, sharing knowledge and insights, and promoting a shared dream…

The good news is, these skills are teachable. They absolutely are. And that means that there’s a new superpower that anyone, young or old, can benefit from. It’s called presentation literacy…

We live in an era where the best way to make a dent in the world may no longer be to write a letter to the editor or publish a book.  It may be simply to stand up and say something.”

That observation stimulated two insights.

First, communicating your message to a broad audience is no longer just for celebrities or politicians. Using the technology at our disposal, ordinary people have instant access to a global audience. I can sit in my home office and reach dozens, hundreds, possibly millions of people (well, someone could reach millions!) without having to get up from the chair.

We live in an era characterized by the amplified power of the voice:

  • TED Talks that are not only cropping up everywhere but which are available to watch or listen to on your phone or computer.
  • NPR’s Story Corps, a service that shares the life stories of everyday people.
  • YouTube, a resource for every possible interest from acting to zombies.

And then, of course, there is the increasing availability of live streaming video that’s viewable in real time around the globe. This not only lends immediacy to the situations but also has altered the course of events.

Anderson’s comment caused me to step back and reflect on the potency of communication in today’s day and age.

Combined with its potency is its accessibility. The skills are teachable.  Every time I watch a TED talk, I marvel at how comfortable, warm, inspiring and informative the speakers are. I think, “Could I ever do that? I don’t know.” And yet most of the speakers have day jobs. They don’t make their living doing TED talks (I don’t think). And they learned how to pull it off.

Which reminded me that, in a former life, I used to help people with disabilities and their families organize and deliver presentations. Most of them had never spoken in public and would not have thought it possible.

I would sit with them and ask them what they wanted to communicate. Then I’d help them organize those thoughts into a coherent flow. Write an outline or script and listen to them practice.

Did I know anything about public speaking at the time? Not really! But they had a story and the passion to share it and they were willing to seek help organizing their message. Not every presentation hit it out of the park. I could share a few stories of some that bombed. But they had the courage to share their stories and it touched people and changed lives.

Anderson reminds us that presentation literacy is just a fancy term for something that used to be a staple of every education: Rhetoric.  He states, “Today, in the connected era, we should resurrect that noble art and make it education’s fourth R: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic…and rhetoric.”

Even if you never want to do a TED Talk (maybe it’s on your bucket list?) I urge you to take a look at TED Talks by Chris Anderson. Whether you’re communicating one on one or on a stage, I guarantee you’ll find something there that’s thought provoking.