Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk isn’t just any other TED talk. At 38 million views, it’s the #1 TED talk ever. (Yes, you read that right – it’s the most viewed TED talk ever.) Like other great talks, this one has some key strengths – it addresses a controversial topic (how schools are structured to stifle creativity and stigmatize creative children) and it’s delivered by someone who’s been knighted (which is pretty impressive in and of itself).
However there’s something you’ll notice about this talk right off the bat – the way Robinson starts the talk is nowhere near as strong as it could be. In fact, it leaves a lot to be desired as far as the opening of a presentation goes. In today’s post, we’re going to talk about why Robinson’s opening isn’t as solid as it could have been and what you can learn from it about how to start a presentation off strong.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check out Robinson’s talk right here:
In his 2006 talk, Robinson, a British author, speaker, and international advisor on education in the arts, discusses how schools kill creativity. In a nutshell, he argues that education systems around the world place the arts at the bottom of the priority list and fail to recognize the talent of children who excel at visual art or dance but struggle in traditional school subjects (e.g., math and science).
Although it isn’t a surprise to hear someone claim that the arts aren’t valued as much as they should be, the idea that our education system is failing in some way is still more than enough to make people sit up and listen. In fact, it’s probably what has made this talk so popular and catapulted it the very top of the TED talk charts. After all, unlike the #2 TED talk, which is an impressive example of how to deliver a solid talk, Robinson’s delivery isn’t what you want to model your next presentation after. This is especially true when it comes to using the beginning of his talk as a model for how to start a presentation.
So what is it that makes the opening of Robinson’s talk weak and how can you avoid making the same mistake? Here are the 4 most important lessons you can learn from Robinson’s talk about how to start a presentation:
1. Get to the point
If we had to choose one thing that makes the opening of Robinson’s talk particularly weak it would be how long it takes him to get to the main argument and meat of his talk. Just how long does it take him to get there? More than six minutes. For a talk that’s less than 20 minutes long, six minutes is a long time – it’s more than 25% of the talk!
What does Robinson talk about for these first six minutes? He summarizes the key themes of the 2006 TED conference, makes some jokes about attending dinner parties and wanting his talk to be over, and tells some stories. What’s wrong with telling jokes and stories during a talk? Nothing. In fact, they’re often ingredients of a solid talk. The problem in this case, though, is that they lengthen the time between when Robinson starts speaking and when the audience finds out what the talk is actually about.
If you’ve ever read a book or watched a TV series that started off slowly, you know that it isn’t much fun to sit around and wait for the key events of a story to start. The same is true of a presentation. If you don’t get to the meat of your talk within the first few minutes, you’re giving your audience a reason to stop paying attention to you.
When you watch Robinson’s talk, you’ll realize that the first six minutes aren’t that exciting. In fact, if we hadn’t been watching his talk because we were considering writing a blog post on it, we may have stopped watching before the six-minute mark.
So although Robinson’s talk is the most popular TED talk ever, we have to wonder how many people have started to watch it on YouTube only to stop within the first few minutes because it wasn’t holding their attention. Even though 38 million views is pretty stellar for a talk, who knows how many more views and shares it could have received by now if it was more engaging?
So how do you make sure that you get straight to the point in your next presentation? Let’s take some advice from content writing. In her book Everybody Writes: Your Go-to Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content content writing guru Ann Handley talks about how a piece of writing often ends up being much more engaging when the author gets right to the point. Many of us have a tendency to start off a blog post, report, or essay with a vague paragraph that doesn’t add much value to the overall piece. Handley shows how cutting this paragraph out can make your writing tighter and more interesting for your reader.
Although Handley directs her advice to writers, it’s also helpful for figuring out how to start a presentation. Instead of spending your first five slides providing vague, tangentially relevant information, try starting with one opening example or story and then getting right into the main part of your talk. Cut the flab at the beginning of your presentation so that you can get your audience focused on the things you really want to talk to them about.
You’ve worked hard to put your talk together, so don’t lose your audience before your presentation has really begun. Pay attention to how soon you get to the main part of your talk when you think about how to start a presentation.
2. Avoid making your audience guess
One reason why Robinson’s opening summaries, stories, and jokes make for a weak beginning is that it’s not immediately clear how they’re related to each other. Why? Because there aren’t any clear links or transitions between them.
Robinson starts off by summarizing some of the general themes of his talk (0:42), but before you know it, he’s telling a joke about a dinner party (1:17), and soon after that, he starts telling stories about a girl drawing a picture of God (3:44) and a school performance of the nativity scene (4:20). (Talk about a grab bag of topics.)
This abrupt switching from one point, joke, or story to another can make an audience feel disoriented and unsure of where they’re headed. Do you remember sitting in class and not knowing how the teacher got from one part of a math problem solution to the next? It wasn’t a good feeling, was it? The people listening to your talk don’t want to feel this way either.
To be fair, Robinson does make a fantastic use of storytelling later on in his talk when he tells the story of Dame Gillian Lynne, a renowned choreographer (15:15).
To illustrate the problem of stigmatizing the arts in education, Robinson explains how teachers thought an 8-year-old Lynne was a lost cause as a student because she couldn’t sit still in school. However, as soon as Lynne was placed in a dance school, she found herself surrounded by people just like her – people who had to move to think – and she went on to become the famed choreographer behind Broadway hits like “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” (Not a lost cause now, is she?) Robinson’s storytelling works in this case because it’s clear how it ties into his larger argument.
To make sure that the opening of your talk (and the rest of it) is coherent and easy to follow, make sure that there are obvious and smooth transitions between your ideas. Sometimes it can be hard to know where the gaps are in the story of your presentation; your points may seem obvious and logical in your head but not to someone else.
One strategy that can help you fill the gaps in your logic is to write a script for your talk. You don’t actually have to use your script when you deliver the presentation, but writing down a version of what you plan to say can help you think through your points and figure out whether they make sense in the order you plan to present them in. This can be helpful when you’re planning how to start a presentation.
3. Don’t overestimate what your audience already knows
Another reason why Robinson’s opening isn’t as engaging as it could be is because he spends time talking about things that his audience may not be familiar with. As we’ve mentioned, Robinson opens his talk by summarizing the key themes of the conference that are relevant to his talk. He also refers to an appearance or talk the previous evening by someone named “Serena” (2:48).
Now, we’re not sure how this 2006 TED conference worked. Maybe the people who attended it really did attend every single talk that was part of it. However, at most conferences, people attend some talks and events but not all of them. If there were people at Robinson’s talk who attended only a few other talks or didn’t see Serena on stage the previous evening, they may not have known what he was talking about when he referred to the key conference themes or to Serena. And most of us watching the talk on YouTube 10 years later have no clue either (although it probably isn’t fair to expect someone to tailor their 2006 in-person TED talk to a YouTube audience in 2016).
So what can you do to make sure that you aren’t making your audience feel like they’re lost in the dark when listening to your talk? Think carefully about the information they have, the real-world examples they’re aware of, and their level of knowledge on a topic. Referring to a local news event in a suburb of Chicago may be relevant if you’re giving a talk to people from that suburb but not if you’re delivering a talk to people in Manhattan.
When you’re trying to decide how to start a presentation, remember that people are most likely to connect with examples and stories that are relevant to them. And if people can connect with your examples and stories, they’ll be more likely to feel that your talk as a whole is relevant to them and be motivated to continue listening.
4. Plan the first 10 seconds of your talk
One of the first things you may have noticed about Robinson’s talk is that it’s a bit awkward right from the beginning. He walks onto the stage in an odd way (0:25) and assumes an awkward pose as he begins to speak. (It’s no advanced yoga pose or anything, but it’s enough to make the beginning of the talk feel a bit awkward; 0:30.) He also holds a stiff, robot-like pose for the first few minutes of his talk.
And it isn’t just his gait and posture that make the beginning of the talk feel off. His opening sentences sound more like a weak set of phrases that he came up with on the spot than a strong opening idea that he planned in advance to share. It’s not exactly the best model of how to start a presentation off strong.
Now, you don’t need to follow a script when you give a presentation. However, you want to have a solid general plan for how you’re going to begin. Remember that first impressions are important, so you want to start off strong. When you have a general idea of how to start a presentation, you’ll be more likely to start off in a way that’s engaging, relevant, and memorable. It can also help you get over the hump of actually starting the presentation, which can be the most daunting part of giving a talk.
To avoid starting off with an incoherent mumble that makes your audience feel just as anxious as you do, plan the beginning of your talk in advance. Decide whether you want to start your presentation by telling a story, sharing an example, or describing a problem. Then, figure out how you’re going to segue from this opening sequence into the main part of your presentation.
Robinson’s talk gives us some great food for thought that’s still relevant 10 years after it was delivered – most talks don’t live up to this standard. But despite the strengths of it, there are some important lessons we can learn from its weaknesses, especially about how to start a presentation off strong.
On the one hand, the success of Robinson’s talk may make it seem like the opening of a talk really doesn’t matter. If Robinson was able to get 38 million views with a weak opening, maybe it doesn’t matter how strong or weak the beginning of a presentation is.
However, as we mentioned, there’s no telling how much more successful Robinson’s talk could have been if the beginning of his talk had been a bit more on point. After all, the #2 TED talk showcases an impressive delivery and has received only six million fewer views than Robinson’s has (and it was delivered six years after his). If Robinson has been able to earn 38 million views with a weak delivery, how many would he have received by now if his talk had both a provocative, engaging topic and a solid delivery?
The next time that you’re preparing a talk, take the time to think through how to start the presentation. Focus on coming up with a plan for your introduction that’s short, coherent, and appropriate based on what your audience knows. Avoid leaving your readers in the dark, leading them into a mental maze, or making them wait too long to figure out what your main point is. When you start off strong, you’ve got a better shot at holding your audience’s attention, appearing competent and knowledgeable, and changing their views or behaviour.
Looking for more tips on how to deliver a powerful presentation? Check out the 5 things you can learn from the #2 TED talk ever. It’s one to watch.
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