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How To Use Slides In Your TEDx Talk

By Dr. Steven Hayward & Cesar Cervantes

One of the questions most often asked by people faced with the prospect of giving a talk has to do with the issue of whether to use visual aids or not. Slides can make or break a presentation, but it’s not always clear that you need them at all. You might though, and if you do decide to include them, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how to use them most effectively.

Before getting into specific examples, it’s useful to start with the basics. When creating a slide, you want to make sure the information it's conveying is as clear as possible. That does not mean cramming as many bullet points as possible onto it or having a stock photo to flash every few seconds meant to illustrate every word you say. The most effective slides use visual cues that directly support the speaker’s message in a way that is either more succinct or sticky (in the sense that we want our ideas to “stick” to our audience) than possible by other means.

Most crucially, each slide should support only one point. In terms of the number of words, slides in a presentation should be the opposite of novels. You want your audience to be able to take them in with a single glance and not have to think too hard, or for too long, about what they mean.

Let’s take a look at some examples. In the TED talk, “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator,” Tim Urban uses a slide towards the end of his talk that really grabs the audience’s attention. He shows a “life calendar” with one box for every week of a 90-year life. The slide is simple, but powerful, and spoiler alert, when you break down your life like that it does not seem all that long. The visual impact of the slide gets across a sense of urgency in a way that’s concrete but not preachy so the audience understands the impact of procrastination and motivates them to take action.

Another example of effective slide use is in Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Sinek uses a simple flip chart to explain his concept of the Golden Circle. It’s a talk that most everyone reading this will have seen, but even if you have, it’s worth going back and looking at it again in order to consider not so much what he’s saying but how he gets the idea across.

Sinek starts by drawing three empty circles on a flip chart. There’s something about the way that he does this actually during the talk, while we watch, that somehow makes it (and him) seem super real, as if he’s actually building the idea in that moment. It also pulls us in. What will those circles contain? Where is this going? A moment later he fills the circles in with the Word “why” in the center followed by “how” and “what.” He then gives you the big picture right away: “This little idea,” he goes on to say (notice the modesty of the word little), shows why some organizations inspire people and achieve great things while others fail. Even if you stopped watching there, you’d get the core of the idea. There are three words on the “slide.” That’s the power of visuals.

A mistake we see often is using slides as a crutch. Slides are meant to complement the speaker and their idea, not do the opposite. Don’t use slides to shift the focus away from you, or because someone has told you something along the lines of “People need something to look at.” This is a mistake. Assume an audience is intelligent enough to be able to focus on you and what you’re saying, and help them to do that by not presenting them with a visual aid that does not add value. Always ask yourself if a slide is necessary. Will it add to the audience’s experience, or will it distract from it?

A very powerful and much overlooked way in which slides can be used are for humorous effect. One outstanding--perhaps the best use of slides on any TED stage--is James Veitch’s TED talk, “This is what happens when you reply to spam email.” If you haven’t seen this talk, do so immediately after finishing this article and thank us later. As you might imagine, Veitch’s talk documents and recounts his email exchanges with a spammer, and though the slide use is perfect throughout, one stands out, which is the graph he tells the spammer “his assistants” have worked out. He describes it that way and then shows a very simple graph as a punchline. It’s hilarious and it also swiftly conveys the fact that the spammer is bankrupt intellectually as well as in every other way.

Slides in a presentation should be thought of in the same vein as caffeine--they can be performance enhancing, but too much will have serious negative consequences on the overall health of the patient. Use images, photos, videos, and graphs to complement your talk, and make sure each slide supports only one point. Avoid using too much text or using slides as a crutch. And last but not least, if you are using slides, consider using at least one of them as a means to add a comic punch to your presentation as a whole.

If you're ready to land and deliver your TEDx talk or create your keynote speech, schedule a brainstorming call with us here.


- Dr. Steven Hayward is our head writer, an English professor at Colorado College, national bestselling author, award-winning filmmaker, TEDx Speaker, and has a great head of hair.


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