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Assigning students a TED-style talk

August 6, 2014

TEDTED is a group devoted to spreading ideas. Their national conferences and regional TEDx events are famous for offering short, powerful talks and posting them online. Several “TED Talks” have become presentation legends, including Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My stroke of insight.”

College faculty members are now assigning TED-style talks as student projects. Many folks understand that these are more than “really good presentations,” but not everyone knows the details. This article explains what makes a TED Talk special and provides advice on developing an assignment.

What’s so special?

The fast-paced video above gives one interpretation of what makes a good TED Talk. You should also watch several of the most-viewed talks and read What I Learned Watching 150 Hours of TED Talks (Harvard Business Review) by Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED.

The TED commandments

The essence of a TED Talk is contained in”The TED Commandments,” guidelines given to folks who aim to speak at a TED conference:

  1. Thou shalt not simply trot out thy usual shtick.
  2. Thou shalt dream a great dream, or show forth a wondrous new thing, or share something thou hast never shared before.
  3. Thou shalt reveal thy curiosity and thy passion.
  4. Thou shalt tell a story.
  5. Thou shalt freely comment on the utterances of other speakers for the sake of blessed connection and exquisite controversy.
  6. Thou shalt not flaunt thine ego. Be thou vulnerable. Speak of thy failure as well as thy success.
  7. Thou shalt not sell from the stage: neither thy company, thy goods, thy writings, nor thy desperate need for funding; lest thou be cast aside into outer darkness.
  8. Thou shalt remember all the while: laughter is good.
  9. Thou shalt not read thy speech.
  10. Thou shalt not steal the time of them that follow thee.

The commandments concentrate on the verbal content of a talk – what the speaker says out loud – and make no reference to images. In fact …

A lot of the best TED Talks have no slides at all!

TED Talk slide guidelines

When speakers choose to use slides, conference organizers have official advice on how to edit them:

  • A single word or line of text can have more impact than a paragraph.
  • Text-heavy slides distract listeners from processing what a speaker is saying.
  • In general, choose images over text.
  • Slides should be easy to understand.
  • Keep graphs visually clear.
  • No slide should support more than one point.
  • Cut any slide that does not have a clear purpose.

That all sounds a lot like Presentation Zen to me – and the book’s author offers his own advice in Making presentations in the TED style. Carmine Gallo’s article in Forbes has additional tips.

Preparing the assignment

Now that you have an idea of what makes a good TED Talk, let’s consider how to develop the assignment.

  • Learning goals: You will have content-related goals, of course. Consider, too, what you want students to learn from preparing a TED-style talk. Why did you choose not to assign a traditional presentation?
  • Evaluation: Develop a rubric to help you determine how well students completed the assignment. Providing the rubric to students at the beginning will help make expectations clear. To get you started, here’s one from Penn State, and a generic example from ReadWriteThink. And here is A grid for evaluating student media.
  • Milestones: When students will be working over several weeks, consider requiring one or more check-ins along the way — maybe a description, an elevator pitch, an outline, or a script.
  • First step: Before starting, ask students to view exemplary TED Talks and then critique one in class. First-year students may enjoy 15 Inspiring TED Talks Every Freshman Must Watch.
  • Time Length: The classic presentation has a strict 18-minute limit, but regional conferences often use shorter talks. I suggest six minutes, but choose a length that works for you.
  • Slides – I would not require use of a computer. A talk should evoke strong mental images, so the rubric might include an “Imagery” category that allows for word pictures or actual visuals. Similarly, I would not prescribe 20 slides at 15 seconds each (like Ignite).
  • Presentation: I recommend having students present in front of a class, rather than submitting a recorded video. You may even want students to invite their friends to a public event in an auditorium.
  • Recording: Where feasible, make arrangements to record the presentations. This can make grading easier and you’ll have examples to show the next time around.
  • YouTube: You may want to post some talks online. Students should be motivated by the thought that other people will be able to see their work on YouTube. Have them provide written permission; TED has a speaker release form you could modify with help from legal counsel.
  • Video titles: Calling a work you post online a “TED Talk” infringes on their trademark and implies a conference connection. Don’t include “TED” in a title; the description can say it follows the TED Talk model.

That should be enough to get you going. Good luck! Please use the comments to share links to your own rubrics, assignment descriptions, student work, and other resources.

Update – 8/8/14 – Full Disclosure

The TED Talk phenomenon is not without its critics. UCSD professor Benjamin Bratton’s December 2013 “What’s Wrong with TED Talks?” is an example [here are the transcript and TED’s response]. Just so we don’t take all of this too seriously, The Onion has been producing a series of “Onion Talks,” which use parody to highlight some of the criticisms. [tip of the hat to Chris Gerben for these links]

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