I recently had the opportunity to participate in a storytelling and speaking event at Amazon. The event itself was like a TED talk or Ignite talk showcase of various Amazonians and their stories. The talks ranged from the competitive world of sport cup stacking, to dealing with disorders, to ironmans for the rest of us.
I had pitched an idea of “Thinking Less to Accomplish More,” and was selected as one of ten speakers within Amazon for the event. The talks would be 5 min each with 20 slides auto advancing every 15 seconds. I knew a 5 min time limit wouldn’t necessarily make things easier, but rather harder – as the time limit and auto advancing slides meant that structure and conciseness would be crucial. A video of the talk can be viewed here.
In all honesty, I spent a lot of time preparing. Perhaps too much time, but since this would be my first time with such an event, I figured I would put in a best attempt. The fear of letting down the organizers who trusted me was surprisingly motivating too. I spent time organizing my ideas, researching effective techniques, brainstorming details, editing, practicing, editing, practicing, practicing.
In this essay, I’ll outline my approach to the talk as well as my learning in preparing and delivering the talk.
The fear of letting down the organizers who trusted me was surprisingly motivating
Design of a Talk
Most importanly, I wanted the talk to be enjoyable. I wanted the talk to be entertaining and engaging. The audience is there by their own choice and I had to deliver something interesting.
Beyond just an enoyable talk, I wanted to convey the central idea of my talk in a manner that was easy to follow and memorable. I had to distill my ideas into a format that could be digested and hopefully sticky.
As a bonus, if I was able to have the audience think a little differently, or feel inspired or excited, I’d be ecstatic myself. I felt passionate about my topic, and if I was able to spread some of that enthusiasm to others, I’d be pretty excited.
I think the resulting content and talk I developed could use a lot of improvement, but hey, you only learn through trying, right?
In developing the content and structuring my talk, I drew on 2 fantastic sources: Jonah Berger and his course and book Contagious (I had taken his course in grad school, which also happens to be free on Coursera), and “Made To Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. I didn’t utilize all of the concepts discussed in these books, but a lot of what I used to develop my talk was gleaned from these sources.
The most crucial component I built into my talk was the weaving of stories throughout (probably too many..). Stories are magical. A good story draws the audience in – it piques our interest, holds our attention, takes us on a journey of emotions, sticks in our minds, and imparts a message to us. Pretty powerful stuff.
Nobody wants to be told, but a story engages and conveys information below the surface. Children’s parables are fantastic examples of memorable stories with a message. Even without a profound message, stories connect us together.
Nobody wants to be told, but a story conveys information below the surface
For my talk, I opened with a story to not only draw the audience in, but to also set the frame for the rest of the talk. From there, I used short stories to illustrate each of the core points I was making.
Humans are not thinking beings that feel, but are rather feeling beings that think. I forgot where I read this phrase, I think it’s spot on. Emotions are incredibly powerful and are at the root of much of what we do. A talk that moves an audience to feel emotions, whether positive or negative, is incredibly powerful. People may not remember anything you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
Humans are not thinking beings that feel, but are rather feeling beings that think.
In the talks I observed, I found that emotions such as delight, surprise, and wonder work well. Other emotions such as compassion or admiration also worked well for talks with a different tone.
Looking back, I think I attempted to weave in humor mostly into my talk. I don’t think my stories were particularly moving, but I tried to design my stories with feelings that an audience could easily relate with. For example, I talked about the frustration of embarrassment of failing on big public goals, which I think many people have gone through.
Keep it Simple, Seriously
Talks are not lectures. The concept or theme has to be incredibly simple. A talk can be engaging and entertaining, but a simple theme or message at the end of it really ties things up.
When drafting up my talk, I found it very easy to pack more information and more concepts into my talk. Of course everything made sense to me so I could just pack in more! But rather than pack in more information, or even supporting details, a more effective approach is to simplify, and then repeat the simple message.
The talks I found that do this best not only have a simple message, but have a memorable message. Some examples from famous talks:
“Sitting is the new smoking”
“Fake it till you become it”*
“People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it”
While a witty catch phrase is not necessary, a simple theme is. The best themes are simple, yet profound.
The best themes are simple, yet profound
In my case, I struggled with a simple message. When people ask me what my talk was about, I still struggle with how to describe it simply. In the end, I went with “Accomplishing more by setting things on autopilot.” From there, I tried to create simple and memorable points to illustrate the message.
Build a Structure
It’s probably not be a surprise to know that it’s pretty easy to fill 5 min with stories, jokes, and anything else you’d like to share. Most of us are pretty great at rambling.
A good structure bounds the rambling, helps the talk flow and leaves the audience feeling satisfied. The audience is following where you take them, and structure helps them follow along, gives them room to digest, and lets them experience the talk fully.
At the simplest level, a talk has a beginning, middle, and end. While seemingly obvious, I think it’s a harder to actually put into action. A good talk will have a beginning that sets the tone and direction for the talk, a middle section which takes the audience through the height of the talk, and an end which ties everything up into a satisfying end.
Preparing for the Talk
Edit the Heck Out of the Talk
Once I had developed the content for my talk and started practicing, I quickly noticed that while I was within the 5 min time limit, I was delivering my talk at a excessively fast pace. The more I edited my talk and practiced it, the more I realized I had more to edit and trim.
I started to notice extraneous words, duplicate sentences, and more that didn’t add anything other than more time to my talk. Once I had trimmed the obvious, I found that I had to still edit more. My audience could barely keep up with my talk and nothing was sticking for sure.
It became more difficult to edit my talk, as I wanted to keep so many parts of it. Details I thought were funny or necessary had to be reconsidered, reworded, or removed.
“I would’ve written a shorter letter if I had the time.”
-bunch of different famous guys
Looking back, I think I would’ve been better off with fewer messages and stories, rather than numerous messages cut down extremely light.
Design the Delivery
We all know that how one says something is just as important as what is said. Yet when developing my talk I initially focused heavily on the content itself. Stories and messages take on different meanings, depth, and impact when said in the appropriate style.
I realized that emphasis in certain areas, tonal variations, pacing, and pauses not only engaged me as a speaker, but added a dimension to my talk that couldn’t be experienced by just reading or reciting my talk. As I practiced, I learned to be deliberate in my delivery, as I found certain styles were easier or more impactful for me. The delivery of course, is also crucial towards conveying the emotion in the talk.
Practice and Practice More
I’ve heard many times, and felt myself, that practicing too much for a talk or speech can make things seem robotic and actually add more pressure as one struggles to stay on script. It’s certainly less work to kind of “wing it” or practice a bit. However, in the case of a 5 min talk, I found practicing until I was sick of my talk, until my voice hurt, until I didn’t want to practice anymore, made all the difference.
When it came time for the actual talk, the new setting, the excitement of the talk, the presence of a large audience were all disorienting. There was so much going on to me that I had no spare cycles to think hard about my talk or slides. The microphone sounded loud. The lights were so bright. The stage creaked. The audience wasn’t smiling. Everything seemed like a problem I was worrying about.
But because I had practiced so much, when it came time to deliver my talk, it just flowed. I didn’t worry about timing, the wording, or the slides – I could completely devote myself towards delivering my talk with excitement and passion.
By practicing a lot, one does not become robotic, but rather given the freedom to focus on feeling and delivering the best version of the talk.
Practice Like You’re Delivering the Talk
At first, I would practice my talk sitting down, and with my ipad ready with my script and a stopwatch. Sure I got better at the content, but it did nothing for my delivery.
When practicing like I was delivering the talk, it forced me to get used to the hand gestures, posture, body positioning and movements that I was comfortable with and wanted to do. I found I had a tendency to walk around while I spoke, so I practiced walking around less. I practiced holding a microphone via a dry erase marker and got accustomed to making hand gestures with one hand.
Delivery of the talk encompasses sounds and movements on stage, all on top of the actual content. By practicing like it was for real, I could fine tune and build better habits for my sounds and movements.
Practice in Front of People
I did most of my practicing myself, hidden in a conference room after work hours. While it was crucial practice, I noticed a world of difference when I finally practiced in front of people. Even though I was practicing in front of a couple of good friends, all of a sudden I found myself stuttering, sweatign, and forgetting my message. For me, the precense of people listening added a strange pressure and real time feedback to how my talk was going. Every expresssion from my audience, especially neugral or negative expressions made me question the quality of my talk and delivery.
With feedback from fresh eyes and ears, I could also get a better picture of how my talk came across. I made a lot of edits after practicing in front of people.
Build the Slides After the Talk
My initial reaction was to design my slides once I had the structure of my talk. I wanted to layout the slides and then fill in my talk with the appropriate content and slides. Rather, I found it more effective to design my talk completely, without any regard to the slides, and then plug the slides in afterwards.
This meant my talk drove the slides and not the other way around. I wanted the audience to follow my story and I didn’t want my slides to have critical information, but rather supplement my talk.
After I had my talk completed, I mapped slides to the various sections and then edited my talk as needed to fit within the right timings as needed. One trick I used was to just double up on the same slide if I wasn’t sure of the timing. With the slides auto advancing every 15s, by doubling up on slides I could have more time on a single slide.
Navigate the Brain Farts
Not only is practicing for content and delivery important, but practicing for brain farts is crucial also. Nervousness, excitement, or nothing can cause a memory lapse or brain fart. The trick is not to practice until those go away, but to understand the structure of the talk well enough to navigate a brain fart.
Forgot a part of the talk? Instead of struggling to remember, it’s more effective to just skip it and move onto the next section. The key is to get comfortable with the panic of a brain fart, and to just move on. The audience has no idea that you’ve just forgotten something and won’t notice if you just jump back into the talk.
I think brain farts and stumbles are inevitable, so learning to charge forward and be comfortable with the feeling is huge.
Embrace the Opportunity
If you’re in the cool position to be preparing for a Ted or Ignite like talk, the last advice I would give is to embrace the opportunity, have fun, and take it where you want to go.
I spent countless hours on my talk, and while I’m unclear on the quality of the outcome, I feel immense satisfaction that I not only pushed myself into a strange realm, but I also gave it my best effort. I learned a ton, grew a ton, and have some great memories of the event, the other talks, and from my experience.
There’s a saying in Japanese that doesn’t have an English equivalent, but it’s an extremely common phrase of encouragement that translates to “Please try hard.”
It’s a phrase that I find extremely fitting for anyone preparing and delivering a TED talk, Ignite talk, or Amazon Spark talk. So for myself or anybody given the opportunity to such an event, “gan batte ku da sai”
* Amy Cuddy’s talk is fantastic, and yes I actually power posed for 2 min (hiding in a conference room) before my talk.
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