Yesterday I went to Oxford to attend the third TEDx Oxbridge event, out of curiosity, a desire to learn how to be a better speaker and to hear some interesting stuff – and to just get out of Cambridge for a day. I managed to achieve all of these goals and was very impressed with how well the event was organised. As someone who has occasionally been accused of being a bit harsh on MBAs (not guilty your honour) let me give credit where it’s due: whatever else you (or I) might think about MBAs, they get things done, and the commitment and enthusiasm that Bonnie, Sarah, Nira and all the others showed was quite inspiring.
This event is a joint venture between Cambridge’s Judge Business School and Oxford’s Said Business School. So for once the two rivals work together and the results are amazing. It didn’t hurt that the last time I was at Said it rained continuously whereas yesterday was a day of sunshine. Said has some great buildings and even its own Greek-style open air theatre (see below).
We at Judge are waiting for our forthcoming major building developments to catch up with Said’s scale. Till then we have to take comfort from having a glorious view of the Fitzwilliam Museum, whereas Said sits next to one of Britain’s most architecturally undistinguished railway stations.
TEDx means an independently organised event, with authorisation and support from TED global HQ. So the format is familiar from the world famous online talks. The programme consisted of about 15 talks on a very wide range of topics, some funny, some moving, some rather bizarre. Highlights were a persuasive case that social media have been around since at least the time of ancient Greece, a forceful argument for the importance of ethical imagination, a wry description of life at the South Pole during the sunless three month winter and a powerfully emotional story of policing in America. A personal favourite was a modern dance duet, starring Merritt Moore, who is not only a gifted performer but is doing a PhD in physics at Oxford. And, when I spoke with her afterwards, she turned out to be charming too, in a conversation that moved from modern dance vs. classical ballet to nuclear proliferation and then to the challenge of harnessing the randomness of quantum events for computing (it turns out to involve the law of large numbers, since you ask). Even by the high standards of Oxford and Cambridge, Merritt is a remarkable person (her dance showreel is here).
Several of the talks matched the very high standards of the TED conference talks. A few… didn’t. But then you have to try things out. I still don’t know what the couple doing the tango were trying to tell us, though the short video of rooks mimicking each other was fun. And one speaker seemed a bit more in love with himself than with the audience.
Why the TED model works so well
In the unlikely event that you’ve never seen a TED talk (there is a huge archive of fascinating material that will keep you distracted for days) the format is a speaker talking without notes for 18 minutes with a screen behind, displaying slides that are very much NOT the usual Powerpoint slides that we’ve all come to dread. Some talks are only 7 minutes long and these can be the most effective. The speakers are very well rehearsed, they make few errors, and they are highly focused on their message, which is often told as a story. They have clearly thought a lot about what messages they want to convey.
There are plenty of online resources on how to give a good presentation (a classic source is Nancy Duarte, herself a TED speaker) but the key to the TED formula is brevity. All speakers go straight into the material – no pre-amble, agenda, acknowledgements or anything that gets in the way of a clear, unencumbered message. I watched today a recording of a discussion between Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist, and Sir Tony Atkinson, a less well known but highly distinguished British economist and leading expert on inequality. Once the two were allowed to talk it was very absorbing, but we had to wait ten minutes for that. There were three separate introductions, including the obligatory, dreary biographical introductions, when the audience have almost certainly had plenty of time to look these up before.
How many presentations have you been to where the speaker took anything up to five minutes just to explain what you already knew: who they are and what they were going to talk about?
I think many speakers are misled by the advice that is often given to politicians and others seeking to influence audience opinion, namely: tell your audience what you’re going to say; actually tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them. In other words, if you want them to remember something, say it three times
This is sound advice when considering the central message. But it doesn’t mean that you should put up a detailed agenda slide and then read it out. I’m constantly telling students that I can read what’s on the screen very much faster than they can read it out. So put up an agenda if you must, and perhaps it will help the audience navigate the structure of the talk, though that should be easy if it’s well designed. But don’t actually say anything. Just get going with the talk.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse…
The TED speakers make it look easy, but like all great performers they do this through hard work. Even the apparently effortless star turns by Bill Clinton involve a lot of previous thought. Not everyone can be a true star like him, but most people could deliver a TED-quality talk with enough effort and a really good story to tell.
Easy to say of course. I now have to try to put into effect what I learned from TEDx Oxbridge in two full mornings of presentations to our Advanced Leadership Programme this week in Cambridge, on the subject of the international financial system. I’ve been allocated not 18 minute slots but three hours. I promise I won’t read out the agenda.