Dave Sohigian

27Jun/070

TED Talk on Biomimicry: One of the best TED presentations ever?

One of the things I have noticed while watching the TED Talks is that many of the speakers often get really rushed because they only have 20 minutes to present (and their audience is expecting a lot as well). Most presenters decide to that they will talk really fast (like this talk by Carl Honore, where, ironically the subject is how to slow down) or just jam an outline of a longer talk into the allotted time (like Anthony Robbins does in his talk). It is, of course, very hard to present a powerful talk no matter what the time limit, but the pressure of a "short" timeline can really fluster some. Of course, Martin Luther King proved that one can change the direction of an entire movement in less than 20 minutes. If you watch that video of him delivering the speech at the Lincoln Memorial it is surprising to note that the line "I have a dream..." does not come until the last 5 minutes of the speech.
Some of the TED speakers really rise to this pressure and deliver talks that are well composed and delivered with a calm and focused demeanor. Sir Ken Robinson does so in his talk on creativity driving home his key points with humor and storytelling.
Yesterday I watched Janine Benyus' talk on biomimicry and while I was struck by the content (more on that in a bit) I was even more impressed with her style of presentation. In the last half of her talk she started to go through some slides that laid out 12 separate points about the power of using nature as a guide for design. Even though her time was limited she did not rush through the slides or the points that she was trying to explain. She took her time with each and in the end she ran out of time after only 9 points. I can say, from many years as a presenter (and audience member) I have rarely seen a speaker do what she did: she was just willing to stop at 9 points and leave it at that. One of the most important guidelines for presentations is that it is better to leave your audience with a few really important points that they will remember rather than rushing through your material and having the audience forget almost everything you have to say. That is the guideline, but the reality is that very few people can accomplish this when the pressure is on.
Now, I could argue that 12 points is too many for people to remember, but really they were more like examples of her key points. So she was willing to stop at just 9 because she knew that she had made her case. But the thing that makes this presentation even more amazing is that the moderator allowed her to continue with the last three points with the instruction, "Just the 10 second version of [slides] 10, 11 and 12". Although this was certainly generous (given the strict time-keeping at TED) it was a recipe for disaster: would she muddle her message by rushing through the last few minutes? Well, she stood up just fine, ignored the newly set countdown (10 seconds per slide? c'mon) and stuck with her original pace to complete her presentation. She truly does have "nerves of steel". Or perhaps, given the focus of her talk, "nerves of spider silk".
In this talk Janine Benyus accomplishes what truly gifted presenters should aim for: having the topic and material become the focus of discussion. If you watch this talk you may end up saying "I didn't think her style was all that great, but the slides and content was incredible". That, in my opinion, is true success in public speaking: letting the material take center stage and get all the "credit". It is something I have really never been able to accomplish consistently because I tend to be such a showman in my presentations. It is an understated style that I doubt I will ever really attain.
So watch her talk. I won't bother explaining any more about the content here. It's better to just watch her talk:

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