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How This Year’s TED Speakers Edit Presentations To Stay Under 15 Minutes

TED speakers use a practical method to create short presentations from hundreds of pages of content.

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BY Carmine Gallo - 11 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In the last two weeks since the annual TED Talks conference, I've had the opportunity to speak directly to two of this year's notable speakers. Both are professors who have written books with deep science. What they learned about condensing information to meet TED's strict timeline is valuable advice for any communicator.

The New York Times bestselling author, Adam Alter, wrote Irresistible, a book that tracks the rise of addictive digital technologies and how games and apps keep people hooked. Alter is a social psychologist and an associate professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

Although Alter's book runs 80,000 words, he was asked to deliver a TED talk that ran no longer than 9 minutes. To make it more difficult, the book is chock full of compelling stories and detailed explanations of the neuroscience behind behavioral addiction. Before a reader can understand why people spend an average of one to four hours a day on their smartphones, they need to know how the brain works and how game and app developers engineer addictive experiences.

Alter told me if he really wanted to flesh out the major concepts in the book, he'd have to create a 90-minute presentation. Clearly, that was unacceptable at TED. Fortunately, as a lecturer and psychologist Alter knew how to handle it. "The one thing you want to do is avoid cramming everything you know in a presentation," he told me. "And you can't condense your ideas and jam them into a nine-minute presentation.

Alter's strategy was to focus on one idea and build it out. It's an approach that sounds easy in theory, but hard to apply. According to Alter, "Each idea is like a child. You want to keep all your children in the talk, but ultimately you've got to pick favorites. Your instinct is to hold on to as many ideas as you can, but it's a mistake."

Alter settled on one key message that actually makes up a very small section of his book. But in the last ten weeks of media interviews, he's discovered that the idea resonates with audiences and he's fascinated by it. The one idea he focused on is 'stopping cues.' According to Alter, "One of the major reasons we can't stop using technology today is that tech companies have erased our stopping cue, a signal that you should move on to something new."

Choose One Idea And Flesh It Out

TED curator Chris Anderson is a strong proponent of building a presentation around one big idea, and offers this advice to conference speakers, as well as anyone who gives mission-critical presentations. "The key is to present just one idea--as thoroughly and completely as you can in the limited time period," writes Anderson in his public-speaking book, TED Talks.

Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky is considered one of the world's leading neuroscientists. His new book, Behave, addresses the complicated reasons why humans engage in violent behavior. The book runs a hefty 800 pages. It covers the area of neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, genetics, evolutionary biology, political science, and communication theory. The TED conference required that Sapolsky condense all of this content to under 15 minutes.

I spoke to Sapolsky from the Prezi headquarters in San Francisco, where he gave the presentation virtually to a live audience in Vancouver. Sapolsky's presentation was the first to use Prezi's new "Augmented Reality" technology. The audience watched as Robert interacted with the content displayed on the screen without requiring a studio or a green screen.

Sapolsky told me that focusing on the visuals of the story helped him condense a mountain of science into a 15-minute presentation. Sapolsky also relied on advice he gives his graduate students when they have to present their research. He asked them to all their research into one key message, and keep it to a short paragraph. Then, distill it again to one sentence.

One sentence speaks volumes. Condense the essence of your presentation into one central idea and you're more likely to win over the audience.