Critiquing “the secret structure of great talks”

Rule 1: Never give a talk on how to give a talk. You’re just setting yourself up for failure. I’ve seen a few links recently to “The secret structure of great talks“, a TEDx talk. (A friend suggests that all TED talks end with “You can change the world”; this TEDx talk literally starts with the phrase “You have the power to change the world”.) So, how was this talk about giving good talks? In my opinion, it isn’t a bad talk, but I disagree with much of its content. I’m no Alanis, but I’m pretty sure that’s irony.

The main point of the speaker, Nancy Duarte, is that great talks feature contrasts between what is and what could be; between the status quo and the future that your idea will create. Already, there is an implicit narrowing of the focus. Duarte is focused on these (TED-style?) talks on changing the world with an idea, and picks as an example the iPhone launch — surely one of the few business presentations that could fit into this “spread a big idea” mould. Many presentations are about conveying information rather than a world-changing big idea: things like lectures, technical seminars, business result presentations and so on. It doesn’t always make sense that “every presentation should end with a call to action” as Duarte suggests. So already I think it should be made clear that this advice wouldn’t necessarily fit all talks.

Not everyone can base their talk around something as exciting as the original iPhone (Photo by Dan Farber, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Not everyone can base their talk around something as exciting as the original iPhone (Photo by Dan Farber, CC BY-NC 2.0)

This implicit focus probably explains why Duarte goes straight into the biggest trap that a “how to give a talk” talk can fall into: not following its own advice. There is no obvious use of the advocated contrast technique within the talk itself, which doesn’t inspire the viewer with confidence in the advice. Although maybe this is not intended to be a great talk? I don’t mean that as sarcastically as it sounds — after all, not everyone can feasibly give one of the world’s great talks. The problem with Duarte’s chosen examples of great talks is that they are not necessarily within reach of most presenters. Not everyone has or can master Martin Luther King’s oratory, or can project Steve Jobs’ charisma. “Look at all the times Steve Job makes them laugh” Duarte says reverently — but what do presenters who find humour hard do?

On a positive note, the infographics that appear on the slides are very well designed — they look like they have been lifted straight from a Tufte book. But ultimately the mechanism that Duarte proposes is to simply classify talk segments into two categories: “what is” and “what could be”. This seems like a bad classification; trying to map an entire talk onto two binary categories in a single dimension seems like a bad exercise. Picking a random sentence fragment in Duarte’s talk, “From a story, you can get a physical reaction”, does that count as “what is” or “what could be”? It seems like a bad idea to try to map the whole talk in this way — but then Duarte also seems to drill down too far into micro-details. An analysis of Martin Luther King’s talk sees the famous phrase “I have a dream” coded as “what is”, and the rest of the sentence coded as “what could be”. This seems like an over-zealous attempt to squash a talk into an ill-fitting model.

A slide from the talk: "I have a dream" never looked so full of data.

A slide from the talk: “I have a dream” never looked so full of data.

I think the underlying point behind Duarte’s talk is that contrast is a useful rhetorical advice, but then that was probably clear already. My personal message of advice: you probably can’t change the world very much, but you certainly can make your presentations better. I hope to write a little more on this in future posts.

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