Geologic Column: What geoscientists can learn from TED Talks

by Lisa A. Rossbacher
Monday, December 8, 2014

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/©TED.

TED talks have become an international — and Internet — phenomenon. The goal of the talks, which began as a series about the alignment of technology, entertainment and design (hence “TED”), is to “share ideas worth spreading.” The presentations are pithy, conversational, focused and entertaining; they are often inspirational and sometimes very personal. Geoscientists — whether presenting conference papers, classroom lectures or presentations for general audiences — can learn a lot from TED talks, especially from the structure and guidance applied to preparing the talks.

All TED talks must follow the “TED Commandments,” which are designed to ensure the talks fulfill the original “TED” three-pronged purpose. With minor adaptations, geoscientists can follow the same basic commandments.

1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out Thy Usual Shtick

Some researchers give the same presentation over and over. I’ve skipped talks at national meetings that sounded interesting simply because I’ve heard the speaker give the same talk a dozen times. Find a new approach, a new angle, a new idea or truly new data to share.

2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before

Similarly to #1, ask yourself “What’s different about this talk? Why would someone who has heard me speak before want to hear this talk?”

3. Thou Shalt Reveal Thy Curiosity and Thy Passion

If you don’t care — deeply — about your topic, then why are you spending time on it? Whether your topic is climate change, mineral properties, tectonics or geoscience education, you need to share your curiosity and passion. Your talk will be better for it.

4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story

One of my favorite openings to a lecture was given by petrologist Lawford Anderson, then at the University of Southern California, who spoke to the Branner Club of Southern California. He simply held a piece of granite in his hand, stared intently at it, and asked “Who are you? And where have you been?” He then proceeded to tell the story of that rock. Many geologists talk about how rocks can tell stories. Perhaps we need to share more of those stories with each other.

5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy

This commandment rings especially true if your talk is one of several in a session or symposium. Speakers who can connect their presentations with the others, showing linkages, comparisons and differences, make the larger story more understandable and meaningful.

6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt Thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of Thy Failure as Well as Thy Success

The history of science is filled with dead-ends, theories that ended up not being supported by data and failed experiments. When appropriate, share your failures. Science is, ultimately, a creative human endeavor, and audiences appreciate the humanizing aspects.

7. Thou Shalt Not Sell From the Stage — Neither Thy Company, Thy Goods, Thy Writings, nor Thy Desperate Need for Funding — Lest Thou Be Cast Aside Into Outer Darkness

Most geoscientists aren’t likely to violate this commandment — except, perhaps, for mentioning the need for more funding. As long as you’re not making an overt pitch, that’s probably okay. We’ve all been there.

8. Thou Shalt Remember All the While: Laughter Is Good

But lengthy or inside jokes generally are not. Laughter about shared experiences — particularly in the field — can be illustrative and leavening. A photo of a vehicle up to its fenders in mud will remind many people of similar challenges and stories. As my mother always says, “Adventure is misfortune, rightly remembered.” And as my husband frequently reminds me, the cardinal rule of public speaking is, “Be brief. Be funny. Be gone.”

9. Thou Shalt Not Read Thy Speech

We’ve all sat through talks that were read to us; they’re far less entertaining than those that are spoken to us. We may even, in a pinch, have had to read one ourselves. We may not always be able to memorize our speeches, like the best TED talks, but we shouldn’t have to rely on our notes for every phrase.

10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Those Who Follow Thee

TED talks have very specific assigned times; some are as short as five minutes. The sequencing, the flow and the pacing all matter. And no one likes seeing (or hearing) a speaker get cut off because his or her speech ran too long. This suggests poor planning — or a lack of consideration for the audience and subsequent speakers.

Of course, many other pieces of advice about preparing a TED talk are applicable to a good presentation: testing ideas, developing an outline, using clear, understandable graphics and rehearsing. But the TED commandments are a great place to start. The fundamental rule: “Strive to give the best talk you have ever given.”

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