What makes a great presentation? A look at David Christian's Big History TED Talk.

by Karen Newcombe

I have definite opinions about why some presentations are absolutely great and others put me right to sleep.  

Let's look at a great presentation and see what we can learn from it. I've chosen David Christian's famous TED Talk on Big History. This video has been viewed millions of times and has been reposted on sites around the world. Why do people find it so compelling? 

Great presentations are a combinaton of great story structure, great storytelling ability, and great supporting imagery. 

Great Story Structure

First, this presentation is organized as a three-act story. A well-structured story presents you with a setup, then a plot twist to push you into act 2. Act 2 is the meat of the story, where nearly everything happens. Towards the end of Act 2, there is another push to move you into Act 3 and the resolution of the story.  This familiar structure resonates with us on many levels, and engages our minds and emotions almost before we realize it.

Great presentations often use this structure, as has David Christian:

  • In Act 1, Christian explains the concept of entropy, that is, the universe wants to move from a state of order to a state of disorder.  At the "plot twist", Christian says that to our surprise, the universe does indeed create complexity, and exerts itself greatly in order to reverse entropy. This reversal pushes us into Act 2. 
  • In Act 2, he tells the story of Big History, the entire history of the universe: the Big Bang, the origin of the elements, the rise of life, and from that, the rise of collective learning.  Seen this way, it appears that the universe has put in a staggering effort to make possible all the collective learning and complexity inherent in human activity.
  • Act 3 is the wrap up, where we learn about the Big History project, which seeks to make this larger perspective of history available to educators and students worldwide. 

The three act structure works perfectly, allowing Christian to bring the presentation full circle, with a call to action to help support and expand the Big History project.  

Great Storytelling Ability

As a speaker you want your audience to find themselves thinking about your presentation days later – you need to make an impression. David Christian has spent time learning to be a storyteller. Some organizations ask new recruits to join Toastmasters so they can learn to give presentations.  I suggest a slightly different tactic: find a storytelling guild near you and learn how to tell stories in a compelling way. Doing both certainly can't hurt you.

The craft of storytelling goes beyond making a passably good presentation, although that's valuable in itself. A storyteller can use voice, silence and physical movement to build an entire world in the imagination, and has little need for visual aids. We are language-oriented creatures, so our attention is easily captured by the rhythms of storytelling, and great presenters use that fact to create memorable events.

Christian employs vivid powers of description with an understanding of how and when to pause. He knows how to pace his speech to let the audience absorb a concept, and when to move around the stage to create energy. Clearly a huge amount of time and energy went into getting this presentation exactly right. 

With his deep commitment to this particular story, he could easily have made this presentation with no visual aids. However, he has beautiful, organic visuals and he uses them to entice you into the picture of the universe he's painting. 

Great Supporting  Imagery

The third factor common to great presentations is compelling imagery. Steve Jobs was a great presenter, and one of his best tools was the simple clarity of the images he chose. No bullet points, and almost no words. He used beautiful images on a simple neutral background, images that were chosen to focus attention on what he was saying. 

This method is the opposite of standing in front of a group describing what is on the slide.  Don't let your slides rule the presentation. Make the images support you and the story. 

Christian uses this principle very effectively, with beautiful graphics  created in one of the next generation presentation programs. The movement and progression of these flowing images matches the movement needed to propel the presentation forward.  Every graphic is used in service of the story, the story isn't built around the graphic.

It can be tempting to get sucked into using a lot of great special effects simply because they're available. But we all know that gratuitous special effects don't make for good movies, and they don't make for good presentations, either. 

So that's my take on great presentations: story structure, storytelling ability, supporting imagery. 

In my next post I'll put together a list of useful resources that can help you make great presentations. 

232QAWS© Karen L. Newcombe 2016     Email: newk@writebank.com   Phone: 954-428-5457