Presentation Skills: TED, Jonathan Haidt, and the Grand Finale

Trainer-teacher-learners watching psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s newly-posted TED talk can learn a lot about expectations, delivery, and audience engagement. Agreeing to speak publically on the topic of “Religion, Evolution, and the Ecstasy of Self-transcendence,” Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis, certainly creates high expectations and the likelihood of conflict. In our emotionally-charged times, even a discussion about whether to discuss religion publically can make participants uncomfortable, as evidenced by an unrelated LinkedIn discussion thread several months ago.

Yet there he is, moving gently, firmly, and engagingly forward in that challenging 18-minute talk that has already attracted more than 300,000 viewings and more than 350 comments online in less than two weeks—with the not-unexpected range of support and opposition that the topic could be expected to inspire.

For those of us intrigued by how presenters effectively reach us, there’s even more to consider once we have absorbed the content of his talk. Haidt’s presentation appears to be very much of and from the heart, delivered in that high-quality way that is the hallmark of the great TED (technology, entertainment, and design) talks. You can see him gauging and connecting with at least some of his audience when he uses the standard presentation technique of asking for a show of hands in response to questions he asks at the beginning of the session. He continues to use his voice in a way that is appropriate to his topic and his audience: calm, collected, yet far from unemotional. He incorporates visually stimulating imagery into the talk through static as well as animated slides.

Then he turns everything on its head.

At precisely the moment in which we believe he is winding down, he goes for the clincher reversal—the one that transforms an intriguing talk into something highly memorable. When it appears that he is about to end his session three minutes early, he surprises us with the following comment: “So, that was my talk, delivered in the standard TED way. And now I’m going to give the talk all over again, in three minutes, in a more full-spectrum sort of way.”

Before we can catch our breath or even spend a few seconds absorbing what he has just said, we’re back in the thick of things—but in an entirely new way that sucks us in and doesn’t let us go until he once again is finished. This is far more than a presenter’s standard recap via an oral repetition of key points. Or the ritual reading of notes from a flipchart or bullet points on a slide. Or checklists of key points on a handout. Or tossing a ball around the room and asking learners to recall something they learned from the session we just finished leading.

None of us may ever again be able to use any of those instantly antiquated trainer tricks once we’ve seen Haidt’s full-spectrum format.   He propels us into that three-minute version—as compellingly and excitingly as we’re drawn into a roller coaster ride in an amusement park—by completely integrating the new abbreviated version of his talk into a video playing on a screen behind and above him on the stage. Combining re-edited images drawn from the earlier part of his talk into the lively video format, he uses each image—displayed as a series of quick-cut shots interspersed with new images—to effectively trigger memories of entire segments of his initial talk in the second or two it takes for us to re-view each image. And, by adding unobtrusive yet lively music into the soundtrack, he appeals to that part of our brain that more effectively learns by having multiple forms of complementary stimulation as we are taking in information.

It is at once familiar. Unexpected. Dynamic. Intriguing. And exciting. More importantly, it works. It makes us more deeply assimilate all he has proposed, and he certainly wakes up anyone who was not already fully awake. Furthermore, he alerts those of us attentive to creative presentation techniques that this simple unexpected act of giving an abbreviated talk within the context of a somewhat longer talk is an ingenious and effective way to draw an audience into a presentation in a stimulating and pleasurable way—one that is guaranteed to leave audience members/learners with a highly memorable experience. Which is exactly what we hope to achieve each time we play that honored and honorable role of facilitating someone else’s learning process.

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