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Content development

Write like a TED talk

June 21, 2016   //   Zehno

Great stories unfold like TED talks: Start with a compelling idea, present it with emotion and structure it to hook your audiences and leave them with a takeaway.

Told effectively, stories answer the question, What do you want your audience to do? The best storytellers inspire audiences to connect with causes and to work for change.

At 30,000 feet, on your tablet or at live events/simulcasts, TED talks captivate the mind, heart and spirit — one billion watchers and counting. TED has grown over 30 years, targeting such new audiences as educators through TED-Ed’s lesson series.

TED also adapts content to different platforms: each TED Radio Hour show combines talks on common themes, packaging talk excerpts with interview fragments to create a more compelling radio dialogue. All TED stories share a sense of mission and deliver content concisely and memorably.

Here are three tips for adapting TED talks’ key storytelling elements to your communications. 

Tip 1

Start with a compelling idea

Ideas that galvanize your audiences thrive at the intersection of what audience members want to know and what you want to tell them. Discover the intersection by seeking out what your target audiences are truly interested in learning and how your story is relevant to them.

See a TED example: Take Susan Cain’s TED talk. She dispelled the idea that only extroverts have the best ideas. She was able to translate her seven years of research into something that her audience wanted to know: that introverts have always had creative power in a culture that overvalues outgoing personalities above all else. And her audience keeps growing. Her TED talk has received 14+ million views, and her book on the same subject has sold more than two million copies. Watch now.

How do you get at the heart of what your audience wants to know? Ask.

Use online surveys, stakeholder interviews and focus groups to pinpoint what target audiences value, their media preferences, the content and style they find most appealing and what is missing from your core communications. This information should guide the structure and pace of your key messaging and help plan persuasive content that drives home those messages. Audience feedback can also direct you in tailoring key messages to different targets.

Tip 2

Present with emotion

Some of the most popular TED talks concern the power of vulnerability, the price of shame, the mathematics of love. Whatever the topic, TED speakers deliver their messages with passion, riveting attention for 14-18 minutes.

See a TED example: When Sheryl Sandberg made her original TED talk, she was planning to give an impersonal speech chock full of facts and figures — until she stepped on stage. Wanting to move more women to become leaders, she instead decided to speak from her personal experiences. Her talk prompted the “lean in” revolution. Watch now.

How can your work carry TED-style passion? Concentrate on “voice.”

On the page or screen, your story’s voice needs to humanize issues and make people care about them, but with fewer words than in a full TED talk. And with visual storytelling as one of the strongest trends, the words need images that drive your message home and draw people in. For example, Sandberg connected women to a new image of women’s life: finding a place at the table alongside men where important business decisions are made, dividing household duties with domestic partners and not excluding themselves from rewarding work projects in the face of family obligations.

Tip 3

Structure content to be quick yet draw in

Narrative is as important as the numbers, but strategic use of infographics clarifies your goals at a glance. Moreover, sidebars visually “zero in” on key characters or events to add dimension to the overall story.

See a TED example: In his TED talk, data journalist David McCandless explains how information design — turning complex data sets into simple diagrams — can change the way we see the world. His advice can improve your next infographic challenge!
Watch now.

How can you make the most of both narrative and numbers? Shake up the structure.

When Zehno created a magazine for Iowa State University Foundation, we engaged readers immediately — and unconventionally — by continuing the cover feature on the inside front cover. Why not just open the magazine and tear into the cover story? The cover feature always uses a prominent infographic to add new facets to the story, along with a standard sidebar that drives readers to volunteer or donate.

For Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, Zehno’s magazine strategy included middle-of-book content focused on community and spirituality resources, and an end-of-book section devoted to service and international reach. This structure intentionally spotlights the scale of the Sisters’ work — from personal to global.

In both magazines, the writing is succinct and powerful — typical features run under 400 words — and substantive enough to make a case for involvement and support.

Learn more

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