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Maryn McKenna’s Workshop, “The Secret Strategies Of Ted Talks”

By: Yeeun Lee

TED talks are popular amongst people from all around the world and from different age groups. Their slogan—“Ideas Worth Spreading”—hints at how they cover topics from a wide array of disciplines. But having various subjects that can cater to different audiences isn’t the only reason why TED is such a powerful brand. I had the chance to attend science journalist Maryn McKenna’s Communicating Health Workshop, where she explained a strategy made up of three main elements that contribute to the success of TED Talks.

Maryn McKenna is a journalist and a Senior Fellow with Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health. She has given TED Talks in front of prominent individuals, including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, on antibiotics and, with this experience, she has realized what made TED Talks so influential and effective.

By: Juliana Rotich on Flickr

The first two parts focus on writing the talk, including the structure and framing of the story. The first component consists of taking a single idea and delivering it to the audience as a gift. That is, something the audience did not have before. The single idea, she explains, should be captured in a single sentence, similar to an elevator pitch. For example, the single idea of her TED Talk is: We are losing the power of antibiotics and the only thing that will save us is challenging how we use them. This is the method of storytelling. It is different from how we present in classes and science conferences because it relies on telling the audience the single idea first and then backing up to relate the journey.

The first component consists of taking a single idea and delivering it to the audience as a gift.

The second part involves the narrative techniques to deliver that single idea. When looking at different TED Talks, different speakers use either humor, description, self-depreciation in their presentations. While crucial, these are only ornaments to the central tools of narration. The main narrative techniques that speakers at TED use are narrative arcs. These relax the audience by taking them to a familiar plot.

Whether it be a romantic story, a detective story, or a journey story, all good stories fall under some sort of narrative arc. Because they help us compose how to tell our ideas, these narrative arcs help us better deliver our message. For instance, the goal of a detective story is not the event; rather, it is to go backward and figure out how it happened. This narrative arc could be used in a talk where a scientist finds something unexpected. A romantic story, in contrast, is usually chronological, i.e. boy meets girl and then the story unfolds. This arc could be used by someone talking about how their passion for a certain topic started and thus their career developed.

The final part, “the actual magic of TED,” as McKenna describes, revolves around being vulnerable. It is the component that focuses on the presentation. TED acknowledges that public speaking is scary and so it advises its speakers with tips like looking audience members in the eye and speaking without notes to connect better with the audience. However, it also tells its speakers to be vulnerable. It ties back to the idea of giving a gift to the audience. The speakers are not doing their talk to try to get praise or to try to sell something. They are doing it because they want to deliver their message and give it to the audience as a gift. TED’s storytelling strategy is what makes it so successful at delivering messages and as McKenna calls it, what makes it “The Renaissance of public speaking.”

On April 11, Maryn McKenna will be giving another workshop for students, titled “Writing a Popular Science Book”. She will use her experience authoring award winning books such as Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats (2017) and Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (2010) to discuss strategies for writing about science for a public audience. The talk will be at 6pm at Emory University’s Candler Library 101 and you can RSVP here.