Presentation Lessons from a TEDx Event

Have you discovered the phenomenon of TED talks? If not, you’re missing out! TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 110 languages. Independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

This year I once again had the honour and privilege of being a speaker coach for TEDx Glasgow, and the pleasure of being in the audience on the day. The 2019 event was themed around ‘connection’ and showcased a diverse range of talks. Some speakers were more polished and refined than others, but the overall programme took the audience on a wonderful journey that had us laughing and crying and everything in between.

As a presentation expert, it’s a real treat to watch such a variety of talks at these events and there are always so many lessons to be learned. Rather than critique each talk, for this post I have picked out just three talks and shared some elements that worked well in each so that you can start to consider how you might apply the techniques in your own speeches and presentations.

Madeleine Black – Unbroken

Madeleine’s powerful talk about being violently gang raped at age thirteen really moved the 2000 strong audience including the hosts who were visibly shaken after hearing her describe the attack, how it affected her life and how she eventually recovered and found it in her heart to forgive. It has obviously taken a lot of time, love and therapy for Madeleine to be able to share her story without breaking down or re-experiencing the pain of the traumatic incident and its aftermath, and speakers need to be sure they are ready before they share these types of stories with an audience. I mention it in this post because of the power of sharing a story; Madeleine’s story is not only a message of hope and forgiveness, but by telling it she is also helping to end the shame and stigma around rape and hopefully will encourage other victims to speak out and seek the help and support they need.

One of the things that struck me about Madeleine’s talk was some of the language she used; certain expressions helped to paint pictures in our minds and perfectly captured her message. Here are a few phrases from her talk:

-          What we don’t speak about leaks out of us
-          For years it had been like a Jack-in-the-box; I’d been stuffing the memories deep down inside of me, but the lid had sprung open again and I couldn’t close it any more
-          I was refusing to connect with the scene of the crime… my body
-          I am not my body or the things that were done to me; I’m so much more than the sum of one night

She also used questions very well at the beginning and end of her talk. This made it relevant to the audience by getting them to reflect on what hurt or past experiences they might still be holding onto which may be preventing them from moving on in their own lives.

Lesson – everyone has a story to share, and everyone’s story has the potential to help others; but if yours is about pain or hurt, make sure you’re in a good place mentally and emotionally before you tell yours to an audience

Lesson – carefully consider the language you use; your audience will take more notice when you choose words and phrases that are unexpected and help to paint pictures in their minds

Lesson – questions, which may or may not be rhetorical, are a great way to engage your audience; consider using them at the beginning and end as well as throughout your talk

Laura Young – Kicking the plastic habit

From the very beginning, this talk made the audience think, through the clever use of props. In Laura’s opening line she stated, “From the moment I was announced as a TEDx speaker 50 days ago, I decided to collect all of my waste… and here it is.” She then held up a remarkably tiny container that surprised and so impressed the audience that they broke into spontaneous applause.

At the end of her talk, Laura encouraged the audience to make one change in the way they purchase milk. She said, “Picture the average family of four’s yearly consumption of milk. Got it? Actually, don’t picture it. Here it is.” Six people walked onto the stage each carrying an enormous collection of plastic milk bottles in both hands. They stacked them high until the pile fell sideways and spread out spectacularly across the stage (I wonder if this part was rehearsed!) She then suggested that people make the switch to glass milk bottles from which the only waste is a small foil cap which can be crumpled into a ball and recycled, “So instead of all of this waste, all you would produce is this.” She then held a foil ball about the size of a small orange in the air. It was a powerful visual that reinforced how a simple change can make a big impact on the environment.

Lesson – use props to demonstrate and reinforce facts and statistics

Mark Logan – Why can’t women lead?

Softly spoken Mark Logan started his talk with a tragic story about the drowning of his 19 year old brother and shared his observations about the way his mother handled the situation as she communicated the news with family and friends. He described how he observed her comforting and supporting others including him and his sister whilst experiencing her own excruciating shock, grief and despair. This story drew us in from the beginning and led to his first point.

He then skilfully introduced a hypothetical woman, “she may even be in the audience today,” and told a story about her to make his next point before telling another story, this one about STEM Barbie. This added some humour and lightness to a relatively heavy topic and also reinforced his third point that from an early age we’re heavily programmed with strong gender stereotypical messages. To bring the STEM Barbie story to life, Mark held up an actual doll whilst showing PowerPoint slides of her and the pink washing machine she invented.

In addition to incorporating stories to illustrate the points in his talk, Mark also used repetition and the power of three to great effect. The example that stood out the most for me was after quoting some shocking statistics about the lack of women in leadership roles; Mark followed it with the phrase, “And we call this normal.” He quoted some more statistics before saying, “We call that normal.” After sharing another statistic, he repeated “We call that normal,” before questioning “Why, do we call this normal?” This use of repetition and a question is an effective way to capture your audience’s attention and reinforce your message.  

Lesson – tell personal stories to engage your audience’s emotions and illustrate your points

Lesson – use visual aids where they enhance the story and contribute to the audience’s understanding of it

Lesson – use repetition and the power of three to emphasise a feeling or idea, create rhythm and/or stress importance

I’ve mentioned just three of the sixteen talks at the event; there was a great variety and so much learning to take away, not only about the topics but also about the art of public speaking. Why not take a look at them at this link and let me know which ones you liked best?

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist and the author of 'The Authority Guide to Pitching Your Business - how to make an impact and be remembered... in under a minute!’ She combines 25 years’ experience in business with a background as an actor, presenter and singer to help business professionals to communicate with confidence, credibility and charisma.

To find out more go to or follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_