Ten Things Nonprofits Can Learn from #TEDxSacramento2013

TEDx Sacramento held its “Confluence” event on Friday, June 28. Its rapid-fire series of brief talks aimed to pique curiosity and encourage the bubbling up of “ideas worth spreading.”

The audience sat rapt.

As I participated, I thought about how TEDx does what it does, and what nonprofits can learn about attracting attention and/or provoking action.  Here are my top 9 tips:

1.  TedX chose speakers who had done or experienced something unusual. Novelty is important. People are programmed to identify patterns.  If you hear a list like this — monkey, banana, jungle, airplane, sun – you’ll remember the thing that doesn’t fit the pattern best. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the whole day, but here are a few thumbnail examples:

  • a banker-turned-change-agent re-interpreted the model of payday loans to help the 45% of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck get access to fairly-priced short-term financing and build credit history
  • a 9-year-old persevered in his quest to be admitted to college courses
  • a woman whose travails with MS taught her the value of humor has been inspired to pursue a career in standup
  • a teacher whose desire to live legally with his husband of many years took him to the forefront of an educational revolution in Brazil
  • a high tech entrepreneur turned the image of hacking on its head, as a power for creation rather than destruction or other nefarious ends

2.  The speakers weren’t famous. They weren’t celebrities promoting a cause, nor were they recognized leaders of organizations or companies. This wasn’t the Sacramento Speaker Series. Part of what made the presentations interesting was the ability to see yourself in the speakers: hey, they weren’t famous or rich and they saw a way to do something!

3.  Every presentation had a good hook. Nine year old Tanishq Abraham began his presentation, “I know what you’re thinking. Why college at age 7?” It was so ludicrous that it worked. (Of course just seeing a 9 year old address an audience of 500 with a precocious intelligence is jarring all by itself.

4.  They used stories effectively. Sasha Orloff described how “Michelle” got stuck in the debt trap when she needed immediate access to funds to pay medical bills. Greg Gopman put us on the scene as he talked self-taught Errol out of quitting New York’s biggest hackathon. “I was there when he walked out with the first place prize for the first application he ever built. He called me last week and told me he just raised $1 million for it.” Taniqsh and Sandi Selvi (the M.S. survivor) used their own powerful stories.

5.  They talked short. The beauty of TED and TEDx talks is that they are blessedly sweet. They don’t try to make a whole bunch of points. They make one point.

6.  They used humor. Okay, occasionally the funny lines were pretty obviously written by someone else for the speakers. You could almost imagine the Speaker Developer saying, “We need something a little light here. How about saying…” But the humor worked.

7.  They posed a question or offered a few lessons – no more than three. Brain science tells us that people can’t remember more than about seven things in a list (no mystery as to why telephone numbers are 7 numbers long). Sasha Orloff knew that the reputation of payday lenders is terrible, and deservedly so, but he reframed the sector by looking at the problem: people who can’t get loans from banks still need access to funds on a short-term basis, and a way to build credit. But he broadened out the appeal of his presentation by provocatively asking, “How can you rethink broken?”

8.  They understood the value of suspense. Many people follow the old speaking guideline of “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” TEDx speakers don’t seem to do that. They say they are going to share three lessons, for example, but then tell them one-by-one. They don’t give you the outline upfront, and it seems to make the audience listen more attentively. Having heard lesson one, the audience is attuned for two and three.

9. They used slides, but sparingly. Atlantic Monthly had it right about 10 years ago when they began an article, “Before there was PowerPoint, there were conversations.” The slides were culled to the bare minimum, dominated by images, and contained very few words.

10. And yes, they were coached. The speakers weren’t perfect but their humanity and the fact that they weren’t professional speakers made them all the more appealing. They obviously had a coach working with them for hours on their material. More nonprofits should avail themselves of having an outsider who really understands oral presentations work with them on their elevator speeches.

Formulaic? Yes, but effective. I’d love to see every nonprofit have a version of a TEDx talk ready to give at a  moment’s notice.

Stay tuned: With help from Brandon Weber, TEDx Sacramento’s Curator, I made contact with the event’s speaker developer, Carlos Montoya, and have sent him some questions that I hope he’ll answer about how TEDx prepares their speakers.

P.S. Love TED? Capitol Public Radio now features the TED Radio Hour at noon on Mondays at 90.9 on the FM band or listen live on the website.

More about TEDx (independently licensed local events) and Sacramento’s own version here.

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