How Teachers Can Talk like TED: 5 Great Ideas


Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove (Ill.) North High School and Community Guide for the Redesign Challenge.  The first Challenge is: How can educators use video to improve their professional learning? You have until June 22 to submit ideas with a chance at making them real. 

Guide.  Listener.  Expert.  Mentor.  Leader.  Teammate.  Innovator. Parent. These are the words that come to mind when asked to describe a “teacher.”  I am sure you could add more to this list.  One word that doesn’t immediately surface for me is “presenter”, yet each day we are on stage, doing multiple performances of the same show for audiences not always thrilled to be there yet with stakes higher than any Broadway show or TED Talk. This got me thinking:

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Shouldn’t I be as focused on the development of my presentation skills as I am about my content knowledge and pedagogy. If so, what do I do?

I put that question to one of the top presentation coaches in the country–internationally known author of Talk like TED, keynote speaker, and presentation coach Carmine Gallo. What emerged is both beautiful in its simplicity yet daunting in its complexity, but Gallo’s ideas can help all of us–as teachers, coaches, and administrators– begin to shift our mindset and embrace the tools necessary to deliver great presentations.

Video is Key

Top executives from around the world constantly work on their presentation skills.  And video self-reflection is essential. They constantly videotape their work with coaches (like Gallo)–practicing their presentations and spending hours honing their craft so that what they deliver is not just facts and figures but inspiration and excitement.  These top executives truly see themselves as presenters–performers.  As Gallo reminds us, “The billionaire Warren Buffett has said that the only degree that hangs in his office is the one that means the most—his certification for completing a $100 Dale Carnegie public speaking course.” And yet as teachers–who perform every day for four to five hours–we spend most of our reflection time on the content not the delivery. Why?  The stakes aren’t any lower; in fact, I would argue that the intellectual and personal development of a child is as high or higher in stakes than any top executive’s sales pitch.  Now I get it; the days of teacher as lecturer are gone (thankfully!), but that doesn’t mean we can’t study our presentation skills to develop and grow in our craft. Simply put, Gallo emphasizes, “It’s all about inspiration, which is what teachers want to achieve. To inspire means to get students excited about the topic, but one cannot inspire unless they’ve learned to communicate the topic in a way that sparks a student’s imagination”, and when teachers begin to see themselves as presenters, students become inspired. So what can teachers do to begin to make this shift?

Five Ideas (and more)

When doing this sort of practice, Gallo looks for specific techniques, some simple and others very complex. The reality is this: we, as teachers, already spend countless hours reflecting and trying to improve, but what if those hours are inefficient, grounded in the flaws of self-perception?  We can’t and won’t change what we don’t acknowledge is broken.  And that’s why video is key:  the camera is always honest with us. And it’s even better if we invite colleagues or coaches to watch with us for feedback. So, the next time you watch yourself on video teaching, push your analysis to go beyond the traditional “presentation 101” look-fors, and think about some of these tips that Gallo uses when he coaches presenters around the world. These tips come from my interview with Gallo along with this article, published by that summarizes Gallo’s nine tips to Talk like TED (from his book of that same title).

“Having studied the most-viewed TED Talks, great storytelling is the unifying attribute of these presentations.”

Storytelling is at the heart of great presentation, but let’s face it, we all know “that teacher” who can, at the drop of a hat (or often times prompted by students trying to get out of learning for that period), launch into a story that is so incongruent with the lesson that it makes it impossible for students to stay focused.  Lessons need stories, but the great presenters can make those stories purposeful.

“Deliver jaw-dropping moments.”

Teachers are concerned with content; it makes sense since that is our job.  However, these “jaw-dropping moments” that Gallo describes are more than just a way to make a lesson more engaging; they are “remembered long after the presentation is over.”  So, next time you are preparing a lesson, think about if you can create that one moment that will, as Gallo explains, “elicit a strong emotional response such as joy, fear, shock, or surprise.”

“Use humor without telling a joke.”

While not every teacher is naturally a funny person, we should all think about how we can use humor because, as Gallo describes, “Humor lowers defenses, making your audience more receptive to your message.”  Think about it; our students sit through 6-7 hours of instruction a day.  Would it be such a bad thing for us to use a little humor?

“Stick to the 18-minute rule.”

TED talks can be no more than 18 minutes for a reason; when they get any longer the audience cannot hold in any more information.  Gallo explains how “researchers have discovered that ‘cognitive backlog,’ too much information, prevents the successful transmission of ideas.”  So, if we think about this in our classrooms (and again, keep in mind they are in 5-6 hours of instruction a day), we must think about sticking to this 18-minute rule. Even better, it creates the space and time for student-to-student interaction and ownership of their own learning.

“Favor pictures over text.”

This is something we talk to our students about all the time, pushing them to move beyond the overly bulleted lists of text and into image; however, how often do we push ourselves into the same line of thinking.  When I present nationally, I always make sure my presentations are almost exclusively images.  Yet, when in the classroom, it’s the opposite.  I am worried the students won’t get the content with just images, but, as Gallo informs us, “we are much more likely to recall an idea when a picture complements it.”

The reality is engagement is at the key of all great learning.  When students are engaged, they learn.  While that engagement should, more often than not, be student-to-student engagement, there are still segments of almost every lesson in which the teacher can and should push to be a presenter. No one is saying that teachers need to be a TED Talk professional, but imagine if we were…

If you have ideas on how educators can use video to improve their professional learning, time to take the Redesign Challenge.

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