Source of the following article Persuasive Litigator.

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

In a fast-paced technological age, it is refreshing that the simple act of a person giving a speech still has some legs. The “TED Talk” formula of an 18-minute presentation continues to be popular, with more than 2,500 official TED Talks and nearly 100,000 talks in the affiliate “TEDx” network, these presentations are collectively watched more than 1.2 billion times a year. Given the flourishing of this format, I figured that TED talks might have some lessons for lawyers presenting CLE’s or otherwise speaking in front of large audiences. For the past few weeks, I have been reviewing a large number of such talks, and I thought I would identify the top ten factors that make this format work: my version of “The TED Commandments.” In part one of this post, I’ll share the first five and, in part two, I will share the remaining five.

I. Thou Shalt Have One Big Message

Your CLE or other large-audience presentation should focus on one central point. One factor that sets TED talks apart is that the presentations are not just explorations of a topic, but instead seek to advance a novel thesis. While the lawyer in you might encourage you to be comprehensive and to provide a full overview of your topic, it will always be more interesting to the audience for you to focus on a particular thesis that puts a finer point on your presentation. For example, if your topic is recent advances in tax law, then your thesis might be something like this: “The government is becoming more generous, but also more tricky.”

II. Thou Shalt Be Personal, Not Abstract

Just about every TED talk will prioritize the human element. It is not just a person covering a topic. Rather, the speaker has a personal connection to the subject matter, and that connection is a big part of the content. So, when you give a large-audience presentation, remember that you are not an article, not a book, and not a webpage, but a person speaking live. One example from the TED stage is Susan Cain’s talk on the “Power of Introverts.” She fuses her own personal story as an introvert with the message for the audience that society needs more introverts.

III. Thou Shalt Tell a Story

It is common advice to speakers: Tell a story. TED speakers take that to heart, usually beginning with a story and infusing the talk with their own personal story. Instead of analytically working your way through your outline, see if you can include some narrative moments, or have the presentation itself follow the narrative arc. One TED talk example comes from communications consultant Nancy Duarte’s talk on “The Secret Structure of Great Talks.” It boils down to telling a story. The benefit of narrative is that it causes chemical changes in the brain, synchronizes the brains of the storyteller and the listener, and provides better attention, comprehension, and influence.

IV. Thou Shalt be Visual (and Thy Visuals Shalt Be Simple)

Seeing is better than just hearing. While not all TED talks use PowerPoint or Keynote presentations, most do. Adding images helps not only in showing what you’re talking about, but also in holding attention and creating greater levels of engagement. But what you’ll also notice from TED talks is that the images are usually quite simple, and there is rarely much, if any, text on the slides. This is a good practice for presenters of all kinds. Remember that your slides are not your speaking notes and focus your slides on simple visuals while keeping your text to a minimum.

V. Thy Content Shalt Be Dynamic

It is harder to hold a large audience’s attention than to hold a small group’s. The direct conversation isn’t there and, to make up for it, you need some dynamism. To be interesting, you can’t be static, stale or just descriptive. By default, I think the tendency of lawyers is to analyze, to focus on the “three reasons,” the “four ways” or the “five consequences” of something being true. But that is all “tell” and no “show.” To focus a large audience’s attention, it helps to ask yourself what will illustrate and not just analyze, what will create a feeling of something being true, and what will make that truth sticky?

The sixth through tenth commandments will be in part two of this post.


Thanks for reading. I am a litigation consultant (bio here) specializing in mock trial research, witness preparation, jury selection, and case strategy, generally (but not always) in high-value civil cases. If you have a comment, a request for a future topic, or a concern about a current case, contact me now.

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Image credit:, used under license, edited by the author