You Don't Need a Britney Spears Microphone to be a Thought Leader

A few weeks ago I was at a cafe catching up with a fellow entrepreneur, and in walks another fellow entrepreneur. I didn’t officially know this woman, but I knew who she was and really love her company and the story that she shares about starting it. We were introduced, and I told her more about Tell Me A Story. She was kind and enthusiastic and she responded to my business pitch with this question: "Are you involved with TEDxPhiladelphia at all?"

It made perfect sense. The local TED conference was happening about a week or so later and it's easy to connect the dots between what I do and what TED does. I responded politely, saying no, I'm not involved, etc. And she offered to connect me to the organizers. I was happy to have had that exchange with her, but I so desperately wanted to say something like "TED isn't the only way to communicate an idea! The franchise is so large now, the concept is fraying at the hem, people are talking at their audiences, and the stories embedded into the talks are few and far between!" But I stayed silent.

Here's the thing: I've watched many brilliant TED Talks. And I am sure there are many brilliant ones just waiting to be discovered. But I do not think that a TED Talk makes you a thought leader. I do not think that following a very rigid format is the best way to connect with your audience and communicate and idea that you are passionate about sharing.

I had a conversation several months ago with a prospective client in need of coaching for her upcoming TED Talk. We were just about ready to begin working together and she asked me if I ever coached a TED Talk before. I said no, but I've coached hundreds of storytellers and am very familiar with the TED guidelines and format. I continued by telling her that I didn't believe that the content and delivery of a TED Talk needed to adhere to their standard way of doing things. She sought out a TED certified coach instead. For every TED Talk that dares to be different, there are hundreds that stick to the template. There are TED certified coaches all over the country making sure that people deliver their talk in a very specific way.

There’s so much possibility for greatness and innovation in communication when we can think outside of the box, and trust our own style and grace as presenters.

One of my favorite presentation experiences ever was in October 2017. I had to give a pitch presentation for my then forthcoming podcast, Rashomon. We had five minutes to pitch, and needed to cover a whole slew of topics (e.g. What is the premise of the podcast? Who is the audience?, What is your timeline? What do you want from the people listening? Why should we listen?)

I had just about a week to pull together my presentation, and felt this was not enough time to get super creative. So I decided to follow their instructions and talking points in the most literal way possible. I made basic slides, I wrote out straight forward talking points, and assumed the persona of “buttoned-up presenter.”

At the conference, I was put last in the line-up of pitches. I was told by the organizers that I was put last because of all of my storytelling and public speaking expertise. That just made me feel all the more disappointed in how I was going to deliver my presentation. I was already bored by my own words and slides, and I was still standing in the wings.

Every pitch that came before mine was innovative in its content and delivery. One felt like a monologue from a theater piece, one featured flashing GIFs that corresponded with everything that the presenter was saying live on stage. A third delivered data about climate change in a super compelling way.

Everyone had clear calls to action and displayed a true passion for what they were saying.

I sat there watching from the sidelines, feeling very intimidated and doubtful of my own presentation choices. When I took the stage I had what felt like an out-of-body experience. But in reality, it was a total in-my-body experience. I was not used to the feeling of 100% presence and a mindset of “Fuck it. I’m just going to be myself and trust my words and my story.” I owned the fact that I liked everyone's presentation style better than the one I had prepared. But I also owned that I loved my podcast idea with all of my heart, I believed in what I was pitching, and I was determined to stay true to myself and to convictions about getting paid to make this thing that I love so much.

Once it finished, I was expecting the worst, as far as audience response and feedback from the panel. But the complete opposite happened. I was told that my presentation was the best one given that day.I still disagree with this statement, but I see why they made it. I followed their guidelines. My slides were clear. I delivered information that wasn’t on the slides, but it was supported by them. And I had a beginning, middle, and end structure to my presentation. Looking back on it, I delivered more of a traditional Powerpoint than I would have liked, but it was compelling because I stayed true to who I was.

As far as connecting with my audience, I spent the next several hours speaking one-on-one with people that were excited by my presentation and wanted to learn more about me and my podcast.

Here is the full pitch session, if you are interested in watching them all in your own time. For future presentations, there are still things I’d like to borrow from the other four presenters that day, but at least I know I have a framework to give a presentation with full presence and ownership.

You don't need a Britney Spears microphone to be a thought leader. In addition to TED, check out Creative Mornings, Ignite, local storytelling nights. Here’s an idea: start a fresh new night of presentations on your own!

Whether you are talking with or without the visual support of slides, standing in a room of 10 or a room of 100, take a storytelling approach. Use narrative to highlight a big idea, to weave together a series of talking points, or to give people a sense of who you are and why you are speaking to them.

Communicating through story is where you will gain trust and find connection — with yourself and your audience.

I could talk on this subject for days. But I will leave you with a short list of tips that I shared in an old edition of my twice monthly newsletter.

  1. Connect. Stay relevant. Have impact.

  2. Communication is the transfer of emotion.

  3. It doesn’t have to be boring. You are the one who makes the presentation good or bad.

  4. Brevity is key.

  5. A Harvard study says don’t use Powerpoint in the first place.

  6. If you do, Marie Kondo your slides. And, if you have words on the slides, don't read them.


Looking for more tips? You can download the free guide 5 Presentation Tips You’ve Never Heard at any time from this page. Tell Me A Story is also running its Deep Dive workshop The Storytelling Approach: Giving Presentations with Style and Grace in June 2019. It begins with an in-person Small Group Intensive on Wednesday June 12th. You can learn more about the workshop here.