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What’s Your Point?
Maybe it’s a friend—or a parent or a teacher. Maybe it’s your minister, rabbi, or imam. But at least one person in your life is sure to be a Rambler. That’s the person who turns a one-sentence story into a three-hour snoozefest. The one who has to hark back to the Mesozoic Era to give you the backstory on what happened this morning. I’m assuming that person is not you, but if your friends or classmates fidget when you talk, if their eyes glaze over, or they hold back not-so-subtle yawns and check their cellphones every two seconds, well, this section might be especially relevant! “It happens way too often: You’re sitting there in the audience, listening to someone talk, and you know that there is a great talk in that person; it’s just not the talk he’s giving.” That’s TED’s Bruno Giussani, a man who cannot stand seeing potentially great speakers blow their opportunity. The point of a talk is to say something meaningful. But many talks never get there. Words and sentences are spoken, of course. Ideas presented. But they don’t add up to much. They don’t point the listeners somewhere vital. Instead, they leave the audience disinterested and unmoved, sometimes flat-out confused. In the first TED I organized, one of the speakers began, “As I was driving down here wondering what to say to you . . .” There followed an unfocused list of observations. Nothing obnoxious. Nothing particularly hard to understand. But nothing revelatory, either. No aha moments. No takeaways. The audience clapped politely. But no one really learned anything. No one was changed by the experience. It’s one thing to underprepare. But to boast that you’ve underprepared? That tells the audience that their time doesn’t matter. That the event doesn’t matter. Of course, no one really has to boast that they’re underprepared. That becomes obvious pretty quickly. I’ll talk more about preparation later, but the point here is that you owe it to your audience, and yourself, to present your material in a clear, focused manner—and to have a point. As Bruno Giussani puts it, “When people sit in a room to listen to a speaker, they are offering her something extremely precious: a few minutes of their time and of their attention. Her task is to use that time as well as possible.” Rambling is not an option. There’s a helpful word used to analyze plays, movies, and novels; it applies to talks, too. It is throughline, the connecting theme that ties together the ideas you’re presenting. An understanding of this concept and the way to apply it to any talk will help you vanquish any possibility of rambling. Famed acting coach Konstantin Stanislavski also used the term “the spine” to convey this idea. Just as a spine supports the structure of your body, a throughline supports the structure of your presentation. It gives it meaning and focus; it’s the metaphorical cord that runs through the entire speech. This doesn’t mean every talk can cover only one topic, tell a single story, or proceed in one direction without diversions. Not at all. It simply means that all the pieces need to connect, and they need to stack together to support the main idea. Here’s the start of a talk thrown together without a throughline. “I want to share with you some experiences I had during my recent trip to Cape Town, and then make a few observations about life on the road . . .” Compare that with: “On my recent trip to Cape Town, I learned something new about strangers—when you can trust them and when you definitely can’t. Let me share with you two very different experiences I had . . .” The first example promises a collection of tidbits, with no real indication of adding up to something meaningful. The second offers an important idea and promises that evidence will be presented to support that idea. As with puzzle pieces, the individual portions of the speech should snap into place to create an overall picture. And like the image on the front of the puzzle box, we should be given a strong sense of how everything will come together. A good exercise is to try to state your throughline in no more than fifteen words. And remember, this is more than just the goal of your speech (“I want to inspire my classmates” or “I want to talk about Childish Gambino”). It has to be more focused than that. What is the precise idea you want to build inside your listeners? What is their takeaway? What are you trying to prove? Try to find something unexpected in your throughline. “The importance of hard work” is expected. “A three-day school week leads to smarter students” is a surprise (one your schoolmates will probably cheer, even if the adults are skeptical). Try to find the unexpected idea, the deeper one. Even if you’re assigned a topic you don’t love or given a position to debate that’s the opposite of your true feelings, try to come at it from a unique angle. Here are the throughlines of some popular TED Talks, several from teen speakers. Notice that there’s an unexpectedness incorporated into each of them.
- More choice actually makes us less happy.
- With body language, you can fake it till you become it.
- Adults have much to learn from kids.
- The violin’s sixteenth-century “technology” still seems advanced today.
- Online videos can humanize the classroom and revolutionize education.
- My stutter makes me a better public speaker.
Barry Schwartz, whose talk is the first one in the list above, on the paradox of choice, is a big believer in the importance of a throughline:
The key is to present just one idea—as thoroughly and completely as you can. What is it that you want your audience to [understand completely] after you’re done?
Your throughline doesn’t have to be as ambitious as the ones listed above. But it still should have some kind of intriguing angle. Instead of giving a talk about the importance of hard work, how about speaking on why hard work sometimes fails to achieve true success, and what you can do about that? Instead of some important public figure’s whole biography, why not offer a talk about a pivotal time in that figure’s life or the way that person revolutionized some specific part of our culture? Just as it’s helpful to state your thesis at the beginning of a paper you write, it can be helpful to offer your throughline as you launch into your talk. While your speech’s spine doesn’t always have to be made explicit, you’ll find that when your audience knows where you’re headed, it’s much easier for them to follow. It may also be more engaging for them, because it will build anticipation of the fact that you’re going to support the throughline you promise.