A great speaker can condense decades of experience into a presentation that lasts no longer than 18 minutes. It's a tactic you must master to become a great communicator.

In a recent article for Fast Company, TED coaches offer tips for landing a speaking slot at a TED Conference. One suggestion: Your idea must be specific, digestible, and bite-size. According to the coaches, however, "many experts don't feel they can distill 40 years' worth of expertise in their field into a snappy, 20-minute talk."

The solution is a tip that I recommend to entrepreneurs pitching an investor or CEOs taking their companies public.

Focus on one big idea that you can articulate in one short sentence.

Everything else--stories, examples, data, demonstrations--supports the one big idea.  

The TED coaches agree. According to the Fast Company article, "the best talks come from speakers who scan the breadth of their experience, and then pick the one most relevant and interesting part of it for their talk."

I've interviewed many famous TED speakers about their viral presentations. Here's how a few of them focused on the one big idea. 

The Frustrated Professor

Larry Smith, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, told me his classes are three hours long. When he was invited to take the TED stage, he took it as a personal challenge to distill his decades of experience into 18 minutes. If you watch the talk--Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career--you might think that Smith seems angry. He is. Smith told me the video represents 30 years of pent-up frustration watching college students pursue careers for reasons other than passion.

"In one sentence, what is the message you're trying to get across?" I asked Smith. He replied, "Find and use your passion and you'll have a great career; don't do it and you won't."

Smith could have talked about economics, innovation, technology, and other subjects. Instead, he chose one. Sometimes, the theme you're most passionate about is the topic that leaves you the most unsettled.

The Human Rights Attorney

Human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson has been working in the area of civil rights for nearly 40 years. At a TED Conference in 2012, Stevenson delivered a mesmerizing talk and received the longest standing ovation in TED history. Stevenson, the subject of a recent HBO documentary, is a compelling speaker who has won cases at the U.S. Supreme Court. Stevenson represents prisoners on death row and has proved that some of his clients were wrongly convicted.

The theme that runs through his entire career is addressing injustice in America's prison system. The title of his TED talk captures Stevenson's one big idea: We Need to Talk About an Injustice. Everything else--stories, statistics, experiences--supports the one big idea.

The Neuroscientist Who Witnessed Her Own Stroke

Jill Bolte Taylor gave a TED Talk in 2008 that became the first TED video to go viral. The entire presentation revolves around one story--the day the brain scientist suffered a stroke and studied it as it was happening. The presentation is compelling to listen as only a neuroscientist can describe her stroke in these words.

I lost my balance, and I'm propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can't define where I begin and where I end, because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall.

Bolte Taylor went on to become one of Time magazine's most influential people and the first guest on Oprah Winfrey's first episode of her Soul series. One powerful story was more compelling than decades of deep science, and yet the one story reflected decades of experience in deep science. 

The TED Conference calls the one big idea a presentation's "through-line." In his book, TED Talks, Chris Anderson offers a good exercise to find the through-line of any talk or presentation. According to Anderson, you should be able to explain your idea in no more than 15 words.

The through-line also has to be specific. For example, "I want to inspire the audience" isn't a robust through-line. Here are four through-lines of popular TED Talks that are more specific and under 15 words:

  1. Schools kill creativity.
  2. Your body language shapes who you are.
  3. How great leaders inspire action.
  4. How to spot a liar.

"The key is to present just one idea--as thoroughly and completely as you can in the limited time period," writes Anderson. 

Yes, you have a ton of information to get across. But if you focus on the power of one--one big idea--your presentation will be tighter, stronger, and more persuasive. 

Published on: Jul 29, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.