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Mastering the art of presentation

The stories showcased at TED and INK events are inspiring for listenersbut they are also a crash course in crafting an impactful presentation

Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde. Photo: Shailesh Bhavsar<br />
Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde. Photo: Shailesh Bhavsar

It was October 2013, and 15-year-old Angad Daryani was on his way to the TED (technology, entertainment, design) India office at the Indiabulls building in Mumbai to prepare for a talk that would be uploaded as a YouTube video. Daryani had jotted down the concept of the video, which eventually got 300,000 views, on a scrap of paper in a taxi. The 6-minute talk, featured at the TEDx conference in Mumbai in December 2013, told his story—one of rebelling against the school system to study science at home, and inventing a 3D printer.

Daryani, then a class X student, had been spotted a few weeks earlier at an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Labs event by TEDx senior ambassador Yashraj Akashi. “He was a prodigy; at age 8, he had made his own robots from a Lego Mindstorms kit," says Akashi.

Here was the kind of profile TED was looking for: a young prodigy who could inspire others, somebody who could speak at a conference and whose speech could be uploaded online to be watched by TED enthusiasts. The TED team took over, and the next few months saw Daryani being coached several times a week on how to design an impactful presentation and deliver it the way most TED presenters do.

This is what has made TED such a successful brand. It has moved from a single annual conference in 1984, featuring speakers in the fields of technology, entertainment and design, to a global entity that issues licences to individuals and institutions to organize TED-like events, referred to as TEDx events. The licences for these events are free but come with a long list of rules on the curation of speakers, content and presentation of talks.

Watching the best TED videos and attending select TED conferences is a learning exercise for every professional who has to present ideas and communicate on multiple forums. Much of this comes from TED curator Chris Anderson. “He (Anderson) can spot an idea 6 miles away and knows how to craft it into a story that has impact," says Akashi.

TED’s website tells would-be presenters how to structure the perfect presentation. Each speaker is given access to a speaker kit on how to present a talk. “In my sessions with the TED team, I learnt how important it was to address a problem that matters to the audience. In my case, it was the difficulties of being able to invent while being in a rote-learning school system, before going on to be home-schooled. I have learnt since then how to sell things and how to convince people. That’s empowering," says Daryani.

Deepika Malla, who was part of the founding team at TEDx Gateway in India and still works as a mentor with TEDx, explains the process: “We train speakers at several levels. We start with the main structure and draft of the talk. The speakers must have an EQ (emotional quotient) point of view. They need to be able to vary their tone, be more assertive when they are presenting data, and be more conversational and candid when they are speaking about their story. We even tell them to smile and maintain eye contact for impactful presentations."

The power of this communication was visible at the Tata Theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai on 5 December, when about 1,000 people gathered for the annual TEDx Gateway conference. Speakers, past and present, mingled with the crowd of volunteers, students and professionals from different age groups. Apart from Daryani, now 17 years old, there were presenters like YouTube and playback pop singer Natalie Di Luccio, who has worked with composer A.R. Rahman.

As speakers like Ritu Karidhal, deputy operations director of the Mars Orbital Mission at the Indian Space Research Organisation, described the two challenges of the mission, and Sonam Wangchuk (the man who inspired the character played by Aamir Khan in the film 3 Idiots) told the story of his school in Ladakh, many in the audience took notes.

“It costs 5,000 to attend, but it’s worth it," says Mena Malgonkar, a 44-year-old artist and advertising professional. “I love that they manage to get people like the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde as well as local talent like photojournalist Sudharak Olwe. It brings a certain freshness...," she says.

Ever since TEDx India conferences began in 2009, the brand has cast its net wide. There are TEDx city events, corporate TEDx events and TEDx youth and college events, each hosted by local organizers.

Nimit Parikh, a third-year economics and statistics student at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, had been hooked to TED talks ever since he saw writer Simon Sinek’s famous talk on leadership. His inspiration to apply for a TEDx licence and host an event came from the desire to make peers in college aware of ideas they had never thought of, from physics to fashion. He got the licence and successfully hosted the event in his college in February 2015.

Besides TED and its franchises, there are also TED-inspired conferences. The best known of these are the INK conferences. Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Lakshmi Pratury worked with TED before she founded INK in 2010. At its three-day event in Mumbai last year, Pratury and her team put together a TED-like line-up of speakers, including a whole set of young achievers and INK fellows. The speakers included photographer Anand Varma and corporate head honchos like Edelweiss CEO Rashesh Shah and Facebook India’s outgoing managing director Kirthiga Reddy.

This conference period is “a time to jump in and immerse oneself in a sea of ideas and stories", says Pratury. She adds that INK tries to bring in more local stories. Like TED, it runs a fellows programme, giving talented young people an opportunity to showcase their stories. Last year, 22-year-old Babar Ali, who started a school in his native Murshidabad, spoke at the Mumbai conference; INK helped him to raise funds for his school.

“We help them shape their stories to an extent, and work with the speaker to reveal the real person behind the persona," says Pratury, who has forged partnerships with organizations like Manipal University, Edelweiss and the Tata Trust. They work together on programmes, like that of the INK fellows, and even on identifying speakers for the annual INK conference.

“INK is a newer brand than TED and so not as advanced as TED in curating conferences," says 23-year-old Advait Tinaikar, who worked at the auto maker Skoda and is now looking to be a social entrepreneur. He says he was a little disappointed with the lack of interaction at INK conferences, both with speakers and other attendees.

Many TED talks have YouTube views running into millions. But the expansion of the brand has also led to criticism, both of TEDx events and of the annual TED conference itself. The most quoted is that of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, who says that TED talks are a “monstrosity that turn scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers".

Inventor Kshitij Marwah, 27, admits that some scientific content may be dumbed down. “It’s often a vision of the technology rather than the actual technology," he explains.

Marwah has presented at both TED and INK talks. “I have learnt how to tell my story. My first TED talk was all about technology; it had no emotional content. But in the second talk, where I talked about my own story and struggles and also about technology, I was able to connect a lot more with the audience," he says.

He is all for expansion: “India needs many more of these (talks) so that authentic stories can become role models. But remember, these are other people’s stories. You need to chart your own story and be able to tell it."

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