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A source of good and often inspiring lectures are certainly the TED Talks and their independent TEDx Talks. One of the speeches that has inspired me in recent years is the talk “How great leaders inspire action” by Simon Sinek. Of course, we can discuss whether his performance could be further optimized: There are only a few laughs in the audience, the eye contact between speaker and audience is not optimal and the speaker often takes his glasses (exactly 22 times) – to name just three examples.

Nevertheless, why is his 2009 TEDx talk the third most seen of about 3 000 TED talks worldwide? Why has his presentation, which he held live in front of just 50 listeners, been clicked more than 42 million times on ted.com and a good 15 million times on YouTube to date? So what did Simon Sinek do right?

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“Sometime they’ll give a presentation and nobody will come.” I experienced that again and again while I was a student and researcher. There are conference sessions in which just three people sit in the audience listening to a presentation that is at most mediocre. Only three, because the topic is extremely special and because many presentations recite a bunch of numbers, data and facts.

As students, we can learn a lot of undoubtedly interesting stuff – otherwise we would not have decided to study a particular subject. But most professors do not give much thought to how this material is taught. No wonder with the continuous pressure of publications, project proposals and the day-to-day administrative stuff. The unloved teaching is only the odd one out. But without preparation and training only natural talents may succeed with both instructive and exciting lectures. Unfortunately, this happens far too rarely.

 

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A promising recipe for high-quality presentations is the proper language style: Use plain language! Speak in a way so that you are understood immediately and easily. Allow no space for average presentations.

You can skip the obvious at the beginning like in the following speech excerpt confidently: “Good day, dear audience. It is great that so many of you have appeared. My name is Wolfgang Schneider. I will first provide an overview of the research area, then I will present the methods before I move on to the actual results of our project. For the sake of completeness, I will list the literature sources on my last slide…”

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Cultural development is driven by factors such as language, climate and environment. For instance, how we communicate can be seen in the climate in which we live. In cold climate conditions, we keep our conversation to a minimum – it is rather short and purposeful, and we sometimes seem to be buttoned up.

 

Presentation and language style

The fact that small talk is rather a luxury under adverse climatic conditions can also be seen in the language style: we keep it short, words do not have as many nuances and are clearly and unambiguously defined. In German, many words end in consonants or silent vowels. This language is not as melodic as Spanish, French or Italian because of the less pronounced high and low tones. In these countries, vocabulary and vocal melody are much more variable than in Germany or Scandinavia. Accordingly, body language is much more pronounced under warm Mediterranean climatic conditions.

These differences also affect presentation style: Some words are given more weight, often accompanied by facts and figures – the factual level has priority. As speakers we appear focused and compelling in terms of content, speaking a rather plain language: statements are taken literally, content is more important than the overall picture. The language style is direct and detailed, facial expressions and gestures are less important.

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