The best presentation ever (about sex)

Elisabeth Pisani (TED)

I admit, I hesitated before I decided to put sex in there. Was that just too easy?

Titles are designed to attract attention. I used “sex” as a lubricant.

And before you look for the exit sign, I have another confession to make.

The title is a lie

Because, had the title been “the best presentation out of 138”, you may not have continued reading this.

I will tell you a story about an absolutely amazing presentation (which may well not be the best one ever…)

And yes, there may be some sex in it.


That’s how many TED presentations I’ve listened to, compulsively. One year long, every day at lunch, jogging with my headset on through Brussels’ city park.

I made a selection. Good ones were marked with a +, the very best ++. Those were the ones I’d watch afterwards.

To be on a TED podium is the crown on a public speaking career

If you are not familiar with TED: it is a series of events where influential people present their ideas. TED’s motto is ‘ideas worth spreading’.

On you can find a list of all the talks they have featured in the past. They are available for viewing and download, with subtitles. I’ve mainly used the audio files.

Elizabeth is the best

The pinnacle of public speaking is embodied by Elizabeth Pisani, as far as I’m concerned. Check out her presentation about sex, drugs and HIV, and you will soon see why.

Elizabeth is an epidemiologist and former journalist. She was born in the US and has credentials and experience in Europe and Asia.

She puts our tips to the test

Sometimes I show one of Elizabeth’s presentations during our workshops. “She applies each and every one of your tips”, a participant once said. I liked that, of course. As if Elizabeth had done a The Floor is Yours workshop as well.

Act naturally, just like Elizabeth

“But she has so much more experience, while I just started with my research”, some researchers tell me.

True, but Elizabeth also started without any experience. What she exhibits now is the result of many years of hard work. And even if you apply just one of the tips, you’ll be making tremendous progress. I promise you.

What does Elizabeth say?

“People do get HIV because they do stupid things, but most of them are doing stupid things for perfectly rational reasons.”

It’s about HIV and how people get infected. Via sex and drug needles. It’s your own fault. Use a condom and don’t share needles. Right?

Not so for Elizabeth. Her presentation leaves you slightly embarrassed. Because you may have the same bad habits as those junkies and prostitutes.

Lessons from watching Elizabeth

1. First, concrete examples. Then, the bigger picture

Elizabeth tells the story of an Indonesian drug addict who shares needles with other users. Why do that? If the police catches you with a needle on you, you go to jail. One would rather risk HIV than going to Indonesian prison.

Since Elizabeth is a scientist, she does not confine herself to mere anecdotes, though. “Let’s look at some data”, she continues. Statistics support her story.

Just like Elizabeth, start your presentation with a concrete case, an example your audience can empathize with. Afterwards, show them the larger context.

2. Make your message credible

‘People do stupid things – that’s what spreads HIV’ a headline of The Guardian reads. It’s a quote by an epidemiologist with fifteen years of experience: Elizabeth herself. That’s a pretty impactful opening.

Why would your audience believe or trust you? Talk about your experience, your appointment at an important university, a publication in an authoritative journal, or your work in the field.

Elizabeth shows how she does not just research data, but that she has actually interacted with drug addicts and prostitutes. She knows what she is talking about. That is why I believe her.

3. Limit yourself to what is absolutely necessary

Elizabeth does not give you any unnecessary information. Each word is picked carefully. Her slides are plain. She just shows a quote here and there. She is the one in the spotlight, not her slides.

Her graphs are simple and clear: only relevant information is shown. Nothing is superfluous. No wild color schemes. Two basic colors do the trick. In a glimpse, you get the essence.

4. Challenge and shock

“This is about sex and drugs, and if there are two things that people lose their minds over, it’s erections and addictions.”

Later on, Elizabeth ensures the (former) pope that having condoms in your pockets does not necessarily lead to having sex.

Elizabeth has guts. She captures her audience’s attention by provoking them. She then uses that attention to bring her message home.

5. A clear, three-tiered structure

During her introduction we learn what the presentation will be about, who Elizabeth is, and why her talk will be of interest.

After that, Elizabeth goes into the details of the cases, and builds out her arguments.

At the end, she formulates her conclusion and appeals to her audience to act.

She also manages to go beyond her theme and makes us realize that some of our irrational behaviors can actually be explained pretty rationally.

I can keep going on about what is great about her presentation. A few examples: her body language, the way she uses her voice, the way she engages her audience.

One more, because it really shows her eloquence

A drug addict explains why swapping needles is not something you do for fun:

“You don’t want to share a needle, any more than that you want to share a tooth brush, even with someone you are sleeping with. There is just a kind of eek factor there.”

It’s probably hard to put yourself in the shoes of a drug addict, but we all use a toothbrush.

If the subject of your presentation is conceptually hard to grasp for your audience, look for a metaphor that makes it recognizable for everyone.

All of this is why I think Elizabeth is the best

Maybe even the best ever.

(Foto Elisabeth Pisani: Ryan Lash, TED conference op Flickr)