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Shirley Leung

TED talks are a good prescription for making a point

We’ve all been there, stuck like sitting ducks. The CEO that drones on. The politician who meanders. The colleague with the pointless PowerPoint.

What I would give to have hours of my life back after suffering through a bad chamber of commerce address or an incoherent CEO at a Boston College Chief Executives’ Club luncheon.

Then comes along the TED talk, which should give us all hope for the future of public speaking. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, has been around for three decades, but in recent years has evolved into the gold standard for speeches. Online, TED talks have attracted over 2 billion views in 100 languages.


Arguably, this nonprofit’s greatest contribution to society is not the spreading of ideas through a series of powerful talks, but showing us how to make a point. Imagine how much better the world could be if everyone knew how to deliver a message in a polished and compelling way — from memory and in 18 minutes or less.

How hard can it be?

Let’s just say it takes a village, something nine speakers from the Boston area found out as they prepared for the annual TEDMED conference, which starts Wednesday in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. The confab focuses on health and medicine, so, naturally Boston players — including Brigham and Women’s Hospital CEO Betsy Nabel — have starring roles.

“The TEDMED talk is probably unlike any other talk they have given,” said Nassim Assefi, the organization’s director of stage content (yes, that’s her real title). “It is more like a poetic monologue than a lecture. It is a performance piece for a high scientific concept. It is a single idea — a gift.”

The planning begins a year in advance. Assefi, a doctor by training, is in charge of whittling 10,000 nominations to 90. More often than not, you do not apply, but rather you’re invited, sought out for a particular expertise. You also have to be a pretty good speaker to begin with. TED organizers spend a lot of time watching prospects on YouTube.


Once selected, a TED team helps you craft your remarks over several months. In addition to Assefi, there’s a curator, a chief storytelling officer, and a scientific director. The average speaker goes through six or seven drafts — in one case, it was 40. Expect to practice, practice, practice — as much as 100 times by the time you step onstage. And it is truly a stage — this year’s TEDMED takes places at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C. and the Palace of Fine Arts theatre in San Francisco.

Brigham’s Nabel has given plenty of speeches during her career, including commencement addresses. But this one is different because it’s a blend of science and the personal, and it’s provocative. Her topic is the importance of humility in medicine, not one you’d expect from the head of a teaching hospital full of know-it-all doctors and researchers.

“Despite all of our ‘knowledge,’ we humans are desperately in the dark about how most things work,” Nabel will tell the audience. “Humility is the secret ingredient that unveils truth and brings change.” In her talk, the cardiologist recalls being a “hotshot resident” working in the ER when a woman, 32, walked in with a low-grade fever. Nabel ordered the usual tests, which didn’t show anything, so she sent the patient home with Tylenol. Two days later, the woman was back with a full-blown heart attack.


“It’s not possible!” Nabel thought. “Women don’t get heart disease. That’s what I ‘knew.’ ”

Nabel goes on to explain that today’s medical students are taught women don’t experience chest pain like men when they have a heart attack, they just feel lethargic.

Humility isn’t just part of practicing good medicine, but a good prescription for public speaking.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.