Anatomy of a Talk

Grace Zhang writes a reflection of Dr. Nita Farahany’s Ted Talk Primer

In high school, Dr. Nita Farahany was a star debater for her school team, leading to her recruitment to Dartmouth’s team for her undergraduate years. However, when TED – a media organization centered around the popular slogan “ideas worth spreading” – reached out to her in her later years as an academic scholar, she found a new form of discourse.

This past Wednesday, Dr. Farahany joined us Huang Fellows on zoom for a primer on delivering a talk. Though preparation for the TED Conference stage requires extensive drafting, editing, citation, and memorization, much of the “anatomy of the talk is the same… it’s about meeting the audience where they are.” As the Fellows are preparing to share our research, we listened in on how Dr. Farahany conveyed her ideas about protecting our brain’s thoughts and feelings in a fast advancing tech society.

“The anatomy of the talk is the same… it’s about meeting the audience where they are.”

dr nita farahany

Dr. Farahany outlines 4 pieces to delivering a compelling talk: the big idea, personal connection, building blocks of facts, and the call to action. The first step in preparing a talk is to determine what the main message is you are trying to deliver; for Dr. Farahany, it was the necessity of protecting and defining our cognitive liberties. However, a truly engaging discussion requires a personal story that makes the audience really want to believe what you claim. Dr. Farahany reflected on her childhood as a first generation Iranian in the U.S. during the Iranian Green Movement. Her observations of government oppression manifested a deep suspicion of government control and abuse of power to limit communication amongst dissidents. How then could new neuroscience technologies be abused to expose an individual’s thoughts and feelings?

Once the audience is completely hooked and invested, the next step is building up a foundation of facts for basic understanding. Analogies are best; for example, just as a fitness tracker looks at heart rate, the EEG (electroencephalography) measures brain activity in real time. Yet, once the base is established and the audience is onboard, they are probably wondering what to do about the issue. This brings you to the call to action or “cash out”. For Dr. Farahany, her proposed solutions to brain data privacy and protection is recognition of cognitive liberty as a human / social right to be enforced.

The final component to piecing together a Ted Talk is finding your own voice style. Though it is useful and motivating to draw inspiration and techniques from other speakers, it really comes down to your personal voice and expression. Only by following this tenet may the audience truly buy into your authentic idea and story.

You can view Dr. Nita Farahany’s TedTalk here.

“The final component to piecing together a Ted Talk is finding your own voice style.”

Grace Zhang, Huang Fellow ’25

Grace ZhangGrace is from Cary, NC, planning to major in Statistics with an Environmental Science minor.