Powerful Public Speaking
TED Talks

Powerful Public Speaking

TED curator Chris Anderson offers a superb, knowledgeable guide for beginner public speakers.

Love it or loathe it, TED delivers a powerful presentation. Chris Anderson, the curator of TED since 2001, understands the power of a great story. He details how to create a successful TED Talk and reveals behind-the-scenes secrets of some of TED’s most famous lectures. Anderson advocates for schools to teach “presentation literacy,” and he equips you with the tools you need to deliver a cogent, memorable speech. He provides a basic primer for anyone seeking to improve their public speaking.

Presentation Literacy

When you tell a story, says Anderson, you plant your idea in the minds of your listeners, and their brainwaves synchronize as they hang on your words.

Most people feel nervous about public speaking. But practice lets you find the approach that works for you. Delivering a captivating speech requires developing presentation literacy – that is, the ability to communicate your idea or message confidently and effectively. Public speaking is a core skill for work and life in the 21st century. Learn the tools and strategies you need to deliver a meaningful speech.

Adding Value

You are unique. Dig deep to find an idea worth sharing. Examine your recent work or think about issues that matter most to you. Share a compelling idea that takes your audience on a journey, transforming their worldview and adding value to their lives.

Your number-one mission as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and to rebuild it inside the minds of your listeners.Chris Anderson

Ideas are the foundation of your speech, asserts Anderson. Effective ideas-based talks have throughlines; every anecdote, example and aside connects to a central theme. Summarize your throughline in no more than 15 words. Select meaningful examples and illustrate how they matter.

Does the theme of your talk fill you with passion and curiosity? How original is the information you’re sharing? Can you do your topic justice in the time allotted? Do you have ample knowledge or credibility to speak on this topic?

Never give a sales pitch, ramble, be boring or strive for an ovation when you give a talk.

Build Connection

The human brain deploys “skepticism, mistrust, dislike, boredom” and “incomprehension” to protect itself from unwanted information. To gain listeners’ full attention, connect with them. Make confident, friendly eye contact. Disarm people by showing vulnerability. Use humor to make people laugh without making them cringe. Never let your ego drive you to, for example, drop the names of famous people or boast about your accomplishments.

Compelling Narratives

Compelling stories feature empathetic characters, create rising tension, contain vivid details and reach a resolution listeners find satisfying, Anderson reveals.

Beware the curse of knowledge. You must be sure you’re not making assumptions that will lose your audience.Chris Anderson

Don’t assume everyone knows what you know about your topic, but don’t insult your audience’s intelligence by oversimplifying. Explain details that excite your audience. For example, psychologist Dan Gilbert spoke about “synthesized happiness” on the TED stage. He generated intrigue, inspired curiosity, introduced concepts one by one, and used analogies to make this idea comprehensible.

An Alternate Worldview

Your task is to persuade your audience that an aspect of their current worldview is suboptimal. Best-selling author and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker convinced a TED audience that the world is nowhere near as violent as they believed it to be. He cited examples and statistics to illustrate how much more violent the world once was. He revealed the mechanism causing audience members to harbor this misconception: The media’s incessant presentation of violence and drama.

Being persuasive hinges on having a logical argument, but you won’t win over audiences with reason alone. Employ humor, anecdotes, examples, visuals and third-party corroboration to build your case. Give people opportunities to arrive at your desired conclusion before you reveal it.

Show New Possibilities

Present your audience with a new worldview to create a sudden revelation, advises Anderson. Oceanographer David Gallo, for example, took his audience on a “wonder walk” by displaying images of oceanic life, leading listeners on a narrative journey toward new possibilities.

Some of the most powerful speeches in history have been powerful precisely because they communicated a dream with irresistible eloquence and passion.Chris Anderson

You may want to demo a new product that audiences must see to believe. Researcher Pranav Mistry, for example, stunned his audience when he demonstrated SixthSense technology – a combined smartphone, projector and camera that can read gestures. Boldly conjure an image of the future and inspire audiences to inhabit this dreamscape with you.

Opening and Closing

Most TED speakers script their talk, then memorize it. Preparation allows them to appear natural on stage. Rehearse repeatedly and record your rehearsal on a smartphone to assess your speaking style. Recruit listeners, and solicit feedback on your delivery. 

You have roughly 60 seconds to grab your audience’s attention. Open with a dramatic attention-grabbing statement that connects to your throughline; ask a surprising question; or hint at what you plan to reveal.

Audience attention is a truly precious commodity. You always have it when you first arrive on stage. Don’t fritter it away with small talk.Chris Anderson

Leave audiences wanting more by helping people see the potential of your idea. Nudge audiences to act on your idea. Offer a vision that aligns with powerful values. Connect your ending to your beginning to create a satisfying symmetry.

Choose an outfit that makes you feel confident. Calm your nerves by letting your fear motivate you. Breathe deeply, stay hydrated and eat healthily before you go on stage. Be authentically you.

Basic Advice

Chris Anderson understands sophisticated presentations, but with this book he aims for a mass audience. His advice is simple but replete with charm, humor and excellent examples from powerful TED Talks. High school students, undergraduates and adults new to the terrors and pleasures of public speaking will find inspiration in Anderson’s assertions that in an era of constant digital connection, face-to-face conversation remains a crucial, intimate skill – one readers can learn, practice and even savor.

Chris Anderson also wrote Thank You for Coming to My TED Talk. Further works on TED Talks include Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo and How to Deliver a TED Talk by Jeremy Donovan.

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