Most people will never give a TED talk, the popular lecture series organized by nonprofit group TED. But at some point in their careers, every businessperson will be called on to speak in public, be it in meetings, at conferences, or presentations to clients.
“From small meeting rooms to major boardrooms, storytelling is becoming a bigger part of how people share ideas,” says Jeremey Donovan, a TEDx organizer and the author of new book “How to Deliver a TED Talk: Secrets of the World’s Most Inspiring Presentations.”
How can you deliver a talk that people remember and share? From the 14,000 TED talks that have together been viewed more than 1 billion times, Donovan outlines the public speaking secrets of the most popular speeches.
Present a clear, focused message.
The TED mission of “ideas worth spreading” highlights unique, counterintuitive, and impactful ideas that can shape the audience’s outlook. “In general, if you think about what goes viral, a piece of information that has an effect on your life and you think could help other people, you share it,” Donovan says. Whether you’re asking for money or delivering quarterly results, communicating one, clear message for a specific audience is powerful, memorable, and easy to act on.
Keep it short and to the point.
TED talks are also very digestible, since speakers are given a strictly enforced time limit of 18 minutes or less. “That time length, while being long enough to say something substantive, is short enough to hold people's attention,” TED curator Chris Anderson has said, referring to the talks as the perfect coffee-break length. Some of the most shared talks have been even shorter. Oceanographer David Gallo’s 2008 talk “Underwater Astonishments” is under six minutes and has 8.5 million views.
Format your presentation as a hero’s journey or premise-driven narrative.
According to Donovan, the most popular TED talks follow two basic narrative structures. Speakers may present their stories as a hero’s journey in three acts — the protagonist’s call to action, navigating the barriers to the goal, and the resolution — or the more common premise-driven format in which the speaker introduces an argument, presents several vignettes that support the argument, and then offers a conclusion.
Do not use slides.
Since being authentic and in the moment is the best way to tell a story, Donovan advises speakers not to use slides, which you wouldn’t use if speaking to a friend. In fact, he says four of the 10 most popular TED talks have not used slides, including the all-time most popular talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity” by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006, which has been viewed nearly 20 million times. “Slides break the connection between the presenter and audience,” says Donovan. “Only use them when they document an experience firsthand in a way that beats verbal description.”
Bring your audience through a broad range of emotions.
“The most compelling storytellers relive rather than retell a story,” says Donovan. “Many people think public speaking is an exercise in poise, but if you’re clinical about it, people don’t relive it with you.” However, if you allow yourself to feel the emotions of the story, they come out in your voice, face, and body. The best talks represent the full emotional spectrum, he says. For example, anger, disgust, fear, happiness, love, and sadness are all represented in Amanda Palmer’s talk, “The Art Of Asking,” about the new relationship between artists and fans.
Use humor strategically.
The most viral TED talks average a laugh a minute, even if they’re on serious topics, says Donovan. Humor can be used to create surprise, connect with the audience, and provide emotional relief. Since the speaker is already in a power position, self-deprecating humor can build rapport with the audience by evening the power distribution. At the same time, well-timed humor can also help manage the emotions in the room, he says, because laughter breaks tension and even lowers people’s blood pressure.
Embrace the power of the pause.
Mastering strategic silence can add drama and polish to any talk, says Donovan. When the late tech innovator Steve Jobs gave his famous 2005 Stanford University commencement address, “How To Live Before You Die,” he paused nine times in the first minute alone. While not a TED talk, his speech exemplifies how to use pauses to add dramatic effect, accentuate important points, give the audience time to process the message, and replace filler words like “um,” “ah,” “like,” and “you know.”
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