Do you have a favorite TED talk?
I don’t think I know any business leader who hasn’t binge-watched TED talks the way the rest of the world binge-watches The Wire.
As someone who works every day to help people simplify and clarify their message, what amazes me about TED speakers is how they take complex topics and present them in a way that everybody understands. There’s something about making things clear, regardless of what you’re talking about, that the human mind engages. To me, that’s the magic of TED.
So I invited the CEO of TED, Chris Anderson, to join me on the Building a StoryBrand podcast. He teased out six principles that make a TED talk successful.
If you need to communicate any big idea to a large group of people, whether it’s in a speech or a board meeting or a lecture, you’re going to find his advice invaluable.
Beware the Curse of Knowledge
As Chris succinctly puts it, “When you know something, you forget what it’s like not to know it.”
That’s the “curse of knowledge,” a term coined by Lee LeFever that simply means our expertise in a particular topic often keeps us from explaining it well because we make assumptions or use jargon that confuses our audience.
When you need to communicate your big idea, you’ve got to be aware of your own curse of knowledge. Constantly be on the lookout for assumptions, jargon, and logic that seem like second nature to you but will confuse people who are outside your field.
As Chris explains it, “There’s a saying attributed to Einstein, ‘You should make things as simple as they can be, but no simpler,’ so you don’t simplify to the point of taking away the value, but you just describe what you want to say really carefully, starting from the ground up and avoiding assumptions that are going to throw your audience off.”
You Can’t Turn a Binder Into a Talk
Scott Hamilton, the Olympic gold medalist, was scheduled to give a TED talk on all of his work advocating for cancer patients and finding a cure. He came into my office with a binder, and I thought, “Well, we’re not going to be able to get through this in 18 minutes.”
When we give a talk, our temptation is almost always to say as much as we can to make the most of the opportunity.
But as Chris puts it, “You can’t turn a binder into a talk.”
“The best talks are anchored on a single through-line. Everything should be tied to it.”
Most people need to cut out at least half of what they initially think they can present.
And the key to doing that isn’t to give a quick summary of each of your points.
“No one wants a talk that is just a summary of five different things at surface level,” Chris explains. “You’ve got to pick one thing, and then attack it properly, deeply. Show why it matters. Give examples. Say why you’ve been puzzled about it.”
Ken Robinson is a world-renowned education expert whose TED talk has been viewed more than 45 million times. He could say a million things about education. But his talk focuses on a single idea: creativity.
To sum it up and quote Chris: “The best talks are anchored on a single through-line. Everything should be tied to it.”
Give Your Audience a Gift
We’ve all endured the speech that’s just a thinly veiled infomercial for the speaker’s company or product. It’s terrible, and as Chris says, “The audience immediately sees through that, and shuts down, and kind of resents it.”
In other words, if you want people to actually do business with your company as a result of your speech, that infomercial approach is only going to backfire.
“Come to the stage with the attitude that your job is to give a gift to the audience.”
Instead, Chris says, “Come to the stage with the attitude that your job is to give a gift to the audience. What really matters most to this audience? Start with that. And then ruthlessly cut the rest out.”
The overlap here is fascinating to me, because it’s not unlike the advice from screenwriter Allan Heinberg when he told me, “We can’t go wrong making it about other people.”
Overcome These Two Key Objections
One of my favorite TED talks is from Gary Haugen, who opens with the line, “To be honest, with my personality … I’m just not much of a crier.”
It’s a great hook that leaves you wanting to hear why. But it’s more than that, as Chris notes, because it helps to overcome two objections that all audiences naturally carry into any talk.
The first is skepticism. “People are naturally skeptical,” Chris says. “You don’t want any stranger poking around in your mind. So it does make sense for the talk to reveal your own humanity, and, in some cases, your own vulnerability. That makes people just relax and say, ‘Okay, it’s gonna be fun, and I can trust them to open my mind a little bit.’ And then you have your chance.”
The second objection we have to overcome is good old-fashioned boredom. Why does your topic matter? What makes it interesting? What are the stakes of not understanding it? Appeal to your listeners’ sense of curiosity so they are eager to come along with you on a journey.
I went to a TEDx forum recently, and every speaker spoke so slowly. It was painful.
I asked Chris about this, and he gave me some interesting insight. The traditional teaching from speaking coaches is to speak at 100 words a minute.
But to modern audiences, this can sound stiff or inauthentic, and Chris is seeing a trend of faster, more conversational speaking style in the leading TED talks.
“Imagine a group of friends at dinner, and you’re sitting there and you’re updating them on what you’re excited about,” Chris explains. “That intimate, very human connection is what resonates most. Save [traditional oration] for a few key sentences, but I think people really want speakers to spit it out and move on.”
Plan for Your Nerves
For a lot of people, public speaking is absolutely nerve-wracking.
And Chris thinks that fear is there for a reason. “We’re social creatures, and so I think the fear in some ways is legitimate,” he explains. “It’s meant to motivate you to take the steps to address it.”
He even points back to hundreds of thousands of years ago, in our first iteration of public speaking — simply telling stories around campfires. “If you were up in front of a group of people and you blew it and the group turned on you, that could be life or death,” he hypothesizes.
So if you deal with nerves and fear when you speak, know it’s there for a reason and use it. Let it be your motivation to prepare well. That preparation is the most important thing, in Chris’ estimation. “Multiple rehearsals for a big talk really help,” he says. Plus, and I love this tip, give yourself a safety net. Say you’re planning to give a talk without notes. Have the script ready backstage anyway along with some water. If you get lost, all you have to do is excuse yourself for a drink and find your footing again.
And if nerves do get the best of you, own it. Say, “You know, I’m nervous up here, but what I’m talking about is so important. Please bear with me.” As Chris says, “People love that. Being authentically you is key.”
If you have a big talk coming up, don’t waste it confusing or boring people. Use Chris’ advice to craft strong content and make a lasting impression on your audience.
What works for you when you’re planning a talk? I’d be so grateful if you left a comment and shared with me.
Executive producer: Tim Schurrer
Additional production and editing: Chad Snavely