How Ted Talks work

how ted talks started and how ted talks are structured ted talks how to find and do work you love
DenzelCrowe Profile Pic
Published Date:08-07-2017
Your Website URL(Optional)
Prologue THE NEW AGE OF FIRE The house lights dim. A woman, her palms sweating, her legs trembling just a little, steps out onto the stage. A spotlight hits her face, and 1,200 pairs of eyes lock onto hers. The audience senses her nervousness. There is palpable tension in the room. She clears her throat and starts to speak. What happens next is astounding. The 1,200 brains inside the heads of 1,200 independent individuals start to behave very strangely. They begin to sync up. A magic spell woven by the woman washes over each person. They gasp together. Laugh together. Weep together. And as they do so, something else happens. Rich, neurologically encoded patterns of information inside the woman’s brain are somehow copied and transferred to the 1,200 brains in the audience. These patterns will remain in those brains for the rest of their lives, potentially impacting their behavior years into the future. The woman on the stage is weaving wonder, not witchcraft. But her skills are as potent as any sorcery. Ants shape each other’s behavior by exchanging chemicals. We do it by standing in front of each other, peering into each other’s eyes, waving our hands and emitting strange sounds from our mouths. Human-to-human communication is a true wonder of the world. We do it unconsciously every day. And it reaches its most intense form on the public stage. The purpose of this book is to explain how the miracle of powerful public speaking is achieved, and to equip you to give it your best shot. But one thing needs emphasizing right at the start. There is no one way to give a great talk. The world of knowledge is far too big and the range of speakers and of audiences and of talk settings is far too varied for that. Any attempt to apply a single set formula is likely to backfire. Audiences see through it in an instant and feel manipulated. Indeed, even if there were a successful formula at one moment in time, it wouldn’t stay successful for long. That’s because a key part of the appeal of a great talk is its freshness. We’re humans. We don’t like same old, same old. If your talk feels too similar to a talk someone has already heard, it is bound to have less impact. The last thing we want is for everyone to sound the same or for anyone to sound as though he’s faking it. So you should not think of the advice in this book as rules prescribing a single way to speak. Instead think of it as offering you a set of tools designed to encourage variety. Just use the ones that are right for you and for the speaking opportunity you’re facing. Your only real job in giving a talk is to have something valuable to say, and to say itauthentically in your own unique way. You may find it more natural than you think. Public speaking is an ancient art, wired deeply into our minds. Archaeological discoveries dating back hundreds of thousands of years have found community meeting sites where our ancestors gathered around fire. In every culture on earth, as language developed, people learned to share their stories, hopes, and dreams. Imagine a typical scene. It is after nightfall. The campfire is ablaze. The logs crackle and spit under a starry sky. An elder rises, and all eyes turn and lock onto the wise, wrinkled face, illuminated by the flickering light. The story begins. And as the storyteller speaks, each listener imagines the events that are being described. That imagination brings with it the same emotions shared by the characters in the story. This is a profoundly powerful process. It is the literal alignment of multiple minds into a shared consciousness. For a period of time, the campfire participants act as if they were a single life form. They may rise together, dance together, chant together. From this shared backdrop, it is a short step to the desire to act together, to decide to embark together on a journey, a battle, a building, a celebration. The same is true today. As a leader—or as an advocate—public speaking is the key to unlocking empathy, stirring excitement, sharing knowledge and insights, and promoting a shared dream. Indeed, the spoken word has actually gained new powers. Our campfire is now the whole world. Thanks to the Internet, a single talk in a single theater can end up being seen by millions of people. Just as the printing press massively amplified the power of authors, so the web is massively amplifying the impact of speakers. It is allowing anyone anywhere with online access (and within a decade or so, we can expect almost every village on earth to be connected) to summon the world’s greatest teachers to their homes and learn from them directly. Suddenly an ancient art has global reach. This revolution has sparked a renaissance in public speaking. Many of us have suffered years of long, boring lectures at university; interminable sermons at church; or roll-your- eyes predictable political stump speeches. It doesn’t have to be that way. Done right, a talk can electrify a room and transform an audience’s worldview. Done right, a talk is more powerful than anything in written form. Writing gives us the words. Speaking brings with it a whole new toolbox. When we peer into a speaker’s eyes; listen to the tone of her voice; sense her vulnerability, her intelligence, her passion, we are tapping into unconscious skills that have been fine-tuned over hundreds of thousands of years. Skills that can galvanize, empower, inspire. What is more, we can enhance these skills in ways the ancients could never have imagined: The ability to show—right there in beautiful high-resolution—any image that a human can photograph or imagine. The ability to weave in video and music. The ability to draw on research tools that present the entire body of human knowledge to anyone in reach of a smartphone. The good news is, these skills are teachable. They absolutely are. And that means thatthere’s a new superpower that anyone, young or old, can benefit from. It’s called presentation literacy. We live in an era where the best way to make a dent on the world may no longer be to write a letter to the editor or publish a book. It may be simply to stand up and say something . . . because both the words and the passion with which they are delivered can now spread across the world at warp speed. In the twenty-first century, presentation literacy should be taught in every school. 1 Indeed, before the era of books, it was considered an absolutely core part of education, albeit under an old-fashioned name: rhetoric. Today, in the connected era, we should resurrect that noble art and make it education’s fourth R: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic . . . and rhetoric. The word’s core meaning is simply “the art of speaking effectively.” Fundamentally, that’s the purpose of this book. To recast rhetoric for the modern era. To offer useful stepping-stones toward a new presentation literacy. Our experience at TED over the last few years can help point the way. TED began as an annual conference, bringing together the fields of technology, entertainment, and design (hence the name). But in recent years it has expanded to cover any topic of public interest. TED speakers seek to make their ideas accessible to those outside their field by delivering short, carefully prepared talks. And to our delight, this form of public speaking has proved a hit online, to the extent that, as of 2015, more than 1 billion TED Talks are viewed annually. My colleagues and I have worked with hundreds of TED speakers, helping fine-tune their messages and how they deliver them. These amazing people have completely changed the way we see the world. Over the past decade, we have debated passionately among ourselves how exactly these speakers have achieved what they’ve achieved. From our lucky ringside seats, we have been intrigued and infuriated, informed and inspired. We have also had the chance to ask them directly for their advice on how to prepare and deliver an amazing talk. Thanks to their brilliance, we’ve learned dozens of insights into how they achieved something so extraordinary in just a few minutes. That makes this book a collaborative effort. It’s a collaboration with those speakers, and with my talented colleagues, especially Kelly Stoetzel, Bruno Giussani, and Tom Rielly, who curate and host the main TED events with me, and who have had a central role over the years in shaping the TED Talk approach and format and bringing remarkable voices to our platform. We have also tapped into the collective wisdom of thousands of self-organized TEDx 2 events. The content emerging from them often surprises and delights us, and it has expanded our understanding of what is possible in a public talk. TED’s mission is to nurture the spread of powerful ideas. We don’t care whether this is done through something called TED, TEDx, or in any other form of public speaking.When we hear of other conferences deciding they want to put on TED-style talks, we’re thrilled. Ultimately, ideas aren’t owned. They have a life of their own. We’re delighted to see today’s renaissance in the art of public speaking wherever it is happening and whoever is doing it. So the purpose of this book is not just to describe how to give a TED Talk. It’s much broader than that. Its purpose is to support any form of public speaking that seeks to explain, inspire, inform, or persuade; whether in business, education, or on the public stage. Yes, many of the examples in this book are from TED Talks, but that’s not only because those are the examples we’re most familiar with. TED Talks have generated a lot of excitement in recent years, and we think they have something to offer the wider world of public speaking. We think the principles that underlie them can act as a powerful basis for a broader presentation literacy. So you won’t find specific tips on giving a toast at a wedding, or a company sales pitch, or a university lecture. But you will find tools and insights that may be useful for those occasions and, indeed, for every form of public speaking. More than that, we hope to persuade you to think about public speaking in a different way, a way that you will find exciting and empowering. The campfires of old have spawned a new kind of fire. A fire that spreads from mind to mind, screen to screen: the ignition of ideas whose time has come. This matters. Every meaningful element of human progress has happened only because humans have shared ideas with each other and then collaborated to turn those ideas into reality. From the first time our ancestors teamed up to take down a mammoth to Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, people have turned spoken words into astonishing shared achievements. We need that now more than ever. Ideas that could solve our toughest problems often remain invisible because the brilliant people in whose minds they reside lack the confidence or the know-how to share those ideas effectively. That is a tragedy. At a time when the right idea presented the right way can ripple across the world at the speed of light, spawning copies of itself in millions of minds, there’s huge benefit to figuring out how best to set it on its way, both for you, the speaker-in-waiting, and for the rest of us who need to know what you have to say. Are you ready? Let’s go light a fire. Chris Anderson February 2016Foundation 1 PRESENTATION LITERACY The Skill You Can Build You’re nervous, right? Stepping out onto a public stage and having hundreds of pairs of eyes turned your way is terrifying. You dread having to stand up in a company meeting and present your project. What if you get nervous and stumble over your words? What if you completely forget what you were going to say? Maybe you’ll be humiliated Maybe your career will crater Maybe the idea you believe in will stay buried forever These are thoughts that can keep you up at night. But guess what? Almost everyone has experienced the fear of public speaking. Indeed, surveys that ask people to list their top fears often report public speaking as the most widely selected, ahead of snakes, heights—and even death. How can this be? There is no tarantula hidden behind the microphone. You have zero risk of plunging off the stage to your death. The audience will not attack you with pitchforks. Then why the anxiety? It’s because there’s a lot at stake—not just the experience in the moment, but in our longer-term reputation. How others think of us matters hugely. We are profoundly social animals. We crave each other’s affection, respect, and support. Our future happiness depends on these realities to a shocking degree. And we sense that what happens on a public stage is going to materially affect these social currencies for better or worse. But with the right mindset, you can use your fear as an incredible asset. It can be the driver that will persuade you to prepare for a talk properly. That’s what happened when Monica Lewinsky came to TED. For her, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Seventeen years earlier, she had been through the most humiliating public exposure imaginable, an experience so intense it almost broke her. Now she was attempting a return to a more visible public life, to reclaim her narrative. But she was not an experienced public speaker, and she knew that it would be disastrous if she messed up. She told me: Nervous is too mild a word to describe how I felt. More like . . . Gutted with trepidation. Bolts of fear. Electric anxiety. If we could have harnessed the power of my nerves that morning, I think the energy crisis would have been solved. Not only was I stepping out onto a stage in front of an esteemed and brilliant crowd, but it was also videotaped, with the high likelihood of being made public on a widely viewed platform. I was visited by the echoes of lingering trauma from years of having been publicly ridiculed. Plagued by a deep insecurity I didn’t belong on the TED stage. That was the inner experience against which I battled.And yet Monica found a way to turn that fear around. She used some surprising techniques, which I’ll share in chapter 15. Suffice it to say, they worked. Her talk won a standing ovation at the event, rocketed to a million views within a few days, and earned rave reviews online. It even prompted a public apology to her from a longtime critic, feminist author Erica Jong. The brilliant woman I am married to, Jacqueline Novogratz, was also haunted by fear of public speaking. In school, at college, and into her twenties, the prospect of a microphone and watching eyes was so scary it was debilitating. But she knew that to advance her work fighting poverty, she would have to persuade others, and so she just began forcing herself to do it. Today she gives scores of speeches every year, often earning standing ovations. Indeed, everywhere you look, there are stories of people who were terrified of public speaking but found a way to become really good at it, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Warren Buffett to Princess Diana, who was known to all as “shy Di” and hated giving speeches, but found a way to speak informally in her own voice, and the world fell in love with her. If you can get a talk right, the upside can be amazing. Take the talk that entrepreneur Elon Musk gave to SpaceX employees on August 2, 2008. Musk was not known as a great public speaker. But that day, his words marked an important turning point for his company. SpaceX had already suffered two failed launches. This was the day of the third launch, and everyone knew failure could force the company’s closure. The Falcon rocket soared off the launch pad, but right after the first stage fell away, disaster struck. The spacecraft exploded. The video feed went dead. Some 350 employees had gathered and, as described by Dolly Singh, the company’s head of talent acquisition, the mood was thick with despair. Musk emerged to speak to them. He told them they’d always known it would be hard, but that despite what had happened, they had already accomplished something that day that few nations, let alone companies, had achieved. They had successfully completed the first stage of a launch and taken a spacecraft to outer space. They simply had to pick themselves up and get back to work. Here’s how Singh described the talk’s climax: Then Elon said, with as much fortitude and ferocity as he could muster after having been awake for like 20+ hours by this point, “For my part, I will never give up and I mean never.” I think most of us would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil after that. It was the most impressive display of leadership that I have ever witnessed. Within moments the energy of the building went from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination as people began to focus on moving forward instead of looking back. That’s the power of a single talk. You might not be leading an organization, but a talk can still open new doors or transform a career. TED speakers have told us delightful stories of the impact of their talks. Yes, there are sometimes book and movie offers, higher speaking fees, and unexpected offers of financial support. But the most appealing stories are of ideas advanced, and liveschanged. Amy Cuddy gave a hugely popular talk about how changing your body language can raise your confidence level. She has had more than 15,000 messages from people around the world, telling her how that wisdom has helped them. And young Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba’s inspiring talk about building a windmill in his village as a fourteen-year-old sparked a series of events that led to him being accepted into an engineering program at Dartmouth College. THE DAY TED MIGHT HAVE DIED Here’s a story from my own life: When I first took over leadership of TED in late 2001, I was reeling from the near collapse of the company I had spent fifteen years building, and I was terrified of another huge public failure. I had been struggling to persuade the TED community to back my vision for TED, and I feared that it might just fizzle out. Back then, TED was an annual conference in California, owned and hosted by a charismatic architect named Richard Saul Wurman, whose larger-than-life presence infused every aspect of the conference. About eight hundred people attended every year, and most of them seemed resigned to the fact that TED probably couldn’t survive once Wurman departed. The TED conference of February 2002 was the last one to be held under his leadership, and I had one chance and one chance only to persuade TED attendees that the conference would continue just fine. I had never run a conference before, however, and despite my best efforts over several months at marketing the following year’s event, only seventy people had signed up for it. Early on the last morning of that conference, I had 15 minutes to make my case. And here’s what you need to know about me: I am not naturally a great speaker. I say um and you know far too often. I will stop halfway through a sentence, trying to find the right word to continue. I can sound overly earnest, soft-spoken, conceptual. My quirky British sense of humor is not always shared by others. I was so nervous about this moment, and so worried that I would look awkward on the stage, that I couldn’t even bring myself to stand. Instead I rolled forward a chair from the back of the stage, sat on it, and began. I look back at that talk now and cringe—a lot. If I were critiquing it today, there are a hundred things I would change, starting with the wrinkly white T-shirt I was wearing. And yet . . . I had prepared carefully what I wanted to say, and I knew there were at least some in the audience desperate for TED to survive. If I could just give those supporters a reason to get excited, perhaps they would turn things around. Because of the recent dot- com bust, many in the audience had suffered business losses as bad as my own. Maybe I could connect with them that way? I spoke from the heart, with as much openness and conviction as I could summon. I told people I had just gone through a massive business failure. That I’d come to think of myself as a complete loser. That the only way I’d survived mentally was by immersing myself in the world of ideas. That TED had come to mean the world to me—that it was a unique place where ideas from every discipline could be shared. That I would do all in my power to preserve its best values. That, in any case, the conference had brought suchintense inspiration and learning to us that we couldn’t possibly let it die . . . could we? Oh, and I broke the tension with an apocryphal anecdote about France’s Madame de Gaulle and how she shocked guests at a diplomatic dinner by expressing her desire for “a penis.” In England, I said, we also had that desire, although there we pronounced it happiness, and TED had brought genuine happiness my way. To my utter amazement, at the end of the talk, Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, who was seated in the center of the audience, rose to his feet and began clapping. And the whole room stood with him. It was as if the TED community had collectively decided, in just a few seconds, that it would support this new chapter of TED after all. And in the 60- minute break that followed, some 200 people committed to buying passes for the following year’s conference, guaranteeing its success. If that 15-minute talk had fizzled, TED would have died, four years before ever putting a talk on the Internet. You would not be reading this book. In the next chapter, I’ll share why I think that talk ended up being effective, despite its evident awkwardness. It’s an insight that can be applied to any talk. No matter how little confidence you might have today in your ability to speak in public, there are things you can do to turn that around. Facility with public speaking is not a gift granted at birth to a lucky few. It’s a broad-ranging set of skills. There are hundreds of ways to give a talk, and everyone can find an approach that’s right for them and learn the skills necessary to do it well. THE BOY WITH THE LION-HEART A couple of years ago, TED’s content director, Kelly Stoetzel, and I went on a global tour in search of speaking talent. In Nairobi, Kenya, we met Richard Turere, a twelve-year- old Maasai boy who had come up with a surprising invention. His family raised cattle, and one of the biggest challenges was protecting them at night from lion attacks. Richard had noticed that a stationary campfire didn’t deter the lions, but walking around waving a torch did seem to work. The lions were apparently afraid of moving lights Richard had somehow taught himself electronics by messing around with parts taken from his parents’ radio. He used that knowledge to devise a system of lights that would turn on and off in sequence, creating a sense of movement. It was built from scrap​yard parts—solar panels, a car battery, and a motorcycle indicator box. He installed the lights and—presto—the lion attacks stopped. News of his invention spread and other villages wanted in. Instead of seeking to kill the lions as they had done before, they installed Richard’s “lion lights.” Both villagers and pro-lion environmentalists were happy. It was an impressive achievement but, at first glance, Richard certainly seemed an unlikely TED speaker. He stood hunched over in a corner of the room, painfully shy. His English was halting, and he struggled to describe his invention coherently. It was hard to imagine him on a stage in California in front of 1,400 people, slotted alongside Sergey Brin and Bill Gates. But Richard’s story was so compelling that we went ahead anyway and invited him to come give a TED Talk. In the months before the conference, we worked with him toframe his story—to find the right place to begin, and to develop a natural narrative sequence. Because of his invention, Richard had won a scholarship to one of Kenya’s best schools, where he had the chance to practice his TED Talk several times in front of a live audience. This helped build his confidence to the point where his personality could shine through. He got on an airplane for the first time in his life and flew to Long Beach, California. As he walked onto the TED stage, you could tell he was nervous, but that only made him more engaging. As Richard spoke, people were hanging on his every word, and every time he smiled, the audience melted. When he finished, people just stood and cheered. Richard’s tale can encourage us all to believe we might be able to give a decent talk. Your goal is not to be Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela. It’s to be you. If you’re a scientist, be a scientist; don’t try to be an activist. If you’re an artist, be an artist; don’t try to be an academic. If you’re just an ordinary person, don’t try to fake some big intellectual style; just be you. You don’t have to raise a crowd to its feet with a thunderous oration. Conversational sharing can work just as well. In fact, for most audiences, it’s a lot better. If you know how to talk to a group of friends over dinner, then you know enough to speak publicly. And technology is opening up new options. We live in an age where you don’t have to be able to speak to thousands of people at a time to have an outsized impact. It could just be you talking intimately to a video camera, and letting the Internet do the rest. Presentation literacy isn’t an optional extra for the few. It’s a core skill for the twenty- first century. It’s the most impactful way to share who you are and what you care about. If you can learn to do it, your self-confidence will flourish, and you may be amazed at the beneficial impact it can have on your success in life, however you might choose to define that. If you commit to being the authentic you, I am certain that you will be capable of tapping into the ancient art that is wired inside us. You simply have to pluck up the courage to try.Foundation 2 IDEA BUILDING The Gift in Every Great Talk In March 2015, a scientist named Sophie Scott stepped onto the TED stage, and within 2 minutes the entire audience was howling with uncontrollable laughter. Sophie is one of the world’s leading researchers on laughter, and she was playing an audio clip of humans laughing and showing just how weird a phenomenon it is—“more like an animal call than speech,” as she put it. Her talk was 17 minutes of pure delight. By the end of it, everyone was basking in the warm glow of a deeply pleasurable experience. But there was something else. None of us would ever think of laughter in quite the same way again. Sophie’s core idea about laughter—that its evolutionary purpose is to convert social stress into pleasurable alignment—had somehow entered our heads. And now, whenever I see a group of people laughing, I see the phenomenon through new eyes. Yes, I feel the joy, I feel the urge to join in. But I also see social bonding, and a strange and ancient biological phenomenon at work that makes the whole thing seem even more wondrous. Sophie gave me a gift. Not just the pleasure of listening to her. She gave me an idea that 3 can forever be part of me. I’d like to suggest that Sophie’s gift is a beautiful metaphor that can apply to any talk. 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. We’ll call that something an idea. A mental construct that they can hold on to, walk away with, value, and in some sense be changed by. That is the core reason that the scariest talk I ever had to give turned out to be effective. As I explained earlier, I had 15 minutes to try to convince the TED audience to support its new chapter under my leadership. There were many things wrong with that talk, but it succeeded in one key aspect: It planted an idea inside the minds of those listening. It was the idea that what was truly special about TED was not just the founder I was taking over from. TED’s uniqueness lay in being a place where people from every discipline could come together and understand each other. This cross-fertilization really mattered for the world, and therefore the conference would be given nonprofit status and held in trust for the public good. Its future was for all of us. This idea changed the way the audience thought about the TED transition. It no longer mattered so much that the founder was leaving. What mattered now was that a special way of sharing knowledge should be preserved.START WITH THE IDEA The central thesis of this book is that anyone who has an idea worth sharing is capable of giving a powerful talk. The only thing that truly matters in public speaking is not confidence, stage presence, or smooth talking. It’s having something worth saying. I am using the word idea quite broadly here. It doesn’t have to be a scientific breakthrough, a genius invention, or a complex legal theory. It can be a simple how-to. Or a human insight illustrated with the power of a story. Or a beautiful image that has meaning. Or an event you wish might happen in the future. Or perhaps just a reminder of what matters most in life. An idea is anything that can change how people see the world. If you can conjure up a compelling idea in people’s minds, you have done something wondrous. You have given them a gift of incalculable value. In a very real sense, a little piece of you has become part of them. Do you have ideas that deserve a wider audience? It’s amazing how bad we are at judging an answer to that question. A lot of speakers (often male) appear to love the sound of their own voice and are happy to talk for hours without sharing anything much of value. But there are also many people (often female) who massively underestimate the value of their work, and their learning, and their insights. If you’ve picked up this book just because you love the idea of strutting the stage and being a TED Talk star, inspiring audiences with your charisma, please, put it down right now. Instead, go and work on something that is worth sharing. Style without substance is awful. But, more likely, you have far more in you worth sharing than you’re even aware of. You don’t have to have invented lion lights. You’ve led a life that is yours and yours only. There are experiences you’ve had that are unique to you. There are insights to be drawn from some of those experiences that are absolutely worth sharing. You just have to figure out which ones. Are you stressed about this? Maybe you have a class assignment; or you need to present the results of your research at a small meeting; or you have a chance to speak to a local Rotary about your organization and try to gain their support. You may feel that you’ve done nothing that would be worth giving a talk about. You’ve invented nothing. You’re not particularly creative. You don’t see yourself as super-intelligent. You don’t have any particularly brilliant ideas about the future. You’re not even sure there’s anything you’re super-passionate about. Well, I grant you, that’s a tough starting point. To be worth an audience’s time, most talks require grounding in something that has some depth. It’s theoretically possible that the best thing you can do for now is to continue your journey, search for something that really does grab you and make you want to go deep, and pick up this book again in a few years’ time. But before you come to that conclusion, it’s worth double-checking that your self- assessment is accurate. Maybe you’re just lacking self-confidence. There’s a paradoxhere: You have always been you, and you only see yourself from the inside. The bits that others find remarkable in you may be completely invisible to you. To find those bits you may need to have honest conversations with those who know you best. They will know some parts of you better than you know them yourself. In any case, there’s one thing you have that no one else in the world has: Your own first-person experience of life. Yesterday you saw a sequence of things and experienced a sequence of emotions that is, quite literally, unique. You are the only human among 7 billion who had that exact experience. So . . . can you make anything of that? Many of the best talks are simply based on a personal story and a simple lesson to be drawn from it. Did you observe anything that surprised you? Maybe you watched a couple of children playing in the park, or had a conversation with a homeless person. Is there something in what you saw that might be interesting to other people? If not, could you imagine spending the next few weeks walking around with your eyes open, being aware of the possibility that some part of your unique journey could be of interest and benefit to others? People love stories, and everyone can learn to tell a good story. Even if the lesson you might draw from the story is familiar, that’s OK—we’re humans We need reminding There’s a reason religions have weekly sermons that tell us the same things over and over, packaged different ways. An important idea, wrapped up in a fresh story, can make a great talk, if it’s told the right way. Think back over your work of the last three or four years; what really stands out? What was the last thing you were really excited by? Or angered by? What are the two or three things you’ve done that you’re most proud of? When was the last time you were in conversation with someone who said, “That’s really interesting”? If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one idea you’d most love to spread to other people’s minds? PROCRASTINATE NO MORE You can use the opportunity of public speaking as motivation to dive more deeply into some topic. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser degree, from some form of procrastination or laziness. There’s a lot we’d like to get into in principle, but, you know, that Internet thing just has so many damn distractions. The chance to speak in public may be just the kick you need to commit to a serious research project. Anyone with a computer or a smartphone has access to pretty much all the world’s information. It’s just a matter of digging in and seeing what you can uncover. In fact, the same questions you ask as you do your research can help provide the blueprint for your talk. What are the issues that matter most? How are they related? How can they be easily explained? What are the riddles that people don’t yet have good answers for? What are the key controversies? You can use your own journey of discovery to suggest your talk’s key moments of revelation. So, if you think you might have something but aren’t sure you really know enough yet, why not use your public-speaking opportunity as an incentive to truly find out? Every time you feel your attention flagging, just remember the prospect of standing on stage with hundreds of eyes peering at you. That will get you through the next hour of effortIn 2015, we tried an experiment at TED headquarters. We granted everyone on the team an extra day off every second week to devote to studying something. We called it Learning Wednesdays. The idea was that, because the organization is committed to lifelong learning, we should practice what we preach and encourage everyone on the team to spend time learning about something they’re passionate about. But how did we prevent that just becoming a lazy day of sitting in front of the TV? There was a sting in the tail: Everyone had to commit, at some point during the year, to giving a TED Talk to the rest of the organization about what they’ve learned. That meant we all got to benefit from one another’s knowledge but, crucially, it also provided the key incentive for people to get on with it and actually learn. You don’t need Learning Wednesdays to have this motivation. Any chance at speaking to a group you respect can provide the incentive you need to get off your butt and work on something unique to you In other words, you don’t need to have the perfect knowledge in your head today. Use this opportunity as the reason to discover it. And if, after all that, you’re still floundering, maybe you’re right. Maybe you should turn down the offer to speak. You might be doing yourself—and them—a favor. More likely, though, you’ll land on something that you, and only you, can share. Something you’d actually be excited to see out there in the world a little more visibly. For most of the rest of this book, I’m going to assume that you have something you want to talk about, whether it’s a lifelong passion, a topic you’re eager to dive into more deeply, or a project for work that you have to present. In the chapters to come I’ll be focusing on the how, not the what. But in the final chapter we’ll return to the what, because I’m pretty sure that everyone has something important they could and should share with the rest of us. THE ASTONISHING EFFICACY OF LANGUAGE OK. You have something meaningful to say, and your goal is to re-create your core idea inside your audience’s minds. How do you do that? We shouldn’t underestimate how challenging that is. If we could somehow map what that idea about laughter looked like in Sophie Scott’s brain, it would probably involve millions of neurons interconnected in an incredibly rich and complex pattern. The pattern would have to include, somehow, images of people guffawing, the sounds that they make, the concepts of evolutionary purpose and of what it means to ease stress, and much more. How on earth is it possible to re-create that whole structure in a group of strangers’ minds in just a few minutes? Humans have developed a technology that makes this possible. It’s called language. It makes your brain do incredible things. I want you to imagine an elephant, with its trunk painted bright red, waving it to and fro in sync with the shuffling steps of a giant orange parrot dancing on the elephant’s head and shrieking over and over again, “Let’s do the fandango” Wow You have just formed in your mind an image of something that has never existed in history, except in my mind and in the minds of others who read that last sentence. Asingle sentence can do that. But it depends on you, the listener, having a set of preexisting concepts. You must already know what an elephant and a parrot are, what the color concepts of red and orange are, and what painted, dancing, and in sync mean. That sentence has prompted you to link those concepts into a brand-new pattern. If I had instead started out by saying “I want you to imagine a member of the species Loxodonta cyclotis, with proboscis pigmented Pantone 032U, conducting oscillatory motions . . .” you probably would not have formed that image, even though this is the same request in more precise language. So, language works its magic only to the extent that it is shared by speaker and listener. And there’s the key clue to how to achieve the miracle of re-creating your idea in someone else’s brain. You can only use the tools that your audience has access to. If you start only with your language, your concepts, your assumptions, your values, you will fail. So instead, start with theirs. It’s only from that common ground that they can begin to build your idea inside their minds. At Princeton University, Dr. Uri Hasson has been doing groundbreaking research to try to discover how this process works. It’s possible to capture in real time the complex brain activity associated with building a concept or remembering a story. It requires a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In one experiment in 2015, Dr. Hasson put a group of volunteers into fMRI machines and played them a 50-minute film that told a story. As they experienced the story, their brains’ response patterns were recorded. Some of those patterns could be matched across almost every volunteer, giving concrete physical evidence of the shared experience they were having. Then he asked the volunteers to record their own recollections of the film. Many of these recordings were quite detailed and lasted as long as 20 minutes. Now— and this is the astounding part—he played those recordings to another set of volunteers who had never seen the film, and recorded their fMRI data. The patterns shown in the brains of the second set of volunteers, those who listened to the audio recollections only, matched those patterns shown in the minds of the first set of volunteers as they watched the movie In other words, the power of language alone conjured up the same mental experiences that others had while watching a movie. This is amazing evidence of language’s efficacy. It is a power that every public speaker can tap into. YES, WORDS MATTER Some public-speaking coaches seek to downplay the importance of language. They may cite research published in 1967 by Professor Albert Mehrabian and claim that only 7 percent of the effectiveness of communication is down to language, while 38 percent depends on tone of voice and 55 percent comes from body language. This has led coaches to focus excessively on developing a speaking style of confidence, charisma, etc., and not worry so much about the words. Unfortunately, this is a complete misinterpretation of what Mehrabian found. His experiments were devoted primarily to discovering how emotion was communicated. Sofor example, he would test what would happen if someone said “That’s nice,” but said so in an angry tone of voice, or with threatening body language. Sure enough, in those circumstances, the words don’t count for much. But it is absurd to apply this to speaking overall (and Mehrabian is so sick of being misapplied that his website contains a bolded paragraph begging people not to do this). Yes, communicating emotion is important, and for that aspect of a talk, one’s tone of voice and body language do indeed matter a great deal. We discuss this in detail in later chapters. But the whole substance of a talk depends crucially on words. It’s the words that tell a story, build an idea, explain the complex, make a reasoned case, or provide a compelling call to action. So, if you hear someone tell you that body language matters more than verbal language in public speaking, please know that they are misinterpreting the science. (Or for fun, you could just ask them to repeat their point purely with gestures) We’ll spend much of the first half of this book digging into ways in which language can achieve its magic. The fact that we can transfer ideas in this way is why human-to-human speaking matters. It is how our worldviews are built and shaped. Our ideas make us who we are. And speakers who have figured out how to spread their ideas into others’ minds are able to create ripple effects of untold consequence. THE JOURNEY There’s one other beautiful metaphor for a great talk. It is a journey that speaker and audience take together. Speaker Tierney Thys puts it this way: Like all good movies or books, a great talk is transporting. We love to go on adventures, travel someplace new with an informed, if not quirky, guide who can introduce us to things we never knew existed, incite us to crawl out windows into strange worlds, outfit us with new lenses to see the ordinary in an extraordinary way . . . enrapture us and engage multiple parts of our brains simultaneously. So I often try to fashion my talks around embarking on a journey. What’s powerful about this metaphor is that it makes clear why the speaker, like any tour guide, must begin where the audience is. And why they must ensure no impossible leaps or inexplicable shifts in direction. Whether the journey is one of exploration, explanation, or persuasion, the net result is to have brought the audience to a beautiful new place. And that too is a gift. Whichever metaphor you use, focusing on what you will give to your audience is the perfect foundation for preparing your talk.Foundation 3 COMMON TRAPS Four Talk Styles to Avoid There are countless ways to build a great talk. But first some essential safety tips. There are ugly talk styles out there, dangerous to both a speaker’s reputation and an audience’s well-being. Here are four to steer clear of at all costs. THE SALES PITCH Sometimes speakers get it exactly backwards. They plan to take, not give. Several years ago a famed author and business consultant came to TED. I was excited to hear his presentation on how to think outside the box. What happened instead horrified me. He began talking about a series of businesses that had apparently made a significant leap forward as a result of an action they took. And what was that action? They had all booked his consultancy services. After 5 minutes of this, the audience was getting antsy and I’d had enough. I stood up and began to interrupt. Every eye turned my way. I was sweating. My microphone was on. Everyone could hear everything. Me: I have a request here. Perhaps you could tell us about the actual type of thinking you recommend? We want to know how it actually works, so that we’ve got a takeaway. As is, it’s a bit too much of an ad. Nervous applause. Awkward pause. Speaker: It takes three days to go into it. In 15 minutes, there is no way I can tell you all about how to do it. My purpose is to tell you that these things can work and therefore motivate you to look further into them. Me: We believe you that they work. You’re a rock star in this field Give us an instance, or just tease us with the first 15 minutes of it. Please At this point, the audience starts cheering and the speaker’s left with no choice. To everyone’s relief, he finally begins to share some wisdom we can use. Here’s the irony. This greedy approach to speaking doesn’t even serve the speaker’s interest. I’d be amazed if he got a single booking from anyone in that audience. And even if he did, it had to be offset by a loss of respect from others in the room. Needless to say, we never posted the talk online. Reputation is everything. You want to build a reputation as a generous person, bringing something wonderful to your audiences, not as a tedious self-promoter. It’s boring and frustrating to be pitched to, especially when you’re expecting something else. Usually, of course, pitches happen much more subtly. The slide showing a book cover; the brief mention about the speaker’s organization’s funding shortfall. In the context of an otherwise great talk, you may even get away with these little nudges. (And, of course, ifyou’ve been specifically asked to talk about the book or the organization, that’s another matter.) But you’re taking a big risk. That’s why at TED we actively discourage speakers from doing these things. The key principle is to remember that the speaker’s job is to give to the audience, not take from them. (Even in a business context where you’re genuinely making a sales pitch, your goal should be to give. The most effective salespeople put themselves into their listeners’ shoes and imagine how to best serve their needs.) At a conference, people don’t come to a talk to be sold to. As soon as they understand that might be your agenda, they will flee to the safety of their email inbox. It’s as if you’ve agreed to have a coffee with a friend and discover to your horror that all she actually wanted to do was explain her must-invest time-share scheme to you. You’re out of there at the first opportunity. It’s possible to disagree where the line is between sharing an idea and pitching, but the principle is crucial: Give, don’t take. And here’s the thing. Generosity evokes a response. When human-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson spoke at TED, his organization was in urgent need of 1 million to continue fighting a key case in the US Supreme Court. But Bryan didn’t mention this once in his talk. Instead he transformed the way we all thought about injustice in America, offering stories, insights, humor, and revelation. At the end the audience rose as one and applauded for several minutes. And guess what? He left the conference with contributions from attendees exceeding 1.3 million. THE RAMBLE In the first TED I organized, one of the speakers began, “As I was driving down here wondering what to say to you . . .” There followed an unfocused list of observations about possible futures. Nothing obnoxious. Nothing that was particularly hard to understand. But also no arguments of power. No revelations. No aha moments. No takeaways. The audience clapped politely. But no one really learned anything. I was fuming. It’s one thing to underprepare. But to boast that you’ve underprepared? That’s insulting. It tells the audience that their time doesn’t matter. That the event doesn’t matter. So many talks are like this. Meandering, no clear direction. A speaker might kid himself that even an unfocused exploration of his brilliant thinking is bound to be fascinating to others. But if 800 people are planning to devote 15 minutes of their day to your words, you really can’t just wing it. As my colleague Bruno Giussani puts it, “When people sit in a room to listen to a speaker, they are offering her something extremely precious, something that isn’t recoverable once given: a few minutes of their time and of their attention. Her task is to use that time as well as possible.” So if you’re going to gift people with a wondrous idea, you first have to spend some preparation time. Rambling is not an option. As it turned out, this particular rambling speaker did give TED a gift of sorts. From that talk on, we redoubled our efforts on speaker preparation.THE ORG BORE An organization is fascinating to those who work for it—and deeply boring to almost everyone else. Sorry, but it’s true. Any talk framed around the exceptional history of your company or NGO or lab and the complex-but-oh-so-impressive way it is structured, and the fabulously photogenic quality of the astonishingly talented team working with you, and how much success your products are having, is going to leave your audience snoozing at the starting line. It may be interesting to you and your team. But, alas, we don’t work there. Everything changes, though, when you focus on the nature of the work that you’re doing, and the power of the ideas that infuse it, not on the org itself or its products. This can be harder than it sounds. Ofttimes the heads of organizations are by default their spokespersons, always in selling mode, believing it’s their obligation to honor the hard-working team that surrounds them. And because the work they want to talk about has taken place inside the organization, the most obvious way to describe it may be to anchor it to organizational acts. “Back in 2005, we set up a new department in Dallas in this office building slide of glass tower here, and its goal was to investigate how we could slash our energy costs, so I allocated Vice President Hank Boreham to the task . . .” Yawn. Compare that statement to this one: “Back in 2005 we discovered something surprising. It turns out that it’s possible for an average office to slash its energy costs by 60 percent without any noticeable loss of productivity. Let me share with you how . . .” One mode retains interest. One kills it. One mode is a gift. The other is lazily self- serving. THE INSPIRATION PERFORMANCE I hesitate to include this example, but I think I must. Let’s agree on this first: Absolutely one of the most powerful things you can experience when watching a talk is inspiration. The speaker’s work and words move you and fill you with an expanded sense of possibility and excitement. You want to go out and be a better person. TED’s growth and success have been fueled by the deeply inspirational nature of many of the talks. Indeed, it’s the reason I was drawn to TED in the first place. I believe in inspiration’s power. But it’s a power that must be handled with great care. When a great speaker finishes her talk and the whole crowd rises to its feet and applauds, it’s a thrilling moment for everyone in the room. The audience is excited by what they’ve heard, and for the speaker, it’s indescribably satisfying to receive such powerful recognition. (One of the more awkward moments we’ve ever had at TED was when a speaker left the stage to lukewarm applause and whispered to her friend backstage, “Nobody stood up” An understandable comment. It was just unfortunate that her microphone was still on, and everyone could hear the pain in her voice.) Whether they admit it or not, many public speakers dream of being cheered as they leave the stage, followed by screens full of tweets attesting to their inspirational prowess.And therein lies the trap. The intense appeal of the standing ovation can lead aspiring speakers to do bad things. They may look at talks given by inspirational speakers and seek to copy them . . . but in form only. The result can be awful: the ruthless pursuit of every trick in the book to intellectually and emotionally manipulate the audience. 4 There was an upsetting instance of this at TED a few years ago. An American man in his forties had become a huge TED fan, and he sent us a compelling audition video, urging us to let him give his own talk. His talk premise exactly matched the theme we were focused on that year, and he came well recommended, so we decided to give him a shot. The first moments of his talk were promising. He had a big personality. He beamed at the audience. He had some amusing opening remarks, a clever video, and a surprising visual prop. It was as if he’d studied every TED Talk in detail and was bringing the best of each to his own talk. Sitting and watching, I was hopeful we might have a giant hit on our hands. But then . . . I started to feel a little queasy. There was something not quite right. He was loving being on stage. Loving it just a little too much. He’d keep pausing, hoping for audience applause or laughter, and when he got it, he’d stop and say “thank you,” subtly milking it for more. He started inserting ad-libbed comments intended to amuse. It was clear they amused him, but others, not so much. And the worst of it was the promised substance of the talk never really arrived. He claimed to have worked on demonstrating the truth of an important idea. But the case he brought was all whimsy and anecdote. There was one moment where he had even Photoshopped an image so that it appeared to support his case. And because of his getting carried away and soaking up the limelight, he was running way overtime. Toward the end, he began telling people that yes, they had it in their power to adopt his wisdom, and he spoke of dreams and inspiration, ending with his arms outstretched to the audience. Because it was clear the talk meant so much to him, a portion of the audience did indeed stand to clap him. Me? I felt sick to my stomach. This was the cliché of TED that we’d tried so hard to eliminate. All style, very little substance. The trouble with talks like this is not just that they flatter to deceive. It’s that they give the entire genre a bad name. They make the audience less likely to open up when a genuinely inspiring speaker comes along. And yet, more and more speakers, attracted to the drug of audience adoration, are trying to walk this path. Please don’t be one of them. Here’s the thing about inspiration: It has to be earned. Someone is inspiring not because they look at you with big eyes and ask you to find it in your heart to believe in their dream. It’s because they actually have a dream that’s worth getting excited about. And those dreams don’t come lightly. They come from blood, sweat, and tears. Inspiration is like love. You don’t get it by pursuing it directly. In fact, there’s a name for people who pursue love too directly: stalker. In less extreme cases, the words we use