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TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking


One of the things that I realized is that all humans have the innate ability to speak – save those unfortunate souls who are mute. Sometime shortly after our first birthday our vocabulary bursts forth and we begin our lifelong dance with speaking. Later we learn how to write and read, and we have the capacity to understand not just the spoken word but the written word as well. However, all of this is “old hat” – everyone I’m speaking to has done these things for decades. Why should someone study something that we all do naturally?

The answer comes in a desire to get better. Ericsson in Peak describes purposeful practice, and how only through purposeful practice can someone reach the pinnacle of the skill and the industry. I want to be able to deliver knowledge and perspective that will reach to the greatest possible audience. I want to ignite the world on fire with ideas and possibility and tools to make the ideas a reality.

That’s why I continue the struggle to get better at public speaking, and why I look for luminaries to share their wisdom of how to do it. That’s exactly what I found in TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking.

Types of Talking

It’s been years ago now when I was first invited to do a keynote speech for a conference. I really knew almost nothing about them other than it was an opportunity to speak with everyone at the conference all at one time. I had been doing educational sessions for years with this conference organizer, and he trusted my stage presence enough to give me a shot at the keynote. My initial preparations, however, fell way short of the bar.

I was approaching my keynote preparation like I would my educational session preparation. I was trying to help educate my audience. I wanted them to know more about how to turn the right wrenches in the right order to get the right result. The organizer, who I count as a friend now, told me that the whole point of a keynote speech is different. I’m not there to educate. I’m there to inspire and enlighten.

If you’re a technical-minded person like me, the difference between education and inspiration seems to be very short – but as I found out they’re worlds apart. In traditional education it’s “Just the facts, ma’am”, but in inspiration it’s substantially more about engaging the entire being, including those stubborn emotions. (See the Rider-Elephant-Path in The Happiness Hypothesis for more.)

As I’ve put more focus on learning this craft more deeply, I’ve come to realize there’s a third variation of public speaking in addition to education and inspiration that’s equally different, challenging, and fun. That third form is facilitation. Facilitating a group is sort of like dancing when you don’t control your body. You can encourage a place to be but your muscles can (and do) have their own ideas. While facilitation done well is amazing, done poorly it’s a train wreck.

TED Talks focuses only on inspiration, and how to infect folks with ideas that make them change the way they see the world and how they contribute to it.

Public Speaking is Persuasion

At the core of all public speaking is the idea of persuasion. The idea is that if I can persuade someone else, if I can infect them with my view of paradise, I’ve succeeded. This is true no matter what the form. Education seeks to invade the mind of the listener with new knowledge that will be integrated into their own existence. Facilitation seeks to guide them into the group state of dialogue, potentially forever altering their world views and approaches. (See Dialogue for more on this.) Finally, inspiration seeks to change you. It seeks to directly change your way of seeing the world and to incite action.

All of this is persuasion. It’s attempting to convince another person to let you into their world. This is what Dr. Glasser calls their “quality” world in Choice Theory. We’re trying to convince them to drop the barriers that separate us and them and to allow, for a moment, ideas to cross a permeable boundary.

As a child I disliked persuasion. I thought that, somehow, people could literally put thoughts in my head. I didn’t like the idea that I wasn’t in control of myself and my thinking. I saw the evil witch from The Wizard of Oz standing over a large crystal ball pushing those thoughts into a helpless victim.

As I’ve grown older (and I hope wiser), I realize that people can’t force their thoughts on us, we have to let them in. We have to trust the other person enough to consider what they’re saying might be true. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on trust and its impacts.) This is where persuasion comes in: it’s convincing people to consider our perspective – not that it’s right but that it might be more right than what they know today, or that it might offer them a different piece to the jigsaw puzzle we call life.

The Significance of Speaking

Have you ever seen something happening and it appears that it’s all happening in slow motion? It’s like the effect in movies when you see a crash slowed down to watch the fireball erupt or the car flip in more detail? That’s what it looks like to me as I see the increasing importance of speaking and persuading people.

YouTube is a phenomenon. There is so much more video being created and captured for posterity than has ever been created. Video content is now a regular part of our world, and most folks admit it’s here to stay. It’s transforming education from instructor-led to on-demand. Instead of video being the league of the TV elite, it’s now created in the living room of the lonely teen.

Today, there are still more tweets than videos on YouTube. There are still more texts than video chats. There are still more emails than all of these put together. However, the question is, for how long? How long will it be that we prefer the cold precision of a typed – or “thumbed” – word to the warmth of a human connection? (See Alone Together for more on the backlash about us living technologically connected but alone.)

In the movie Back to the Future, the character Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) responds incredulously when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) says that the famous movie actor Ronald Regan is the president – until he discovers the video camera that Marty brought with him. All of the sudden he believes he understands why you need an actor as a president – because everything is on TV. Certainly, there’s a greater importance to video today than years ago and it’s growing. Though you don’t have to be a movie star to be president, you clearly must be a performer.

In a world where anyone can write a blog (like this one), anyone can write a book (through a vanity publisher), and nearly every book known to man is available at the speed of light (Amazon Kindle), how powerful is the written word? No longer are the titles of the newspaper all there is, and somehow the prestige and weight of the written word is eroding slowly. People regularly doubt the validity of the written word, because there’s no personal connection to the person behind them. Every view – correct and incorrect – is on the internet. Some of those views have a picture of Abraham Lincoln beside them with a quote from “Honest Abe” saying that he believes everything he reads on the Internet. (Ponder that for a moment.)

Speaking of Savers

If you speak very often, something is bound to go wrong. It might be the A/V or you’ll flub a line – but something will undoubtedly go wrong. My first night on a comedy stage during an open mic night, I was holding the microphone as I saw the cord drop out of it in slow motion. I didn’t know what to do. I was already nervous enough for any three people you might meet on the street, and an honest-to-goodness problem had just occurred. The good news is that by the time I got to this spot I’d given hundreds of presentations, so I silently picked up the cord and plugged it back in. It would have been funnier if I had just started to mouth the words pretending to not realize that the cord had come out. I’ve put that in my file for the next time it happens because it will.

When I’m speaking I want an expressive audience. I want to see what they’re thinking and how they’re reacting to the material. However, there are times where every funny joke falls on deaf ears – or maybe they’re not that funny. There are times when you feel as if you’re at a mortician’s convention and someone switched up the bodies with their clients. (See Inside Jokes for more on why jokes work – or don’t.) It’s for that reason that I borrow my friend Michael Malone’s saver. “You know I can see you right? This isn’t television.” It seems to always work to get a chuckle out of the audience. I can follow that up with the need for interaction, and generally the crowd is a bit looser.

I believe that humor and comedy are important components that go into the mix of public speaking. That’s one of the reasons I spent so much time learning about it (See I Am a Comedian and Inside Jokes). I believe that learning how to let the laugh ring out – and not mow over it with your next comment – is an essential bonding moment with the audience. I also believe that with good preparation, good timing, and a sufficiently large audience, you can make the speech truly memorable. Despite that, the concept of “savers” – little bits that you can use – isn’t primarily about the humor. Savers are a way to get back on track after the train is on its side. The vehicle that they use to lift us up and get things on the right track is humor, but their impact is to get things rolling again.

Privilege of the Platform

It’s been a few years now since I attended the NSA conference when it was in Indianapolis. (See My Experience with the National Speakers Association – thus far.) Perhaps the most striking thing that I heard during the event was the phrase, “The privilege of the platform.” That is, it’s a privilege to speak to others from the speaking platform. They don’t owe us anything more. Not more book sales. Not more consulting engagements. The folks in the audience owe us nothing. We as the speakers owe them something. We owe them a good return for their investment in time. We owe them to pour our hearts and souls into our presentation, and to deliver it in a way that creates the greatest likelihood that it will be valuable to them.

Sometimes speakers, myself included at times, get this backwards. They’re trying to take from the audience. They’re trying to extract their names to grow their mailing list. They’re trying to get that next DVD purchase. They’re trying to make the next sale or get the right introduction.

Certainly there is a need to ask for what you need. Someone having read Selling to VITO wouldn’t be shy about asking to speak with the CEO. However, at the same time, there’s a need to deliver value before you ask for something in return.

The Gift of Understanding

As a speaker – no matter what the type of speaking – the key gift that you can leave the audience with is understanding. It can be the understanding that the way they see the world isn’t the only way to see it through inspiration. It can be that they understand how to do something differently – they’ve developed a new skill – through education. It can be that they understand an issue better because it was possible for everyone’s voice to be heard through facilitation. Whatever the method, the goal is still the same: to increase the level of understanding.

There’s an art form in creating the conditions that allow others to build understanding. There’s the Art of Explanation and knowing how to structure things in a way that will make sense. There’s a totally different way of approaching The Adult Learner. There’s a set of research that exposes Efficiency in Learning. Facilitation has the understanding of the need for Dialogue.

The desire to help people build understanding crosses boundaries. One frontier is obviously education, and what we know about how people learn. However, learning in Choice Theory points us to learning more about psychology. Psychology teaches us about the barriers to learning, like a fixed Mindset and a resistance to change even in cases where it’s Change or Die. Sometimes these books are really neurology books Incognito – just waiting for us to discover that, in addition to psychology, neurology offers insights into how people learn – and the barriers to learning.

To offer the gift of understanding (because you can’t truly give it), you have to invest yourself in the pursuit of creating the right conditions for success, and that is, of course, the subject of leadership. It’s about Thinking in Systems and how they help or harm people. It’s learning the secrets of Multipliers – those people who are able to create understanding and engagement in their employees.

Offering the gift of understanding is the most precious thing that a speaker offers, and the one that takes the most effort to offer.

Increasing Interest

In most audiences, you start out with a baseline level of interest – not enough to study the topic and become an expert like you are, but an interest none-the-less. The speaker’s job is to increase that interest to the point that it will drive desire to learn more. Learning creates the opportunity for understanding.

Increasing interest is done through a variety of approaches and techniques. Sally Hogshead in her book Fascinate speaks of seven triggers: lust, mystique, alarm, prestige, power, vice, and trust. These are the levers that drive interest. You can use intrigue (as in mystique) to increase interest. You can feign a threat to increase alarm. You can laud someone with power. You can offer them additional prestige and so on.

Memorizing and Improvising

There are speakers who believe in memorizing every word of their speech. They believe that their best way of delivering is one where they’ve memorized everything. There are other speakers, like myself, that find this approach too rigid and lacking in the ability for me to read the mood of the crowd and adapt to the situation. However, both are valid ways of presenting. Each has its value.

The folks that memorize their talks have the value of continued refinement. Todd McComas once told me that he had to deliver one of his favorite jokes with a belly rub. If he didn’t deliver it with the belly rub the joke didn’t do well. If he delivered the lines with a belly rub the crowd would roar. (I’ve been at clubs where this happened.)

This taught me that comedians – good comedians – don’t just have a general concept of something funny. They’ve got a bit that they’ve refined into a pattern that they can replay at will. This allows them to have optimized the experience for that joke or that bit to perfection. The good news is that perfection means more laughs. The bad news is that it takes a long time to get there.

Having a looser style, where you know the topic you want to discuss but don’t necessarily memorize the words, can be powerful too. As I mentioned, it tends to make the style more improvisational and allows you to adapt more easily to the audience. This can be important when your environment changes frequently.

Landing Pads

If you’re in an airplane flying around, you want to know there’s a runway somewhere that you can land on. In fact, pilots are supposed to remain aware of potential places to land in the case of an emergency. If you’re in a helicopter you want to know that there’s a landing pad where you can set down at some point. It’s important to know where you’re landing, whether you’re flying or you’re speaking. For me, I’ve got a set of fixed points in my presentations. I know what I’ll find when I get there, and I can for a moment or two go into automatic pilot with my speaking. What that means is that I can focus my mental energies on assessing what I might have missed, the current audience engagement, and where I’m at on my timing.

These landing pads aren’t memorized bits of content, but are instead content that I know so well that I can flow words out of my mouth without my full attention. They’re my way of getting a moment or two to make sure I’m “on my marks.” I know for each major point in my presentation where I need to be on time and how much energy I should be putting out. Having a place to stop for a moment and reflect – while continuing to engage with the audience – is an important way for me to speak.

TED Talks makes a point of stating that you can pause and gather where you are. While it’s uncomfortable for the speaker at times, the audience doesn’t generally mind. They recognize it as something that you’re doing to make sure that you’re giving them the best experience.

One Way Through

One of the key learnings for me was the need for a through line. That is, I need to be able to map the story arc so that anyone can see it if they try. Since much of my work is education, I tend to think about educational objectives and sequencing of content. While this is still important (if not critical) for educational talks, for inspirational talks it takes something different. It takes a story arc or a through line. It’s the string on which the pearls hang.

Educationally I think in terms of the main point before which I put context of the idea. After the context comes the necessary components – like doing the sub-assemblies in manufacturing or putting together the components of a larger recipe. Once the components are in place I can make the main point – and then explain why it’s important or relevant. While this is held up to be an example of a structure, I think for me it is too educational to be inspirational.

Should I Speak?

One of the interesting questions is whether we should speak about the topic at all. Sometimes you shouldn’t speak about something because you don’t know enough, and other times it’s because you’re not passionate about it enough. Ted Talks provides a set of questions to evaluate whether you should speak about a topic or not:

  • Is this a topic I’m passionate about?
  • Does it inspire curiosity?
  • Will it make a difference to the audience to have this knowledge?
  • Is my talk a gift or an ask?
  • Is the information fresh, or is it already out there?
  • Can I truly explain the topic in the time slot allocated, complete with necessary examples?
  • Do I know enough about this to make a talk worth the audience’s time?
  • Do I have the credibility to take on this topic?
  • What are the fifteen words that encapsulate my talk?
  • Would those fifteen words persuade someone they’d be interested in hearing my talk?

So maybe you have a burning desire to become a speaker – but you’ve not yet found your topic.

Fear Jujitsu

Sometimes I don’t prepare properly for my speeches. Mostly when I’ve done an educational speech, too frequently I get bored and I struggle to stay focused on it. As a result, I’ll sometimes not refresh my memory of the material. The result is a bit of fear for me. The strange part is that I’m sometimes doing this process on purpose. It’s a delicate balance between being too prepared and not having the energy for the topic I need, or being slightly underprepared to give myself a jolt of adrenaline.

I’ve learned that fear can be an energy source. If I’m willing to acknowledge my uneasiness and fear, I can convert it into motivation and energy to reveal my passion for a topic. If I enter a topic I know too well, the result is the audience typically notices a lack of passion from me.

I call transforming fear into energy my “fear jujitsu”. Jujitsu is a martial art which uses the enemy’s power against them. It’s not meeting force with force, but is instead meeting force with deflection. For me that’s what I do with fear: I redirect it. I convert the adrenaline it releases into a useful tool so that I can deliver a talk worthy of being a TED talk. Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to say that I’ve given TED Talks – maybe you can too.