TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking

By Chris Anderson



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The best way to make an impression in today’s world is to stand up and say something. The written word is important, but the spoken word is infinitely more powerful. For today’s leaders and advocates public speaking is a core skill, a way to inspire, explain, inform, or persuade—whether in business, in education, or on a public stage.

TED Talks explains how to achieve the miracle of a powerful public speech. It offers a set of tools to choose from to craft the speech that will work for you: how to share an idea, build a throughline, and connect with your audience; the best ways to practice a speech, craft a powerful opening statement, and bring it to a close; how to use visuals, what to do about nerves, and the traps to avoid. This set of tools will give you the presentation literacy you need to succeed in the internet age.



There is no one way to give a great speech; it all depends on what works best for you. The key is to have an idea you are passionate about sharing. Spend time crafting a talk with a defined throughline, a powerful opening, and a clear ending. Avoid sales pitches or unstructured rambling; use visuals to boost your talk; and find ways to connect with the audience. Whether you use a script or a set of notes, rehearse your talk until you can give the whole thing comfortably, speaking in a natural conversational style. Thanks to the power of the internet, you can share your idea with others around the world; it’s a revolution in public speaking that is open to everyone.


Presentation literacy

The most intense form of human-to-human communication takes place on the public stage. It is an ancient art, hard-wired deep in ourselves from the time when sharing tales around the campfire was a key step in human survival.

The best way to make an impression is to stand up and say something. Today, the internet has become a campfire for the whole world; and thanks to its power we are seeing a resurgence of the ancient skill of rhetoric, the art of speaking effectively. A talk takes the power of the written word and amplifies it with new tools, making for an even more compelling message; a talk that is shared online can reach millions of people.

TED began as an annual conference for the fields of Technology, Entertainment, and Design (hence the acronym); and it became the perfect format for online public speaking. As of 2016 over 1.5 billion TED Talks were being viewed annually.

There is no one way to give a great talk because everyone is different. Rather, what is needed is a set of tools that can allow anyone to develop the presentation literacy needed today. Anyone can use these tools to design the speech that will work for them.

The Basics

Everyone has experienced the fear of speaking in public. We’re social animals, we want to connect with others, and we also know there’s a lot at stake when we do speak—our reputation, in fact! But, with the right set of skills, you can overcome this fear and deliver a successful talk.

1. Build the skill

Use your fear of public speaking as a powerful asset; let it be the driver that persuades you to prepare properly for your talk.

There are plenty of stories of people who overcame their fear of public speaking and ended up being really good at it—like Eleanor Roosevelt, Warren Buffet, and Monica Lewinsky. It’s not a gift granted from on high, it’s a skill that can be learned.

Consider the story of Richard Turere, a twelve-year-old boy in Kenya who had invented a way to keep the lions away from the village’s cattle at night: a system of lights that would turn on and off in sequence. His idea was spreading quickly to surrounding villages and we wanted him to give a TED talk to spread his invention more widely. Could this painfully shy boy with limited English skills get on a plane for the first time in his life, fly to California, and deliver a compelling talk to 1,400 people?

We worked with Richard for months to figure out the best way to frame and deliver his talk, including practicing in front of his classmates at school. He was obviously nervous when he walked out on the TED stage but thanks to his preparation those nerves only made him more endearing to the audience. When he finished, the entire auditorium stood and cheered.

You don’t have to be Winston Churchill or a famous actor to deliver a great talk—like Richard, you can just be yourself as long as you prepare thoroughly.

2. Build the idea

Talk about something that matters deeply to you and rebuild it in the minds of your listeners. Give them an idea: something they can value, hold on to, and take away with them. Anyone who has an idea worth sharing can give a powerful talk.

The secret to giving a great talk is simple: have something worth saying. An idea. It could be a simple how-to or a description of a new invention; it could be a reminder of what is important in life; or it could be a discussion about a beautiful image with meaning. It could be an experience that is unique to you. Think about the one thing you’d love to be able to share with everyone—just make sure it is something that offers real insight to the audience (style without substance is awful!).

Being able to talk about your idea in public could be just the push you need to really delve deep into a subject. At TED headquarters everyone gets an extra day off every two weeks to study something; they just have to commit to give a talk about what they have learned.

Words matter

Human language is an astonishing and powerful tool. We can conjure up incredible images in the minds of our listeners with just a single sentence—as long as the words used are ones that are shared by both the speaker and the listener. There are some speaking coaches who claim that most of communication comes from tone of voice and body language; but in reality, tone and body language communicate emotion, not ideas. The whole substance of a talk comes down to one key ingredient—the words you use to tell your story and guide your audience along their journey.

3. Avoid the traps

Stay away from the four worst talk styles: the sales pitch, the ramble, the organization bore, and the stylish performance that lacks substance.

Some talk styles are just plain ugly; avoid them at all costs.

The sales pitch: the speaker’s job is to give to the audience. But, a sales pitch does the opposite; it tries to take something from the audience. It’s not just greedy, it’s boring to the listeners and it will undermine your reputation.

The ramble: an unfocused list of thoughts isn’t just dull to listen to, it’s insulting to your audience. Clearly, you don’t care enough about them to have prepared your talk properly. They’re giving you 15 minutes of their time; the least you can do is make it worthwhile.

The org bore: organizations are only interesting to the people in them—to everyone else, they are incredibly boring. Instead of focusing on your organization, talk about the work itself and the power of the ideas that infuse it.

The empty style: at its best, a great talk inspires others—but the power to inspire must be handled with care. A speaker who obviously craves the audience’s approval will end up focusing on style over substance, delivering a talk that tries to manipulate the audience’s emotions without delivering anything really worthwhile.

4. Build the throughline

Every talk needs a throughline—a connecting theme that ties the various narrative elements together. Try to capture your throughline in fifteen words or less; this is the rope onto which you will attach the parts of your talk.

Your talk has to say something meaningful. The best way to ensure this is to have a clear throughline—a concept from movies and novels, the throughline is the core theme that ties the whole thing together. A talk with no throughline might start with, “I want to share some experiences from my recent trip.” Compare that with a talk that starts, “On my recent trip I learned when it is OK to trust strangers.” Now you have a rope—trusting strangers—on which to hang each of the parts of the narrative.

The throughline should have an intriguing angle or unexpected twist to it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be stated right at the start of your talk, but it should at least be hinted at, so the audience gets a sense of where you are headed. Note, too, that a throughline is not the same as a topic.

To develop your throughline, start by finding out as much as you can about your audience: what do they care about? How knowledgeable are they? What are they expecting? Next, think about how you will say what you want to say in 18 minutes or less. This does not mean briefly covering everything you think you want to say: there’s a limit to how many things you can hang on your throughline before it feels overstuffed. To make your talk interesting you need to take the time to (a) show why it matters and (b) flesh out each point you make with real examples.

Cut back the range of topics you want to cover so that there is a single, clear thread that can be developed. Instead of asking yourself, “How much can I say in 18 minutes?” ask instead, “What can I unpack in a meaningful way in 18 minutes?” Your throughline will help you decide what to leave out.

Structure: once you have your throughline, build the structure of your talk so that every element connects to that line. There are a lot of different ways to structure a talk. It could be like a tree, with each idea branching off the central throughline trunk; or it could be a series of sequential ideas where the throughline is like a loop connecting the beginning to the end.

Tough topics: how to tackle something really tough, like the refugee crisis or a major health problem without your audience collapsing from compassion fatigue? Try to frame your talk not around an issue but around an idea. An issue says, “Isn’t this awful?” whereas an idea says, “Isn’t this interesting?” Frame the talk as an attempt to solve a puzzle rather than a demand to care.


The Tools

Prepare your talk as if you will be giving it to someone you really like, a person who is not in your field but who is intelligent and worldly. Imagine talking just to that one person, about a topic that is close to your heart. Now, use some or all of the following five techniques to craft your talk. Most talks contain elements of many of these techniques; think of them as tools you can mix-and-match to construct your own talk.

5. Connect

Find a way to disarm your audience’s caution and build a bond with them, so that they will be willing to open their minds to you. Eye contact and a smile can go a long way.

Knowledge has to be pulled in by the listener, not pushed at them; which means there has to be a human connection between speaker and listener. Start by walking confidently onto the stage and make eye contact with a few people in the audience. Smile. If you’re nervous, admit it; vulnerability goes a long way in building audience trust.

Humor is another great tactic to build a connection, but not everyone can do it; bad humor is worse than none at all. Above all, avoid anything off-color or offensive, and stay away from limericks, puns, or sarcasm.

Don’t try to be someone you’re not; an audience can quickly spot a faker. Avoid name-dropping, boasting, or making the talk all about you. Tell a story, either as a way to open or a way to illustrate the middle part of your talk. Finally, to connect with your audience stay away from tribal thinking—the kinds of political or religious references that can turn off swathes of your audience.

6. Narrate

Everyone can relate to a story. They are an inherent part of human evolution, helping to shape the way our minds receive information. Many of the best talks are anchored in storytelling.

A story is a powerful tool; it lets you take the audience with you on your journey. You could build the entire talk around one story; just make sure it’s a story worth telling, and not just a personal anecdote with no powerful idea behind it. Above all, the story has to be true. However you use a story, remember these four things:

Character: base it on a character the audience can empathize with.

Tension: use curiosity, intrigue, or actual danger to build a sense of tension.

Just enough detail: too much detail bogs down the story; too little, and the story won’t be vivid.

Resolution: it can be funny, moving, or revealing, but the resolution must be satisfying.

7. Explain

A combination of metaphors and stories can spark your audience’s curiosity, allowing you to explain complex ideas without baffling your listeners.

Explaining complex and difficult ideas can be done if you bear five points in mind. First, start with where the audience is; don’t assume any advanced knowledge. Next, spark their curiosity; then, introduce your ideas one at a time. Use metaphors to make it clear what you’re talking about; and, finally, use examples, little stories that lock the explanation in place.

Practice your explanatory talk on friends and colleagues. Does what you are saying make sense to them? Does one point flow clearly into the next? Remember your throughline and make sure the audience knows where each point connects to the central rope. Consider telling your audience what the idea isn’t before launching into what it is—this builds curiosity.

8. Persuade

To persuade your audience, you first have to convince them that the way they see the world now isn’t quite right. Use the power of reason, accompanied with some good stories, to replace their worldview with something better.


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