“Presentation literacy” isn’t an option anymore, according to TED Talks curator Chris Anderson. “It’s a core skill for the twenty-first century.” Anderson calls presentation and public-speaking skills a “superpower” for those who want to express their ideas.
TED talks, which are viewed more than 1 billion times a year, have become the gold standard of public speaking. In his new book, TED Talks, Anderson gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the speakers who have made TED a global phenomenon. Here are five public-speaking tips that Anderson and the conference organizers give each speaker as they prepare to take a TED stage.
Make eye contact, right from the start
“At TED, our number-one advice to speakers on the day of their talk is to make regular eye contact with members of the audience,” writes Anderson. Speakers must build trust if they hope to make a connection with their audience. The best tool at a speaker’s disposal is one they’re wearing—a natural smile. “Great speakers find a way of making an early connection with their audience. It can be as simple as walking confidently on stage, looking around, making eye contact with two or three people, and smiling.”
“One of the best ways to disarm an audience is to first reveal your own vulnerability,” according to Anderson. “Vulnerability is something to be treasured, not hidden from.”
Anderson is quick to point out, however, that vulnerability doesn’t mean ‘oversharing.’ It’s important to be clear on the intention behind what you choose to share with the audience. “Is sharing done in service of the work on stage or is it a way to work through your own stuff? The former is powerful, the latter damages,” says Anderson. “Authentic vulnerability is powerful.Oversharing is not.”
Make ‘em laugh—but not squirm
Humor has become a secret weapon for many great speakers, and chief among them is educator Ken Robinson. His TED talk on schools’ failure to nurture creativity has reached 38 million views on TED.com. Robinson’s talk is insightful, thought-provoking, and entertaining—the magic formula for winning over an audience. Robinson begins with this observation about the conference: “It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away. In fact, I’m leaving.” He didn’t let up, keeping the audience in stitches and riveted at the same time.
In my own analysis, I calculated that Ken Robinson’s TED talk received about 2 laughs per minute, making his talk about as funny as the movie, The Hangover (2.5 laughs per minute).
According to Anderson, “Audiences who laugh with you quickly come to like you. And if people like you, they’re much readier to take seriously what you have.” Both Anderson and I agree that humor in the form of anecdotal observations work more effectively than contrived jokes. “If you can find just one short story that makes people smile, it may unlock the rest of your talk,” says Anderson.
Park your ego
This is a great tip and it applies to any form of business communication. Don’t be boastful. Don’t be full of yourself. “Nothing damages the prospects of a talk more than the sense that the speaker is a blowhard,” writes Anderson. “Remember that the purpose of your talk is to gift an idea, not to self-promote.”
Tell a story
Nearly every great TED talk begins with a story, and there’s a good reason why they do. Stories are irresistible. “Stories helped make us who we are..we love hearing stories and stories probably helped shape how our minds share and receive information,” Anderson writes.
In my own analysis of 500 TED talks I discovered that some of the most viral presentations were comprised of 65% to 72% story, or what Aristotle called ‘pathos.’ Whether it’s Bryan Stevenson arguing for equal justice, or Sheryl Sandberg recommending that women ‘lean in’ to the workplace, or Ken Robinson exposing the failures in our educational system, the talks we remember are memorable because the ideas are presented in narrative form.
According to Anderson, “The stories that can generate the best connection are stories about you personally or about people close to you. Tales of failure, awkwardness, misfortune, danger, or disaster, told authentically, are often the moment when listeners shift from plain vanilla interest to deep engagement.”
I agree with Anderson that public-speaking skills are teachable. The “superpower” is available to anyone and everyone. Watching TED talks is a good way to develop this power. As the global economy rewards people with great ideas, your ability to explain, inspire, inform and persuade is more important than ever.