“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 them effectively. That is a tragedy.” – Chris Anderson, President and Head Curator of TED
From the moment I started reading this book, I knew I was reading the words of someone I could relate to. Someone whose values I share. Someone with a passion for meaningful communication that can bring people together, change the way they see the world and positively influence the way they act in it.
Having been the head of TED for over 25 years, Chris Anderson has a wealth of experience working with some of the world’s most captivating and insightful speakers. He truly has the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants. Quite frankly, I’m jealous. But at the same time, I’m hugely grateful that he is so keen to share.
Anderson has distilled his years of experience into this comprehensive guide to public speaking. The book is well written, well laid out and full of illustrative examples. I particularly appreciated the compare/contrast examples showing certain principles at work when editing a script.
Broadly speaking, there are two core aspects of any talk: content and delivery. Let’s see how this book addresses each.
The first big concept shared in this book is that of the throughline. Before you prepare your talk, find the core idea that you want to get across. Condense it to a short, simple and surprising sentence. Encapsulate your core idea in 15 words or less. Here are some examples Anderson provides from popular TED Talks:
- More choice actually makes us less happy.
- Vulnerability is something to be treasured, not hidden from.
- With body language, you can fake it till you become it.
- Online videos can humanise the classroom and revolutionise education.
Everything you include in your talk should connect to that single idea. By finding your throughline, you’ll be better able to stay on point, cut out the inessential and give your audience a valuable takeaway.
“It’s seductive to think about how much you can fit into 18 minutes. The better question for me is, ‘What can you unpack in a meaningful way in 18 minutes?’ ” – Brené Brown
Once you have your throughline, it’s time to build your talk around it. Anderson offers 5 tools for sharing an idea:
- Connection – Get personal. Smile and make eye contact with your audience. Embrace your vulnerability. If appropriate, share your sense of humour. Check your ego. Tell an authentic and insightful story.
- Narration – Use story as the vehicle for your idea. Make sure your story has a relatable character, building tension and a satisfying resolution.
- Explanation – Start where your listeners are (speak their language and build on what they already know). Spark curiosity. Introduce concepts sequentially. Use metaphors and examples.
- Persuasion – Prime your audience to adopt your idea with metaphors or linguistic devices that intuitively make it seem more plausible. Use “if-then” reasoning (if X is true, then Y clearly follows). Debunk the opposing position(s) by highlighting contradictions and double standards (thus strengthening or even proving your own position). Tell a “detective story” that takes the audience on your journey of discovery, allowing them to persuade themselves.
- Revelation – Let your audience see your idea. Use videos and images to take your audience on a virtual journey. Give a dynamic demo of your idea, your craft, your technique, your technology, or your product. Share your vision with a vivid description.
Later in the book, there are some helpful sections on how to open and close your talk for maximum impact.
Anderson shares some ways to start strong by using drama, curiosity, compelling visuals and teasing details. He also illustrates 7 ways to end with power: a pull-back to see the bigger picture, a call to action, a personal commitment, a vision statement, a key insight, a call-back linking the conclusion to the opening, and passionate inspiration.
Anderson stresses that:
“The main purpose of visuals can’t be to communicate words; your mouth is perfectly good at doing that. It’s to share things your mouth can’t do so well: photographs, video, animations, key data.”
With that in mind, the book has a very comprehensive section (p119-128) on how to design and present slides, courtesy of Tom Rielly.
There is also an extensive discussion of how best to prepare to deliver a talk. Anderson references numerous speakers and speaker coaches, presenting the pros and cons of different approaches. If you wonder whether it’s best to a) script and memorise your presentation word for word, or b) simply follow an outline and let the words come naturally, this section of the book offers a thorough exploration of both, citing proponents from each side.
If you want the short answer, Anderson says:
“Here’s the bottom line: The majority of TED speakers do in fact script their whole talk and memorize it, and they do their best to avoid letting it sound memorized.”
“I strongly encourage you to script and memorize the opening minute and the closing lines. It helps with nerves, with confidence, and with impact.”
The book offers some sound advice on rehearsal and timing, too:
“Your finish line is your time times 0.9. Write and rehearse a talk that is nine-tenths the time you were given: 1 hour = 54 minutes, 10 minutes = 9, 18 minutes = 16:12.” – Rives
“For most of us, an 18-minute talk can easily take five or six hours to memorize. An hour a day for a week. If you don’t have that time available, don’t even try to go this route.”
Finally, there’s a helpful section on how to handle yourself on stage. There are some helpful tips on how to dress, getting the right setup, harnessing your voice and stage presence, and handling your nerves. My favourite tip actually comes from Monica Lewinsky. Her mantra is “THIS MATTERS”. Anderson says:
“This is the single biggest piece of advice I can give you . It’s not about you, it’s about the idea you’re passionate about. Your job is to be there in service of the idea, to offer it as a gift. If you can hold that in mind as you walk onto the stage, you’ll find it liberating.”
There are many books out there on “how to give a TED Talk”. This is easily the best. Whether or not you’re due to step out on the TED stage, this is well worth a read. I’ll definitely be diving into again to learn from the great examples. I also have a list of TED Talks to watch again with new appreciation!
I’ll leave you with a few more of my favourite snippets…
“Most authors selling a book about a serious idea would consider it a huge success if they sold 50,000 copies… online you can reach that many people in just your first day.”
“The short talk you’re about to give has the potential not only to reach hundreds of thousands of people, but to start many thousands of conversations.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The only thing that truly matters in public speaking is not confidence, stage presence, or smooth talking. It’s having something worth saying.”
“You can use the opportunity of public speaking as motivation to dive more deeply into some topic… The chance to speak in public may be just the kick you need to commit to a serious research project.”
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes imperfection livable. Because when you know something inside out, you can PLAY with what comes your way.” – Gina Barnett
“A great talk is both scripted AND improvisational.” – Dan Gilbert
“The secret of happiness is this: find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it.” – Dan Dennett