Talk Like TED

Whether in the boardroom or at a conference podium, being a strong speaker is a powerful business tool.

Talk Like TED - Douglas Magazine Oct/Nov 2023

The hugely popular TEDx series provides inspiring examples of public speaking on topics as diverse as artificial intelligence and Buddhism. Effective speaking can captivate an audience with new ideas, inspire them and even influence their opinions. According to author and communications coach Carmine Gallo, the key to becoming a good public speaker means speaking with passion, incorporating a memorable moment and presenting something new to your audience. Harking back to Aristotle, Gallo says the perfect talk consists of 65 per cent pathos (an emotional connection with the audience), 25 per cent logos (data and facts) and 10 per cent ethos (your credibility as an expert on the topic).

If you’ve even watched a single TED Talk you probably know how addictive they are. Here is some practical advice based on the more than 3,000 events they host each year. 

Experts say that the ideal presentation is 15 to 20 minutes long. TED has an 18-minute rule established by its creators to encourage speakers to condense their message and keep listeners engaged.

What is the best structure for a talk or presentation? There’s no single format, says TED, but here’s one structure that they’ve found to work particularly well: 

  • Start by making your audience care, using a relatable example or an intriguing idea.
  • Explain your idea clearly and with conviction.
  • Describe your evidence and how and why your idea could be implemented.
  • End by addressing how your idea could affect your audience if they were to accept it.

Like a good magazine article, an idea can be new or surprising, or challenge a belief your audience already has. Or it can be a great basic idea with a compelling new argument behind it. An idea isn’t just a story or a list of facts. A good idea takes evidence and observations and draws a larger conclusion.

You don’t need to be the world’s foremost expert on the topic, but you do need to be an expert. Remember that the audience relies on you to give accurate information, so whatever you say in your talk, fact-check it — especially facts you may take for granted: statistics, historical anecdotes, scientific stats. If you’re drawing an example from a discipline that is not your main area of knowledge, use research from widely accepted and peer-reviewed sources and, if at all possible, consult with experts directly.

The primary goal of your talk is to communicate an idea effectively. Sometimes this means telling a story or evoking emotions, as Jim Hayhurst writes on page 67, “We Speak, Therefore We Are.”

A strong introduction is crucial. Draw in your audience members with something they care about. If it’s a topic the audience is familiar with, start with a clear statement of what the idea is. If it’s a field they never think about, start off by invoking something they do think about a lot and relate that concept to your idea. If the idea is something fun, but not something the audience would ever think about, open with a surprising and cool fact or declaration of relevance (not a statistic). If it’s a heavy topic, find an understated and frank way to get off the ground; don’t force people to feel emotional.

Should you use slides? Slides can be helpful for the audience, but they are by no means necessary or relevant to every talk. Ask yourself: Would my slides help clarify information for the audience, or would they distract and confuse them? When it comes to the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation, use as little text as possible. If your audience is reading, they’re not listening. Avoid using bullet points. Consider putting different points on different slides. The most important rule: Keep it simple.

Shorter talks are not lesser talks. It may only take five minutes to make your point unforgettable. Browse through TED’s extensive library of videos and podcasts for examples; many are short and sweet.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! The experts at TED can’t stress this enough. Rehearse until you’re completely comfortable in front of other people: different groups of people, people you love, people you fear, small groups, large groups, peers, people who aren’t experts in your field. Listen to the criticisms and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. If someone says you sound “over-rehearsed,” this actually means you sound stilted and unnatural. Keep rehearsing, and focus on talking like you’re speaking to just one person in a spontaneous, one-way conversation

Inhale. Exhale. Do it like you practised.

Finally, savour the glory. Congrats, you’re done! Bask in the praise you get over how you seemed so relaxed and spontaneous.