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Part 1: Foundation
Every piece of human progress has happened because humans have shared ideas and the collaborated to make it happen. We need people to step forward out of the shadows and share their ideas on today’s problems. Thankfully, we have the avenue of public speaking to do this. Speaking is an ancient art that is wired deeply into our human minds. And now thanks to the Internet, our campfire talk is open to the whole world. We all have something valuable to say. And as along as we say it authentically, in our own unique ways nobody can argue that point.
Speaking successfully and authentically could start for many of us as early as our school years if our schools would just resurrect “rhetoric”- the art of speaking effectively. Schools should make speaking effectively the 4th R. Many would agree that today presentation literacy has the potential to make the biggest impact. It could do the most good going forward for our youth and our society, especially in this new multi-media digitally connected streaming world.
A talk can open doors and transform a career. And yes it’s scary! But, fear can be a good thing in that it will help us have the energy and will to prepare. It can be done! Everywhere we look, we can see people who have overcome their fear of public speaking from Eleanor Roosevelt to Warren Buffet to Princess Diana. If we can talk to a group of friends over dinner, then we can speak publicly and even go as far as to give a TED Talk.
The central thesis of Chris Anderson’s book, “TED TALKS: The Official Guide to Public Speaking” is that anyone with an idea worth sharing is capable of giving a powerful talk. Confidence doesn’t matter. Stage presence doesn’t matter. Neither does being a smooth talker. The only thing that truly matters is having something worth saying. The good thing is that we all have far more worth sharing than we’re presently aware of. We all have a blind spot and can’t easily see what’s unique and special about ourselves. Asking those who know us best will help us uncover the shining star that we all have hidden somewhere deep within us.
Now, if we think we might have something special worth sharing, but are afraid that we don’t know enough about it yet, don’t sweat it. Anderson has a solution. And it’s a simple one. Let’s just put ourselves on a mission to find out more about what we have that might be worth sharing. And if we find ourselves dragging our feet on it, then let’s just simply sign up to give a speech on it. The fear that will immediately follow will be enough to get us moving, get us learning, and get us growing again.
Focusing on what we want to give our audience and starting where they are at is a great foundation for building our speech. However, when building our speech we need to be careful that we are giving and not taking. NO SALES PITCHES! No rambling either. The audience’s time is valuable. Let’s not disrespect them by not thoroughly preparing our speech and then wasting their time through our own rambling. Also, let’s not talk just about our organization; no matter how interesting we may find it. I guarantee you that others won’t find our job or place of employment as interesting as we do. They can’t love it like we do because they don’t work there and aren’t familiar with it like we are.
Since the point of our talks are to say something meaningful, Anderson shares that it helps if our speeches have a throughline that ties together each narrative. Think of a throughline as a strong rope that we attach each element to that are parts of our ideas we’re building in others’ heads. We want to make the audience’ take-away obvious. And we make it obvious by knowing our audience and not trying to jam too much stuff in too short of a time. Cover less and the impact will be more. Anderson encourages us to plan our 18 minute TED Talk and then cut it in half. And then cut it in half again. Hmm…
Once we have a throughline in 15 words or less, then it’s time to plan what we’ll attach to it. Some of the tools that speakers use to build ideas are connection, narration, explanation, persuasion, and revelation. Most speakers use one of these idea-building tools or a mix of them. We’ll explain them more in the next section.
Part 2 Talk Tools
Our first idea building tool is connection. To make a connection as a speaker we have to go to where the audience is and win them over. We do this by not rushing into our speech, but by taking a moment to smile and make eye contact. It also helps to show a little vulnerability. It’s okay to be nervous. The audience will see our humanity and root for us to succeed. Our nervousness pushes their empathy buttons. Also, let’s try to make them laugh at least once. But no corny jokes. Laughing breaks the tension and makes everyone feel like they are on the same side. Laughter is a great tool for connecting and gets everyone to listen closer to us.
Narration is our second idea building tool. Narration is simply a good story. So, let’s tell a good story. Anthropologist and professor Wiessner shares that ancient campfire stories played a crucial role in helping expand people’s abilities to imagine, dream, and understand the minds of others. Basically, our minds co-evolved through storytelling over many, many campfires. We can’t help but like stories. It’s in our DNA. And every one of us gets something out of stories because every one of us has some level of understanding, regardless of where we are on the age spectrum, experience spectrum, or intelligence spectrum. There is something for everyone in a good story.
Telling our own stories is the simplest talk to give. But, beware. There is a danger to taking this simpler road. The majority of talks that TED Talks turns down are talks people have about themselves because they lack a central idea that ties the narrative together. Remember the take-away has to be obvious for everyone in the crowd.
Overcoming the curse of knowledge may be one of the most important things we can do as speakers. Making the speech as simple as it can be, but no simpler is how the best speakers use the third tool of building ideas through explanations. For the explanation method to be effective it has to start where the audience is. Build curiosity. And it has to be delivered piece by piece with metaphors built in to show how it all fits together with clear and easy to follow examples.
The best explainers say just enough to let people feel like they’re coming up with the idea themselves. The best speakers bring in new concepts and describe them just enough so that the prepared minds of the audience can slide these concepts together into place for themselves. This strategy is time efficient for speakers doing the short 18 minute TED Talk, and it’s deeply satisfying for the audience members who like to feel clever.
One more thought on explanations. According to Anderson, sometimes it helps to clear the muddy water by beginning our talks with what it isn’t. By sharing what it isn’t with our audience we make it easier for them to close in on what we have in our mind of what it is.
Our fourth tool for speakers to build ideas in others’ heads is persuasion. Persuasion is the act of replacing someone’s world view with something a little better. This won’t be an easy thing to do, however. People cling to what they think they know because it’s the only way they know how to make sense of their world at the moment. No one wants to live in a senseless world turned upside down. To be effective in the art of persuasion, a speaker has to have the element of reason as a central building block of their persuasive speech. Reason is best accomplished through intuition pumps or a detective story approach. Adding some humor early on, adding an anecdote, offering vivid examples, using 3rd party validation, using powerful visuals and other plausible priming devices helps one persuade others to their vision of a better world.
The fifth talk tool of a speaker trying to build ideas is the revelation. The revelation is the most direct way of gifting an idea to an audience because it just simply shows something new to them. However, let’s not simply just walk our audience through bullets in a power-point presentation. That’s boring. Instead, let’s figure out a way that engages, intrigues and enlightens our audience. This route will bring some wonder and delight. Some of TED Talk speakers have achieved this wonder and delight through “Wonder Walks”. Others have done it through Dynamic Demos. Some have even done it through “Dreamscapes”. Ultimately, what we want to do as speakers is to paint a bold picture of the future. And we want to do this in a way that will make them desire that future!
Part 3 The Preparation Process
Should we use visuals? Well, that’s up to us. One-third of TED speakers don’t use slides. But, two-thirds do. Slides are good when using the revelation tool of sharing ideas. They’re also good for explaining. And of course there is the aesthetic appeal. However, beware, no slides are better than bad slides. If we really want to use them, we might want to get professional help with our slides.
Some things to be aware of when using slides is that even though a picture is worth a thousand words because it shows and tells; we should limit each slide to a single core idea. Also, don’t put bullet points on slides because people will mentally leave us and read ahead. Instead, do something like putting a question on a slide, or a photograph, or video, maybe even some animation or perhaps just some key data will do nicely.
As mentioned earlier, visuals have aesthetic appeal. It’s actually okay for us to show a lot of images to help increase the audience’s delight. Some speakers even have a system that shows a new image every few seconds as they’re talking. If using pictures, remember that a black background will make it look like we are using a black border and will really help our images pop.
Here are some things to beware of. Don’t use multiple type effects in the same line. Don’t use bullets or dashes. And resist underlining and italics. Don’t put too much on one slide. Instead, let’s use feeds. It’s wiser to build onto the slide through clicks. Also use 24+ font size. We can use context photos, but have to be careful that they don’t look like year book photos. And we shouldn’t show videos longer than 30 seconds. Nor, show more than 2-4 videos. We should also avoid fancy transitions. It’s better to just go to cuts. And remember, with graphics, less is more. Finally, we need to always practice on the equipment that we’re going to use.
Should we script or not script? Or use some sort of combination of the two? Anderson believes that scripting can help us make the best use of our time up there on that stage for those short 18 minutes. But, scripting also has the danger of sounding like we are reading it. And even if we go the extra mile of fully memorizing the speech it can still sound off. Like it’s not real or authentic. Anderson calls this awkward place the, “uncanny valley”. The bottom line is that the best speeches come off as if the speaker is sharing his or her ideas for the first time.
It’s almost best to go somewhere in between scripting and not scripting. Write the speech. Make an outline. Memorize the opening and the closing. Then have a few notes for everything in between. Don’t worry. The audience won’t mind if we take a peek at our notes from time to time. A good way to do this is by taking a sip of water and glancing over at our notes before we continue our talk.
However we approach preparing for our speech, the most important thing is to practice, and practice a lot. The practice isn’t about trying to memorize our speech, it’s about becoming more comfortable with being up on that stage and in front of that crowd. When we’re more comfortable, our audience is more comfortable too. And that’s a good thing.
Anderson also expresses to always prepare a speech that is 9/10 of the time that we are given. Prepare a 54 minute speech for a 1 hour presentation. And a 16:12 speech for our 18 minute TED Talk. This gives us time to pace ourselves, pause, screw up a little bit, milk the audience and basically have some breathing room. This breathing room will add to our level of comfort and thus add to the level of comfort and joy our audience is experiencing.
Now, not to put any more pressure on ourselves, but we need to remember that in this modern era there is a tug-o-war for people’s attention. This is especially true in online formats like TED Talks where people can just click away. Our first words really do matter. So, let’s not waste them away with small talk.
A good way to open our speech could be with a dose of drama. Think about the movie industry. How would they approach this subject in the opening minutes of their movie? Another good strategy to open with is to ignite their curiosity. The best way to do this is by asking a surprising question that creates a knowledge gap our audience’s minds fights to close.
A third approach to opening our speech could be as simple as just showing an impactful slide, video or object. Finally, one can also open with teasing the audience a little bit by using words that excite curiosity like, “reveal”. This strategy encourages our audience to go on our journey. However, beware, if we tell them everything in the first 30 seconds they will have no reason to go on our journey with us. So, do tell them with some hints of where we’re going with this little talk, but don’t immediately tell them everything in your opening.
Part 4 On The Stage
TED speakers don’t wear suits! Be comfortable. Wear casual clothing that gives a sense that we’re all at some comfortable fun retreat together. Remember to dress for the people in the back row by wearing bright colors so our image really pops. Fitted clothing is better than baggy clothing. No wrinkled clothes. Also, remember that TED Talks records us for video. So, avoid all white and jet black, as well as small tight patterns. Ladies, you’re probably not going to want to wear big dangling ear rings that could make distracting noises the microphone might pick up. Also, wearing a belt helps because we can attach the microphone battery pack to it.
We can control our nerves by focusing on the message instead of ourselves. Remember, we’re there to give not to get. If still nervous, we can focus on our breathing and repeat our mantra of, “I got this!”, and “This is fun!” We can also do some physical exercise or visualize someone who we admire that always looks like they’re having fun up there. If we’re up on that stage, it means that someone thought we had something valuable enough to say to put us up there. They are rooting for us, and so is the audience. So let’s do this!
Let’s be brave and bold and courageous by moving out from behind the lectern. Don’t worry. Our notes can stay right there on the lectern and we can glance at them as we sip water from time to time as I mentioned earlier. TED Talks also has other ways too of helping support us and our message. TED has the technology for us to use slides, or have our notes on a back distant screen where no one sees it but us. However, this strategy allows some of the crowd to see that we are not really looking at them.
Some speakers use their iPhone, but this can be tricky though because the screen is small and it’s easy to lose our connection with the audience while looking down for an extended time trying to find our place as we’re stuck scrolling through our notes. Struggling to find our place again usually isn’t the best way to give a speech.
TED Talks also has a confidence monitor aimed up at us from the floor and even an autocue, which is a screen that is invisible to the audience, even though it’s right in our line of sight just as if we were looking right at them. As awesome as this may seem, some in the audience will still figure out that we’re not really looking at them, but instead are reading from an invisible screen. Even among all this awesome technology that TED Talks provides, sometimes some good old fashion notes on a cue card or a simple sheet of paper up at the lectern is still the best bet.
Regardless of how we approach our talk, let’s just remember to be authentic. Let’s relax and just give our talk in our own way. Let’s not be afraid to let our personality shine through. After all, our personality is one of the most important parts of the speech. Also, important is remembering that speaking is a very impactful way of sharing ideas because we can literally turn the information we want to share into inspiration. We can create this inspiration by injecting a variety of strategies not available to the written word, such as, the volume we use, our pitch, pace, timing, tone and prosody, which are all based on the meaning that we’re trying to convey. And we always need to remember that what we have to say is meaningful.
Part 5 Reflection
Today, knowledge is becoming more specialized than ever before. TED Talks is a breath of fresh air in today’s times, as well as, some good old fashion common sense. TED Talks reminds us that all knowledge is connected into a giant web and that public speaking skills are going to matter in the future even more than they do today.
Everyone probably realizes by now that computers are taking over specialized knowledge from us human beings. So, what do you think is going to eventually become the only thing left for us humans? That’s right. We’re going to need to go back to being more human by utilizing more contextual knowledge and more creative knowledge. We’re going to have to develop a deeper understanding of our own humanity according to Anderson.
We develop this deeper humanity through the speaking renaissance that’s taking place today in public speaking, as well as the TED Talks taking place all over the world. And even more important, thanks to the Internet these talks are also accessible to all of us. In the very near future, we’re going to have to learn from people outside of our specialties or fields in order for us to develop a deeper understanding of our world and our role in it.
Online video is providing visibility to the best talent in the world and also has a massive incentive to improve upon what is already out there. People are becoming YouTube stars in their niche communities through a thing called, “crowd accelerated innovation”. It’s the most exciting application in the world of ideas and to improve upon ideas. We have this amazing laboratory right at every one of our own fingertips, which is rooted in public speaking and presentation literacy through the digital world that is streaming right into our homes and even into some of our pockets on our handheld devices.
When we finally do reach our goal of giving a TED Talk, let’s try to remember that it’s not the end, but just the beginning. In addition, it also isn’t about being safe, secure, and right. It’s about creating something that will breed further ideas and be impactful. The future isn’t written yet. We are all collectively writing it together. “There is an open page on every empty stage waiting for our contributions,” says Anderson. Let’s go get ‘em and do our part to contribute to a new and improved better world!
Dan Blanchard- Award winning author Speaker and educator
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