– Chapter 17
– Chapters 19, 20, 21
Include a brief summary and reflection on the information in the chapter.
The New Age of Fire
Preparation Proces s
Open and Close
Voice and Presence
Why This Matters
Talks Referenced within the Book
TED on the Web
About the Author
Copyright © 2016 by Chris Anderson
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Names: Anderson, Chris, date.
Title: TED talks : the official TED guide to public speaking / Chris Anderson.
Description: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. | Includes index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2015048798 | ISBN 9780544634497 (hardcover) | ISBN
9780544809710 (international edition pbk.)
Subjects: LCSH: Public speaking—Handbooks, manuals, etc.
Classification: LCC PN4129.15 .A54 2016 | DDC 808.5/1—dc23
LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2015048798
Cover design by Mike Femia
Inspired by Zoe Anderson (1986–2010).
Life is fleeting. Ideas, inspiration, and love endure.
THE NEW AGE OF FIRE
The house lights dim. A woman, her palms sweating, her legs trembling just a
little, steps out onto the stage. A spotlight hits her face, and 1,200 pairs of
eyes lock onto hers. The audience senses her nervousness. There is palpable
tension in the room. She clears her throat and starts to speak.
What happens next is astounding.
The 1,200 brains inside the heads of 1,200 independent individuals start to
behave very strangely. They begin to sync up. A magic spell woven by the
woman washes over each person. They gasp together. Laugh together. Weep
together. And as they do so, something else happens. Rich, neurologically
encoded patterns of information inside the woman’s brain are somehow
copied and transferred to the 1,200 brains in the audience. These patterns will
remain in those brains for the rest of their lives, potentially impacting their
behavior years into the future.
The woman on the stage is weaving wonder, not witchcraft. But her skills
are as potent as any sorcery.
Ants shape each other’s behavior by exchanging chemicals. We do it by
standing in front of each other, peering into each other’s eyes, waving our
hands and emitting strange sounds from our mouths. Human-to-human
communication is a true wonder of the world. We do it unconsciously every
day. And it reaches its most intense form on the public stage.
The purpose of this book is to explain how the miracle of powerful public
speaking is achieved, and to equip you to give it your best shot. But one thing
needs emphasizing right at the start.
There is no one way to give a great talk. The world of knowledge is far too
big and the range of speakers and of audiences and of talk settings is far too
varied for that. Any attempt to apply a single set formula is likely to backfire.
Audiences see through it in an instant and feel manipulated.
Indeed, even if there were a successful formula at one moment in time, it
wouldn’t stay successful for long. That’s because a key part of the appeal of a
great talk is its freshness. We’re humans. We don’t like same old, same old. If
your talk feels too similar to a talk someone has already heard, it is bound to
have less impact. The last thing we want is for everyone to sound the same or
for anyone to sound as though he’s faking it.
So you should not think of the advice in this book as rules prescribing a
single way to speak. Instead think of it as offering you a set of tools designed
to encourage variety. Just use the ones that are right for you and for the
speaking opportunity you’re facing. Your only real job in giving a talk is to
have something valuable to say, and to say it authentically in your own unique
You may find it more natural than you think. Public speaking is an ancient
art, wired deeply into our minds. Archaeological discoveries dating back
hundreds of thousands of years have found community meeting sites where
our ancestors gathered around fire. In every culture on earth, as language
developed, people learned to share their stories, hopes, and dreams.
Imagine a typical scene. It is after nightfall. The campfire is ablaze. The
logs crackle and spit under a starry sky. An elder rises, and all eyes turn and
lock onto the wise, wrinkled face, illuminated by the flickering light. The
story begins. And as the storyteller speaks, each listener imagines the events
that are being described. That imagination brings with it the same emotions
shared by the characters in the story. This is a profoundly powerful process. It
is the literal alignment of multiple minds into a shared consciousness. For a
period of time, the campfire participants act as if they were a single life form.
They may rise together, dance together, chant together. From this shared
backdrop, it is a short step to the desire to act together, to decide to embark
together on a journey, a battle, a building, a celebration.
The same is true today. As a leader—or as an advocate—public speaking is
the key to unlocking empathy, stirring excitement, sharing knowledge and
insights, and promoting a shared dream.
Indeed, the spoken word has actually gained new powers. Our campfire is
now the whole world. Thanks to the Internet, a single talk in a single theater
can end up being seen by millions of people. Just as the printing press
massively amplified the power of authors, so the web is massively amplifying
the impact of speakers. It is allowing anyone anywhere with online access
(and within a decade or so, we can expect almost every village on earth to be
connected) to summon the world’s greatest teachers to their homes and learn
from them directly. Suddenly an ancient art has global reach.
This revolution has sparked a renaissance in public speaking. Many of us
have suffered years of long, boring lectures at university; interminable
sermons at church; or roll-your-eyes predictable political stump speeches. It
doesn’t have to be that way.
Done right, a talk can electrify a room and transform an audience’s
worldview. Done right, a talk is more powerful than anything in written form.
Writing gives us the words. Speaking brings with it a whole new toolbox.
When we peer into a speaker’s eyes; listen to the tone of her voice; sense her
vulnerability, her intelligence, her passion, we are tapping into unconscious
skills that have been fine-tuned over hundreds of thousands of years. Skills
that can galvanize, empower, inspire.
What is more, we can enhance these skills in ways the ancients could never
have imagined: The ability to show—right there in beautiful high-resolution
—any image that a human can photograph or imagine. The ability to weave in
video and music. The ability to draw on research tools that present the entire
body of human knowledge to anyone in reach of a smartphone.
The good news is, these skills are teachable. They absolutely are. And that
means that there’s a new superpower that anyone, young or old, can benefit
from. It’s called presentation literacy. We live in an era where the best way to
make a dent on the world may no longer be to write a letter to the editor or
publish a book. It may be simply to stand up and say something . . . because
both the words and the passion with which they are delivered can now spread
across the world at warp speed.
In the twenty-first century, presentation literacy should be taught in every
school. Indeed, before the era of books, it was considered an absolutely core
part of education,1 albeit under an old-fashioned name: rhetoric. Today, in the
connected era, we should resurrect that noble art and make it education’s
fourth R: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic . . . and rhetoric.
The word’s core meaning is simply “the art of speaking effectively.”
Fundamentally, that’s the purpose of this book. To recast rhetoric for the
modern era. To offer useful stepping-stones toward a new presentation
Our experience at TED over the last few years can help point the way. TED
began as an annual conference, bringing together the fields of technology,
entertainment, and design (hence the name). But in recent years it has
expanded to cover any topic of public interest. TED speakers seek to make
their ideas accessible to those outside their field by delivering short, carefully
prepared talks. And to our delight, this form of public speaking has proved a
hit online, to the extent that, as of 2015, more than 1 billion TED Talks are
My colleagues and I have worked with hundreds of TED speakers, helping
fine-tune their messages and how they deliver them. These amazing people
have completely changed the way we see the world. Over the past decade, we
have debated passionately among ourselves how exactly these speakers have
achieved what they’ve achieved. From our lucky ringside seats, we have been
intrigued and infuriated, informed and inspired. We have also had the chance
to ask them directly for their advice on how to prepare and deliver an amazing
talk. Thanks to their brilliance, we’ve learned dozens of insights into how
they achieved something so extraordinary in just a few minutes.
That makes this book a collaborative effort. It’s a collaboration with those
speakers, and with my talented colleagues, especially Kelly Stoetzel, Bruno
Giussani, and Tom Rielly, who curate and host the main TED events with me,
and who have had a central role over the years in shaping the TED Talk
approach and format and bringing remarkable voices to our platform.
We have also tapped into the collective wisdom of thousands of selforganized TEDx events.2 The content emerging from them often surprises and
delights us, and it has expanded our understanding of what is possible in a
TED’s mission is to nurture the spread of powerful ideas. We don’t care
whether this is done through something called TED, TEDx, or in any other
form of public speaking. When we hear of other conferences deciding they
want to put on TED-style talks, we’re thrilled. Ultimately, ideas aren’t owned.
They have a life of their own. We’re delighted to see today’s renaissance in
the art of public speaking wherever it is happening and whoever is doing it.
So the purpose of this book is not just to describe how to give a TED Talk.
It’s much broader than that. Its purpose is to support any form of public
speaking that seeks to explain, inspire, inform, or persuade; whether in
business, education, or on the public stage. Yes, many of the examples in this
book are from TED Talks, but that’s not only because those are the examples
we’re most familiar with. TED Talks have generated a lot of excitement in
recent years, and we think they have something to offer the wider world of
public speaking. We think the principles that underlie them can act as a
powerful basis for a broader presentation literacy.
So you won’t find specific tips on giving a toast at a wedding, or a
company sales pitch, or a university lecture. But you will find tools and
insights that may be useful for those occasions and, indeed, for every form of
public speaking. More than that, we hope to persuade you to think about
public speaking in a different way, a way that you will find exciting and
The campfires of old have spawned a new kind of fire. A fire that spreads
from mind to mind, screen to screen: the ignition of ideas whose time has
This matters. Every meaningful element of human progress has happened
only because humans have shared ideas with each other and then collaborated
to turn those ideas into reality. From the first time our ancestors teamed up to
take down a mammoth to Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, people
have turned spoken words into astonishing shared achievements.
We need that now more than ever. 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 those ideas
effectively. That is a tragedy. At a time when the right idea presented the right
way can ripple across the world at the speed of light, spawning copies of itself
in millions of minds, there’s huge benefit to figuring out how best to set it on
its way, both for you, the speaker-in-waiting, and for the rest of us who need
to know what you have to say.
Are you ready?
Let’s go light a fire.
The Skill You Can Build
You’re nervous, right?
Stepping out onto a public stage and having hundreds of pairs of eyes
turned your way is terrifying. You dread having to stand up in a company
meeting and present your project. What if you get nervous and stumble over
your words? What if you completely forget what you were going to say?
Maybe you’ll be humiliated! Maybe your career will crater! Maybe the idea
you believe in will stay buried forever!
These are thoughts that can keep you up at night.
But guess what? Almost everyone has experienced the fear of public
speaking. Indeed, surveys that ask people to list their top fears often report
public speaking as the most widely selected, ahead of snakes, heights—and
How can this be? There is no tarantula hidden behind the microphone. You
have zero risk of plunging off the stage to your death. The audience will not
attack you with pitchforks. Then why the anxiety?
It’s because there’s a lot at stake—not just the experience in the moment,
but in our longer-term reputation. How others think of us matters hugely. We
are profoundly social animals. We crave each other’s affection, respect, and
support. Our future happiness depends on these realities to a shocking degree.
And we sense that what happens on a public stage is going to materially affect
these social currencies for better or worse.
But with the right mindset, you can use your fear as an incredible asset. It
can be the driver that will persuade you to prepare for a talk properly.
That’s what happened when Monica Lewinsky came to TED. For her, the
stakes couldn’t have been higher. Seventeen years earlier, she had been
through the most humiliating public exposure imaginable, an experience so
intense it almost broke her. Now she was attempting a return to a more visible
public life, to reclaim her narrative.
But she was not an experienced public speaker, and she knew that it would
be disastrous if she messed up. She told me:
Nervous is too mild a word to describe how I felt. More like . . .
Gutted with trepidation. Bolts of fear. Electric anxiety. If we could
have harnessed the power of my nerves that morning, I think the
energy crisis would have been solved. Not only was I stepping out
onto a stage in front of an esteemed and brilliant crowd, but it was
also videotaped, with the high likelihood of being made public on a
widely viewed platform. I was visited by the echoes of lingering
trauma from years of having been publicly ridiculed. Plagued by a
deep insecurity I didn’t belong on the TED stage. That was the inner
experience against which I battled.
And yet Monica found a way to turn that fear around. She used some
surprising techniques, which I’ll share in chapter 15. Suffice it to say, they
worked. Her talk won a standing ovation at the event, rocketed to a million
views within a few days, and earned rave reviews online. It even prompted a
public apology to her from a longtime critic, feminist author Erica Jong.
The brilliant woman I am married to, Jacqueline Novogratz, was also
haunted by fear of public speaking. In school, at college, and into her
twenties, the prospect of a microphone and watching eyes was so scary it was
debilitating. But she knew that to advance her work fighting poverty, she
would have to persuade others, and so she just began forcing herself to do it.
Today she gives scores of speeches every year, often earning standing
Indeed, everywhere you look, there are stories of people who were terrified
of public speaking but found a way to become really good at it, from Eleanor
Roosevelt to Warren Buffett to Princess Diana, who was known to all as “shy
Di” and hated giving speeches, but found a way to speak informally in her
own voice, and the world fell in love with her.
If you can get a talk right, the upside can be amazing. Take the talk that
entrepreneur Elon Musk gave to SpaceX employees on August 2, 2008.
Musk was not known as a great public speaker. But that day, his words
marked an important turning point for his company. SpaceX had already
suffered two failed launches. This was the day of the third launch, and
everyone knew failure could force the company’s closure. The Falcon rocket
soared off the launch pad, but right after the first stage fell away, disaster
struck. The spacecraft exploded. The video feed went dead. Some 350
employees had gathered and, as described by Dolly Singh, the company’s
head of talent acquisition, the mood was thick with despair. Musk emerged to
speak to them. He told them they’d always known it would be hard, but that
despite what had happened, they had already accomplished something that
day that few nations, let alone companies, had achieved. They had
successfully completed the first stage of a launch and taken a spacecraft to
outer space. They simply had to pick themselves up and get back to work.
Here’s how Singh described the talk’s climax:
Then Elon said, with as much fortitude and ferocity as he could
muster after having been awake for like 20+ hours by this point, “For
my part, I will never give up and I mean never.” I think most of us
would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil
after that. It was the most impressive display of leadership that I have
ever witnessed. Within moments the energy of the building went from
despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination as people began
to focus on moving forward instead of looking back.
That’s the power of a single talk. You might not be leading an organization,
but a talk can still open new doors or transform a career.
TED speakers have told us delightful stories of the impact of their talks.
Yes, there are sometimes book and movie offers, higher speaking fees, and
unexpected offers of financial support. But the most appealing stories are of
ideas advanced, and lives changed. Amy Cuddy gave a hugely popular talk
about how changing your body language can raise your confidence level. She
has had more than 15,000 messages from people around the world, telling her
how that wisdom has helped them.
And young Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba’s inspiring talk about
building a windmill in his village as a fourteen-year-old sparked a series of
events that led to him being accepted into an engineering program at
THE DAY TED MIGHT HAVE DIED
Here’s a story from my own life: When I first took over leadership of TED in
late 2001, I was reeling from the near collapse of the company I had spent
fifteen years building, and I was terrified of another huge public failure. I had
been struggling to persuade the TED community to back my vision for TED,
and I feared that it might just fizzle out. Back then, TED was an annual
conference in California, owned and hosted by a charismatic architect named
Richard Saul Wurman, whose larger-than-life presence infused every aspect
of the conference. About eight hundred people attended every year, and most
of them seemed resigned to the fact that TED probably couldn’t survive once
Wurman departed. The TED conference of February 2002 was the last one to
be held under his leadership, and I had one chance and one chance only to
persuade TED attendees that the conference would continue just fine. I had
never run a conference before, however, and despite my best efforts over
several months at marketing the following year’s event, only seventy people
had signed up for it.
Early on the last morning of that conference, I had 15 minutes to make my
case. And here’s what you need to know about me: I am not naturally a great
speaker. I say um and you know far too often. I will stop halfway through a
sentence, trying to find the right word to continue. I can sound overly earnest,
soft-spoken, conceptual. My quirky British sense of humor is not always
shared by others.
I was so nervous about this moment, and so worried that I would look
awkward on the stage, that I couldn’t even bring myself to stand. Instead I
rolled forward a chair from the back of the stage, sat on it, and began.
I look back at that talk now and cringe—a lot. If I were critiquing it today,
there are a hundred things I would change, starting with the wrinkly white Tshirt I was wearing. And yet . . . I had prepared carefully what I wanted to
say, and I knew there were at least some in the audience desperate for TED to
survive. If I could just give those supporters a reason to get excited, perhaps
they would turn things around. Because of the recent dot-com bust, many in
the audience had suffered business losses as bad as my own. Maybe I could
connect with them that way?
I spoke from the heart, with as much openness and conviction as I could
summon. I told people I had just gone through a massive business failure.
That I’d come to think of myself as a complete loser. That the only way I’d
survived mentally was by immersing myself in the world of ideas. That TED
had come to mean the world to me—that it was a unique place where ideas
from every discipline could be shared. That I would do all in my power to
preserve its best values. That, in any case, the conference had brought such
intense inspiration and learning to us that we couldn’t possibly let it die . . .
Oh, and I broke the tension with an apocryphal anecdote about France’s
Madame de Gaulle and how she shocked guests at a diplomatic dinner by
expressing her desire for “a penis.” In England, I said, we also had that
desire, although there we pronounced it happiness, and TED had brought
genuine happiness my way.
To my utter amazement, at the end of the talk, Jeff Bezos, the head of
Amazon, who was seated in the center of the audience, rose to his feet and
began clapping. And the whole room stood with him. It was as if the TED
community had collectively decided, in just a few seconds, that it would
support this new chapter of TED after all. And in the 60-minute break that
followed, some 200 people committed to buying passes for the following
year’s conference, guaranteeing its success.
If that 15-minute talk had fizzled, TED would have died, four years before
ever putting a talk on the Internet. You would not be reading this book.
In the next chapter, I’ll share why I think that talk ended up being effective,
despite its evident awkwardness. It’s an insight that can be applied to any talk.
No matter how little confidence you might have today in your ability to
speak in public, there are things you can do to turn that around. Facility with
public speaking is not a gift granted at birth to a lucky few. It’s a broadranging set of skills. There are hundreds of ways to give a talk, and everyone
can find an approach that’s right for them and learn the skills necessary to do
THE BOY WITH THE LION-HEART
A couple of years ago, TED’s content director, Kelly Stoetzel, and I went on a
global tour in search of speaking talent. In Nairobi, Kenya, we met Richard
Turere, a twelve-year-old Maasai boy who had come up with a surprising
invention. His family raised cattle, and one of the biggest challenges was
protecting them at night from lion attacks. Richard had noticed that a
stationary campfire didn’t deter the lions, but walking around waving a torch
did seem to work. The lions were apparently afraid of moving lights! Richard
had somehow taught himself electronics by messing around with parts taken
from his parents’ radio. He used that knowledge to devise a system of lights
that would turn on and off in sequence, creating a sense of movement. It was
built from scrapyard parts—solar panels, a car battery, and a motorcycle
indicator box. He installed the lights and—presto!—the lion attacks stopped.
News of his invention spread and other villages wanted in. Instead of seeking
to kill the lions as they had done before, they installed Richard’s “lion lights.”
Both villagers and pro-lion environmentalists were happy.
It was an impressive achievement but, at first glance, Richard certainly
seemed an unlikely TED speaker. He stood hunched over in a corner of the
room, painfully shy. His English was halting, and he struggled to describe his
invention coherently. It was hard to imagine him on a stage in California in
front of 1,400 people, slotted alongside Sergey Brin and Bill Gates.
But Richard’s story was so compelling that we went ahead anyway and
invited him to come give a TED Talk. In the months before the conference,
we worked with him to frame his story—to find the right place to begin, and
to develop a natural narrative sequence. Because of his invention, Richard had
won a scholarship to one of Kenya’s best schools, where he had the chance to
practice his TED Talk several times in front of a live audience. This helped
build his confidence to the point where his personality could shine through.
He got on an airplane for the first time in his life and flew to Long Beach,
California. As he walked onto the TED stage, you could tell he was nervous,
but that only made him more engaging. As Richard spoke, people were
hanging on his every word, and every time he smiled, the audience melted.
When he finished, people just stood and cheered.
Richard’s tale can encourage us all to believe we might be able to give a
decent talk. Your goal is not to be Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela. It’s
to be you. If you’re a scientist, be a scientist; don’t try to be an activist. If
you’re an artist, be an artist; don’t try to be an academic. If you’re just an
ordinary person, don’t try to fake some big intellectual style; just be you. You
don’t have to raise a crowd to its feet with a thunderous oration.
Conversational sharing can work just as well. In fact, for most audiences, it’s
a lot better. If you know how to talk to a group of friends over dinner, then
you know enough to speak publicly.
And technology is opening up new options. We live in an age where you
don’t have to be able to speak to thousands of people at a time to have an
outsized impact. It could just be you talking intimately to a video camera, and
letting the Internet do the rest.
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. If you can learn to do it, your self-confidence will
flourish, and you may be amazed at the beneficial impact it can have on your
success in life, however you might choose to define that.
If you commit to being the authentic you, I am certain that you will be
capable of tapping into the ancient art that is wired inside us. You simply have
to pluck up the courage to try.
The Gift in Every Great Talk
In March 2015, a scientist named Sophie Scott stepped onto the TED stage,
and within 2 minutes the entire audience was howling with uncontrollable
laughter. Sophie is one of the world’s leading researchers on laughter, and she
was playing an audio clip of humans laughing and showing just how weird a
phenomenon it is—“more like an animal call than speech,” as she put it.
Her talk was 17 minutes of pure delight. By the end of it, everyone was
basking in the warm glow of a deeply pleasurable experience. But there was
something else. None of us would ever think of laughter in quite the same
way again. Sophie’s core idea about laughter—that its evolutionary purpose is
to convert social stress into pleasurable alignment—had somehow entered our
heads. And now, whenever I see a group of people laughing, I see the
phenomenon through new eyes. Yes, I feel the joy, I feel the urge to join in.
But I also see social bonding, and a strange and ancient biological
phenomenon at work that makes the whole thing seem even more wondrous.
Sophie gave me a gift. Not just the pleasure of listening to her. She gave me
an idea that can forever be part of me.3
I’d like to suggest that Sophie’s gift is a beautiful metaphor that can apply
to any talk. 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.
We’ll call that something an idea. A mental construct that they can hold on to,
walk away with, value, and in some sense be changed by.
That is the core reason that the scariest talk I ever had to give turned out to
be effective. As I explained earlier, I had 15 minutes to try to convince the
TED audience to support its new chapter under my leadership. There were
many things wrong with that talk, but it succeeded in one key aspect: It
planted an idea inside the minds of those listening. It was the idea that what
was truly special about TED was not just the founder I was taking over from.
TED’s uniqueness lay in being a place where people from every discipline
could come together and understand each other. This cross-fertilization really
mattered for the world, and therefore the conference would be given nonprofit
status and held in trust for the public good. Its future was for all of us.
This idea changed the way the audience thought about the TED transition.
It no longer mattered so much that the founder was leaving. What mattered
now was that a special way of sharing knowledge should be preserved.
START WITH THE IDEA
The central thesis of this book is that anyone who has an idea worth sharing is
capable of giving a powerful talk. The only thing that truly matters in public
speaking is not confidence, stage presence, or smooth talking. It’s having
something worth saying.
I am using the word idea quite broadly here. It doesn’t have to be a
scientific breakthrough, a genius invention, or a complex legal theory. It can
be a simple how-to. Or a human insight illustrated with the power of a story.
Or a beautiful image that has meaning. Or an event you wish might happen in
the future. Or perhaps just a reminder of what matters most in life.
An idea is anything that can change how people see the world. If you can
conjure up a compelling idea in people’s minds, you have done something
wondrous. You have given them a gift of incalculable value. In a very real
sense, a little piece of you has become part of them.
Do you have ideas that deserve a wider audience? It’s amazing how bad we
are at judging an answer to that question. A lot of speakers (often male)
appear to love the sound of their own voice and are happy to talk for hours
without sharing anything much of value. But there are also many people
(often female) who massively underestimate the value of their work, and their
learning, and their insights.
If you’ve picked up this book just because you love the idea of strutting the
stage and being a TED Talk star, inspiring audiences with your charisma,
please, put it down right now. Instead, go and work on something that is
worth sharing. Style without substance is awful.
But, more likely, you have far more in you worth sharing than you’re even
aware of. You don’t have to have invented lion lights. You’ve led a life that is
yours and yours only. There are experiences you’ve had that are unique to
you. There are insights to be drawn from some of those experiences that are
absolutely worth sharing. You just have to figure out which ones.
Are you stressed about this? Maybe you have a class assignment; or you
need to present the results of your research at a small meeting; or you have a
chance to speak to a local Rotary about your organization and try to gain their
support. You may feel that you’ve done nothing that would be worth giving a
talk about. You’ve invented nothing. You’re not particularly creative. You
don’t see yourself as super-intelligent. You don’t have any particularly
brilliant ideas about the future. You’re not even sure there’s anything you’re
Well, I grant you, that’s a tough starting point. To be worth an audience’s
time, most talks require grounding in something that has some depth. It’s
theoretically possible that the best thing you can do for now is to continue
your journey, search for something that really does grab you and make you
want to go deep, and pick up this book again in a few years’ time.
But before you come to that conclusion, it’s worth double-checking that
your self-assessment is accurate. Maybe you’re just lacking self-confidence.
There’s a paradox here: You have always been you, and you only see yourself
from the inside. The bits that others find remarkable in you may be
completely invisible to you. To find those bits you may need to have honest
conversations with those who know you best. They will know some parts of
you better than you know them yourself.
In any case, there’s one thing you have that no one else in the world has:
Your own first-person experience of life. Yesterday you saw a sequence of
things and experienced a sequence of emotions that is, quite literally, unique.
You are the only human among 7 billion who had that exact experience. So
. . . can you make anything of that? Many of the best talks are simply based
on a personal story and a simple lesson to be drawn from it. Did you observe
anything that surprised you? Maybe you watched a couple of children playing
in the park, or had a conversation with a homeless person. Is there something
in what you saw that might be interesting to other people? If not, could you
imagine spending the next few weeks walking around with your eyes open,
being aware of the possibility that some part of your unique journey could be
of interest and benefit to others?
People love stories, and everyone can learn to tell a good story. Even if the
lesson you might draw from the story is familiar, that’s OK—we’re humans!
We need reminding! There’s a reason religions have weekly sermons that tell
us the same things over and over, packaged different ways. An important idea,
wrapped up in a fresh story, can make a great talk, if it’s told the right way.
Think back over your work of the last three or four years; what really
stands out? What was the last thing you were really excited by? Or angered
by? What are the two or three things you’ve done that you’re most proud of?
When was the last time you were in conversation with someone who said,
“That’s really interesting”? If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one
idea you’d most love to spread to other people’s minds?
PROCRASTINATE NO MORE
You can use the opportunity of public speaking as motivation to dive more
deeply into some topic. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser degree, from some
form of procrastination or laziness. There’s a lot we’d like to get into in
principle, but, you know, that Internet thing just has so many damn
distractions. The chance to speak in public may be just the kick you need to
commit to a serious research project. Anyone with a computer or a
smartphone has access to pretty much all the world’s information. It’s just a
matter of digging in and seeing what you can uncover.
In fact, the same questions you ask as you do your research can help
provide the blueprint for your talk. What are the issues that matter most? How
are they related? How can they be easily explained? What are the riddles that
people don’t yet have good answers for? What are the key controversies? You
can use your own journey of discovery to suggest your talk’s key moments of
So, if you think you might have something but aren’t sure you really know
enough yet, why not use your public-speaking opportunity as an incentive to
truly find out? Every time you feel your attention flagging, just remember the
prospect of standing on stage with hundreds of eyes peering at you. That will
get you through the next hour of effort!
In 2015, we tried an experiment at TED headquarters. We granted everyone
on the team an extra day off every second week to devote to studying
something. We called it Learning Wednesdays. The idea was that, because the
organization is committed to lifelong learning, we should practice what we
preach and encourage everyone on the team to spend time learning about
something they’re passionate about. But how did we prevent that just
becoming a lazy day of sitting in front of the TV? There was a sting in the
tail: Everyone had to commit, at some point during the year, to giving a TED
Talk to the rest of the organization about what they’ve learned. That meant we
all got to benefit from one another’s knowledge but, crucially, it also provided
the key incentive for people to get on with it and actually learn.
You don’t need Learning Wednesdays to have this motivation. Any chance
at speaking to a group you respect can provide the incentive you need to get
off your butt and work on something unique to you! In other words, you don’t
need to have the perfect knowledge in your head today. Use this opportunity
as the reason to discover it.
And if, after all that, you’re still floundering, maybe you’re right. Maybe
you should turn down the offer to speak. You might be doing yourself—and
them—a favor. More likely, though, you’ll land on something that you, and
only you, can share. Something you’d actually be excited to see out there in
the world a little more visibly.
For most of the rest of this book, I’m going to assume that you have
something you want to talk about, whether it’s a lifelong passion, a topic
you’re eager to dive into more deeply, or a project for work that you have to
present. In the chapters to come I’ll be focusing on the how, not the what. But
in the final chapter we’ll return to the what, because I’m pretty sure that
everyone has something important they could and should share with the rest
THE ASTONISHING EFFICACY OF LANGUAGE
OK. You have something meaningful to say, and your goal is to re-create your
core idea inside your audience’s minds. How do you do that?
We shouldn’t underestimate how challenging that is. If we could somehow
map what that idea about laughter looked like in Sophie Scott’s brain, it
would probably involve millions of neurons interconnected in an incredibly
rich and complex pattern. The pattern would have to include, somehow,
images of people guffawing, the sounds that they make, the concepts of
evolutionary purpose and of what it means to ease stress, and much more.
How on earth is it possible to re-create that whole structure in a group of
strangers’ minds in just a few minutes?
Humans have developed a technology that makes this possible. It’s called
language. It makes your brain do incredible things.
I want you to imagine an elephant, with its trunk painted bright red, waving
it to and fro in sync with the shuffling steps of a giant orange parrot dancing
on the elephant’s head and shrieking over and over again, “Let’s do the
Wow! You have just formed in your mind an image of something that has
never existed in history, except in my mind and in the minds of others who
read that last sentence. A single sentence can do that. But it depends on you,
the listener, having a set of preexisting concepts. You must already know what
an elephant and a parrot are, what the color concepts of red and orange are,
and what painted, dancing, and in sync mean. That sentence has prompted
you to link those concepts into a brand-new pattern.
If I had instead started out by saying “I want you to imagine a member of
the species Loxodonta cyclotis, with proboscis pigmented Pantone 032U,
conducting oscillatory motions . . .” you probably would not have formed that
image, even though this is the same request in more precise language.
So, language works its magic only to the extent that it is shared by speaker
and listener. And there’s the key clue to how to achieve the miracle of recreating your idea in someone else’s brain. You can only use the tools that
your audience has access to. If you start only with your language, your
concepts, your assumptions, your values, you will fail. So instead, start with
theirs. It’s only from that common ground that they can begin to build your
idea inside their minds.
At Princeton University, Dr. Uri Hasson has been doing groundbreaking
research to try to discover how this process works. It’s possible to capture in
real time the complex brain activity associated with building a concept or
remembering a story. It requires a technology called functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI).
In one experiment in 2015, Dr. Hasson put a group of volunteers into fMRI
machines and played them a 50-minute film that told a story. As they
experienced the story, their brains’ response patterns were recorded. Some of
those patterns could be matched across almost every volunteer, giving
concrete physical evidence of the shared experience they were having. Then
he asked the volunteers to record their own recollections of the film. Many of
these recordings were quite detailed and lasted as long as 20 minutes. Now—
and this is the astounding part—he played those recordings to another set of
volunteers who had never seen the film, and recorded their fMRI data. The
patterns shown in the brains of the second set of volunteers, those who
listened to the audio recollections only, matched those patterns shown in the
minds of the first set of volunteers as they watched the movie! In other words,
the power of language alone conjured up the same mental experiences that
others had while watching a movie.
This is amazing evidence of language’s efficacy. It is a power that every
public speaker can tap into.
YES, WORDS MATTER
Some public-speaking coaches seek to downplay the importance of language.
They may cite research published in 1967 by Professor Albert Mehrabian and
claim that only 7 percent of the effectiveness of communication is down to
language, while 38 percent depends on tone of voice and 55 percent comes
from body language. This has led coaches to focus excessively on developing
a speaking style of confidence, charisma, etc., and not worry so much about
Unfortunately, this is a complete misinterpretation of what Mehrabian
found. His experiments were devoted primarily to discovering how emotion
was communicated. So for example, he would test what would happen if
someone said “That’s nice,” but said so in an angry tone of voice, or with
threatening body language. Sure enough, in those circumstances, the words
don’t count for much. But it is absurd to apply this to speaking overall (and
Mehrabian is so sick of being misapplied that his website contains a bolded
paragraph begging people not to do this).
Yes, communicating emotion is important, and for that aspect of a talk,
one’s tone of voice and body language do indeed matter a great deal. We
discuss this in detail in later chapters. But the whole substance of a talk
depends crucially on words. It’s the words that tell a story, build an idea,
explain the complex, make a reasoned case, or provide a compelling call to
action. So, if you hear someone tell you that body language matters more than
verbal language in public speaking, please know that they are misinterpreting
the science. (Or for fun, you could just ask them to repeat their point purely
We’ll spend much of the first half of this book digging into ways in which
language can achieve its magic. The fact that we can transfer ideas in this way
is why human-to-human speaking matters. It is how our worldviews are built
and shaped. Our ideas make us who we are. And speakers who have figured
out how to spread their ideas into others’ minds are able to create ripple
effects of untold consequence.
There’s one other beautiful metaphor for a great talk. It is a journey that
speaker and audience take together. Speaker Tierney Thys puts it this way:
Like all good movies or books, a great talk is transporting. We love to
go on adventures, travel someplace new with an informed, if not
quirky, guide who can introduce us to things we never knew existed,
incite us to crawl out windows into strange worlds, outfit us with new
lenses to see the ordinary in an extraordinary way . . . enrapture us
and engage multiple parts of our brains simultaneously. So I often try
to fashion my talks around embarking on a journey.
What’s powerful about this metaphor is that it makes clear why the speaker,
like any tour guide, must begin where the audience is. And why they must
ensure no impossible leaps or inexplicable shifts in direction.
Whether the journey is one of exploration, explanation, or persuasion, the
net result is to have brought the audience to a beautiful new place. And that
too is a gift.
Whichever metaphor you use, focusing on what you will give to your
audience is the perfect foundation for preparing your talk.
Four Talk Styles to Avoid
There are countless ways to build a great talk. But first some essential safety
tips. There are ugly talk styles out there, dangerous to both a speaker’s
reputation and an audience’s well-being. Here are four to steer clear of at all
THE SALES PITCH
Sometimes speakers get it exactly backwards. They plan to take, not give.
Several years ago a famed author and business consultant came to TED. I
was excited to hear his presentation on how to think outside the box. What
happened instead horrified me. He began talking about a series of businesses
that had apparently made a significant leap forward as a result of an action
they took. And what was that action? They had all booked his consultancy
After 5 minutes of this, the audience was getting antsy and I’d had enough.
I stood up and began to interrupt. Every eye turned my way. I was sweating.
My microphone was on. Everyone could hear everything.
Me: I have a request here. Perhaps you could tell us about the actual
type of thinking you recommend? We want to know how it actually
works, so that we’ve got a takeaway. As is, it’s a bit too much of an
[Nervous applause. Awkward pause.]
Speaker: It takes three days to go into it. In 15 minutes, there is no
way I can tell you all about how to do it. My purpose is to tell you that
these things can work and therefore motivate you to look further into
Me: We believe you that they work. You’re a rock star in this field!
Give us an instance, or just tease us with the first 15 minutes of it.
At this point, the audience starts cheering and the speaker’s left with no
choice. To everyone’s relief, he finally begins to share some wisdom we can
Here’s the irony. This greedy approach to speaking doesn’t even serve the
speaker’s interest. I’d be amazed if he got a single booking from anyone in
that audience. And even if he did, it had to be offset by a loss of respect from
others in the room. Needless to say, we never posted the talk online.
Reputation is everything. You want to build a reputation as a generous
person, bringing something wonderful to your audiences, not as a tedious selfpromoter. It’s boring and frustrating to be pitched to, especially when you’re
expecting something else.
Usually, of course, pitches happen much more subtly. The slide showing a
book cover; the brief mention about the speaker’s organization’s funding
shortfall. In the context of an otherwise great talk, you may even get away
with these little nudges. (And, of course, if you’ve been specifically asked to
talk about the book or the organization, that’s another matter.) But you’re
taking a big risk. That’s why at TED we actively discourage speakers from
doing these things.
The key principle is to remember that the speaker’s job is to give to the
audience, not take from them. (Even in a business context where you’re
genuinely making a sales pitch, your goal should be to give. The most
effective salespeople put themselves into their listeners’ shoes and imagine
how to best serve their needs.) At a conference, people don’t come to a talk to
be sold to. As soon as they understand that might be your agenda, they will
flee to the safety of their email inbox. It’s as if you’ve agreed to have a coffee
with a friend and discover to your horror that all she actually wanted to do
was explain her must-invest time-share scheme to you. You’re out of there at
the first opportunity.
It’s possible to disagree where the line is between sharing an idea and
pitching, but the principle is crucial: Give, don’t take.
And here’s the thing. Generosity evokes a response. When human-rights
lawyer Bryan Stevenson spoke at TED, his organization was in urgent need of
$1 million to continue fighting a key case in the US Supreme Court. But
Bryan didn’t mention this once in his talk. Instead he transformed the way we
all thought about injustice in America, offering stories, insights, humor, and
revelation. At the end the audience rose as one and applauded for several
minutes. And guess what? He left the conference with contributions from
attendees exceeding $1.3 million.
In the first TED I organized, one of the speakers began, “As I was driving
down here wondering what to say to you . . .” There followed an unfocused
list of observations about possible futures. Nothing obnoxious. Nothing that
was particularly hard to understand. But also no arguments of power. No
revelations. No aha moments. No takeaways. The audience clapped politely.
But no one really learned anything.
I was fuming. It’s one thing to underprepare. But to boast that you’ve
underprepared? That’s insulting. It tells the audience that their time doesn’t
matter. That the event doesn’t matter.
So many talks are like this. Meandering, no clear direction. A speaker
might kid himself that even an unfocused exploration of his brilliant thinking
is bound to be fascinating to others. But if 800 people are planning to devote
15 minutes of their day to your words, you really can’t just wing it.
As my colleague Bruno Giussani puts it, “When people sit in a room to
listen to a speaker, they are offering her something extremely precious,
something that isn’t recoverable once given: a few minutes of their time and
of their attention. Her task is to use that time as well as possible.”
So if you’re going to gift people with a wondrous idea, you first have to
spend some preparation time. Rambling is not an option.
As it turned out, this particular rambling speaker did give TED a gift of
sorts. From that talk on, we redoubled our efforts on speaker preparation.
THE ORG BORE
An organization is fascinating to those who work for it—and deeply boring to
almost everyone else. Sorry, but it’s true. Any talk framed around the
exceptional history of your company or NGO or lab and the complex-but-ohso-impressive way it is structured, and the fabulously photogenic quality of
the astonishingly talented team working with you, and how much success
your products are having, is going to leave your audience snoozing at the
starting line. It may be interesting to you and your team. But, alas, we don’t
Everything changes, though, when you focus on the nature of the work that
you’re doing, and the power of the ideas that infuse it, not on the org itself or
This can be harder than it sounds. Ofttimes the heads of organizations are
by default their spokespersons, always in selling mode, believing it’s their
obligation to honor the hard-working team that surrounds them. And because
the work they want to talk about has taken place inside the organization, the
most obvious way to describe it may be to anchor it to organizational acts.
“Back in 2005, we set up a new department in Dallas in this office building
[slide of glass tower here], and its goal was to investigate how we could slash
our energy costs, so I allocated Vice President Hank Boreham to the task . . .”
Compare that statement to this one: “Back in 2005 we discovered
something surprising. It turns out that it’s possible for an average office to
slash its energy costs by 60 percent without any noticeable loss of
productivity. Let me share with you how . . .”
One mode retains interest. One kills it. One mode is a gift. The other is
THE INSPIRATION PERFORMANCE
I hesitate to include this example, but I think I must.
Let’s agree on this first: Absolutely one of the most powerful things you
can experience when watching a talk is inspiration. The speaker’s work and
words move you and fill you with an expanded sense of possibility and
excitement. You want to go out and be a better person. TED’s growth and
success have been fueled by the deeply inspirational nature of many of the
talks. Indeed, it’s the reason I was drawn to TED in the first place. I believe in
But it’s a power that must be handled with great care.
When a great speaker finishes her talk and the whole crowd rises to its feet
and applauds, it’s a thrilling moment for everyone in the room. The audience
is excited by what they’ve heard, and for the speaker, it’s indescribably
satisfying to receive such powerful recognition. (One of the more awkward
moments we’ve ever had at TED was when a speaker left the stage to
lukewarm applause and whispered to her friend backstage, “Nobody stood
up!” An understandable comment. It was just unfortunate that her microphone
was still on, and everyone could hear the pain in her voice.)
Whether they admit it or not, many public speakers dream of being cheered
as they leave the stage, followed by screens full of tweets attesting to their
inspirational prowess. And therein lies the trap. The intense appeal of the
standing ovation can lead aspiring speakers to do bad things. They may look
at talks given by inspirational speakers and seek to copy them . . . but in form
only. The result can be awful: the ruthless pursuit of every trick in the book to
intellectually and emotionally manipulate the audience.
There was an upsetting instance of this at TED a few years ago.4 An
American man in his forties had become a huge TED fan, and he sent us a
compelling audition video, urging us to let him give his own talk. His talk
premise exactly matched the theme we were focused on that year, and he
came well recommended, so we decided to give him a shot.
The first moments of his talk were promising. He had a big personality. He
beamed at the audience. He had some amusing opening remarks, a clever
video, and a surprising visual prop. It was as if he’d studied every TED Talk
in detail and was bringing the best of each to his own talk. Sitting and
watching, I was hopeful we might have a giant hit on our hands.
But then . . . I started to feel a little queasy. There was something not quite
right. He was loving being on stage. Loving it just a little too much. He’d
keep pausing, hoping for audience applause or laughter, and when he got it,
he’d stop and say “thank you,” subtly milking it for more. He started inserting
ad-libbed comments intended to amuse. It was clear they amused him, but
others, not so much. And the worst of it was the promised substance of the
talk never really arrived. He claimed to have worked on demonstrating the
truth of an important idea. But the case he brought was all whimsy and
anecdote. There was one moment where he had even Photoshopped an image
so that it appeared to support his case. And because of his getting carried
away and soaking up the limelight, he was running way overtime.
Toward the end, he began telling people that yes, they had it in their power
to adopt his wisdom, and he spoke of dreams and inspiration, ending with his
arms outstretched to the audience. Because it was clear the talk meant so
much to him, a portion of the audience did indeed stand to clap him. Me? I
felt sick to my stomach. This was the cliché of TED that we’d tried so hard to
eliminate. All style, very little substance.
The trouble with talks like this is not just that they flatter to deceive. It’s
that they give the entire genre a bad name. They make the audience less likely
to open up when a genuinely inspiring speaker comes along. And yet, more
and more speakers, attracted to the drug of audience adoration, are trying to
walk this path.
Please don’t be one of them.
Here’s the thing about inspiration: It has to be earned. Someone is inspiring
not because they look at you with big eyes and ask you to find it in your heart
to believe in their dream. It’s because they actually have a dream that’s worth
getting excited about. And those dreams don’t come lightly. They come from
blood, sweat, and tears.
Inspiration is like love. You don’t get it by pursuing it directly. In fact,
there’s a name for people who pursue love too directly: stalker. In less
extreme cases, the words we use are almost as bad: cloying, inappropriate,
desperate. And sadly, this behavior prompts the opposite of what it desires. It
prompts a pulling back.
It’s the same with inspiration. If you try to take the shortcut and win people
over purely with your charisma, you may succeed for a moment or two, but
soon you’ll be found out, and the audience will flee. In the example above,
despite the partial standing ovation, that speaker received terrible audience
feedback in our postconference survey, and we never posted the talk. People
had felt manipulated. And they were.
If you have dreams of being a rock-star public speaker, pumping up an
audience as you stride the stage and proclaim your brilliance, I beg you to
reconsider. Don’t dream of that. Dream of something much bigger than you
are. Go and work on that dream as long as it takes to achieve something
worthwhile. And then humbly come and share what you’ve learned.
Inspiration can’t be performed. It’s an audience response to authenticity,
courage, selfless work, and genuine wisdom. Bring those qualities to your
talk, and you may be amazed at what happens.
It’s easy to talk about why talks fail. But how can they be built to succeed? It
all starts with a moment of clarity.
What’s Your Point?
“It happens way too often: you’re sitting there in the audience, listening to
someone talk, and you know that there is a better and great talk in that person,
it’s just not the talk he’s giving.” That’s TED’s Bruno Giussani again, a man
who cannot stand seeing potentially great speakers blow their opportunity.
The point of a talk is . . . to say something meaningful. But it’s amazing
how many talks never quite do that. There are lots of spoken sentences, to be
sure. But somehow they leave the audience with nothing they can hold on to.
Beautiful slides and a charismatic stage presence are all very well, but if
there’s no real takeaway, all the speaker has done—at best—is to entertain.
The number-one reason for this tragedy is that the speaker never had a
proper plan for the talk as a whole. The talk may have been planned bullet
point by bullet point, or even sentence by sentence, but no time was actually
spent on its overall arc.
There’s a helpful word used to analyze plays, movies, and novels; it applies
to talks too. It is throughline, the connecting theme that ties together each
narrative element. Every talk should have one.
Since your goal is to construct something wondrous inside your listeners’
minds, you can think of the throughline as a strong cord or rope, onto which
you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building.
This doesn’t mean every talk can only cover one topic, tell a single story, or
just proceed in one direction without diversions. Not at all. It just means that
all the pieces need to connect.
Here’s the start of a talk thrown together without a throughline. “I want to
share with you some experiences I had during my recent trip to Cape Town,
and then make a few observations about life on the road . . .”
Compare that with: “On my recent trip to Cape Town, I learned something
new about strangers—when you can trust them, and when you definitely can’t.
Let me share with you two very different experiences I had . . .”
The first setup might work for your family. But the second, with its
throughline visible from the get-go, is far more enticing to a general audience.
A good exercise is to try to encapsulate your throughline in no more than
fifteen words. And those fifteen words need to provide robust content. It’s not
enough to think of your goal as, “I want to inspire the audience” or “I want to
win support for my work.” It has to be more focused than that. What is the
precise idea you want to build inside your listeners? What is their takeaway?
It’s also important not to have a throughline that’s too predictable or banal,
such as “the importance of hard work” or “the four main projects I’ve been
working on.” Zzzzz . . . You can do better! Here are the throughlines of some
popular TED Talks. Notice that there’s an unexpectedness incorporated into
each of them.
More choice actually makes us less happy.
Vulnerability is something to be treasured, not hidden from.
Education’s potential is transformed if you focus on the amazing (and
hilarious) creativity of kids.
With body language, you can fake it till you become it.
A history of the universe in 18 minutes shows a path from chaos to order.
Terrible city flags can reveal surprising design secrets.
A ski trek to the South Pole threatened my life and overturned my sense
Let’s bring on a quiet revolution—a world redesigned for introverts.
The combination of three simple technologies creates a mind-blowing
Online videos can humanize the classroom and revolutionize education.
Barry Schwartz, whose talk is the first one in the list above, on the paradox
of choice, is a big believer in the importance of a throughline:
Many speakers have fallen in love with their ideas and find it hard to
imagine what is complicated about them to people who are not
already immersed. The key is to present just one idea—as thoroughly
and completely as you can in the limited time period. What is it that
you want your audience to have an unambiguous understanding of
after you’re done?
The last throughline in the list above is from education reformer Salman
Khan. He told me:
There were a lot of really interesting things that Khan Academy had
done, but that felt too self-serving. I wanted to share ideas that are
bigger, ideas like mastery-based learning and humanizing class time
by removing lectures. My advice to speakers would be to look for a
single big idea that is larger than you or your organization, but at the
same time to leverage your experience to show that it isn’t just empty
Your throughline doesn’t have to be as ambitious as those above. But it still
should have some kind of intriguing angle. Instead of giving a talk about the
importance of hard work, how about speaking on why hard work sometimes
fails to achieve true success, and what you can do about that. Instead of
planning to speak about the four main projects you’ve recently been working
on, how about structuring it around just three of the projects that happen to
have a surprising connection?
In fact, Robin Murphy had exactly that as her throughline when she came
to speak at TEDWomen. Here’s the opening of her talk.
Robots are quickly becoming first responders at disaster sites,
working alongside humans to aid recovery. The involvement of these
sophisticated machines has the potential to transform disaster relief,
saving lives and money. I’d like to share with you today three new
robots I’ve worked on that demonstrate this.
Not every talk has to state its throughline explicitly up front like this. As
we’ll see, there are many other ways to intrigue people and invite them to join
you on your journey. But when the audience knows where you’re headed, it’s
much easier for them to follow.
Let’s think once again of a talk as a journey, a journey that the speaker and
the audience take together, with the speaker as the guide. But if you, the
speaker, want the audience to come with you, you probably need to give them
a hint of where you’re going. And then you need to be sure that each step of
the journey helps get you there. In this journey metaphor, the throughline
traces the path that the journey takes. It ensures that there are no impossible
leaps, and that by the end of the talk, the speaker and audience have arrived
together at a satisfying destination.
Many people approach a talk thinking they will just outline their work or
describe their organization or explore an issue. That’s not a great plan. The
talk is likely to end up unfocused and without much impact.
Bear in mind that a throughline is not the same thing as a topic. Your
invitation might seem super-clear. “Dear Mary. We want you to come talk
about that new desalination technology you developed.” “Dear John. Could
you come tell us the story of your kayaking adventure in Kazakhstan?” But
even when the topic is clear, the throughline is worth thinking about. A talk
about kayaking could have a throughline based on endurance or group
dynamics or the dangers of turbulent river eddies. The desalination talk might
have a throughline based on disruptive innovation, or the global water crisis,
or the awesomeness of engineering elegance.
So how do you figure out your throughline?
The first step is to find out as much as you can about the audience. Who are
they? How knowledgeable are they? What are their expectations? What do
they care about? What have past speakers there spoken about? You can only
gift an idea to minds that are ready to receive that type of idea. If you’re going
to speak to an audience of taxi drivers in London about the amazingness of a
digitally powered sharing economy, it would be helpful to know in advance
that their livelihood is being destroyed by Uber.
But the biggest obstacle in identifying a throughline is expressed in every
speaker’s primal scream: I have far too much to say and not enough time to
We hear this one a lot. TED Talks have a maximum time limit of 18
minutes. (Why 18? It’s short enough to hold people’s attention, including on
the Internet, and precise enough to be taken seriously. But it’s also long
enough to say something that matters.) Yet most speakers are used to talking
for 30 to 40 minutes or longer. They find it really hard to imagine giving a
proper talk in such a short period of time.
It’s certainly not the case that a shorter talk means shorter preparation time.
President Woodrow Wilson was once asked about how long it took him to
prepare for a speech. He replied:
That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a 10-minute speech it
takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it
takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no
preparation at all. I am ready now.
It reminds me of the famous quote attributed to a variety of great thinkers
and writers: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
So let’s accept that creating a great talk to fit a limited time period is going
to take real effort. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
THE WRONG WAY
The wrong way to condense your talk is to include all the things that you
think you need to say, and simply cut them all back to make them a lot
shorter. Funnily enough, you may well be able to create a script that achieves
this. Every major topic you want to cover is there in summary form. Your
work is covered! You may even think there’s a throughline connecting it all,
some broad underpinning of your work. To you it may feel like you’ve given
it your all and done the best you can to fit the time you’ve been given to
But throughlines that connect large numbers of concepts don’t work.
There’s a drastic consequence when you rush through multiple topics in
summary form. They don’t land with any force. You know the full
background and context to what you’re saying, and so the insights you offer
may seem profound to you. But for the audience, which is coming to your
work fresh, the talk will probably come across as conceptual, dry, or
It’s a simple equation. Overstuffed equals underexplained.
To say something interesting you have to take the time to do at least two
Show why it matters . . . what’s the question you’re trying to answer, the
problem you’re trying to solve, the experience you’re trying to share?
Flesh out each point you make with real examples, stories, facts.
This is how ideas that you cherish can be built in someone else’s mind. The
trouble is that explaining the why and then giving the examples take time.
And that leaves you with just one choice.
THE RIGHT WAY
To provide an effective talk, you must slash back the range of topics you will
cover to a single, connected thread—a throughline that can be properly
developed. In a sense, you cover less, but the impact will actually be
Author Richard Bach said, “Great writing is all about the power of the
deleted word.” It’s true of speaking too. The secret of successful talks often
lies in what is left out. Less can be more.
Many TED speakers have told us that this has been the key to getting their
talk right. Here’s musician Amanda Palmer.
I found my ego really trapping me. If my TED Talk goes viral, I need
people to know what a great pianist I am! That I can also paint! That I
write fantastic lyrics! That I have all these OTHER talents! THIS IS
MY CHANCE! But, no. The only way the talk can truly soar is if you
take your ego out of it and let yourself be a delivery vehicle for the
ideas themselves. I remember going to dinner with TED regular
Nicholas Negroponte and asked if he had any advice for my talk. He
said something that my Buddhist-leaning mentor has been saying for
years: leave space and SAY LESS.
Economist Nic Marks recommends the advice often given to fledgling
writers: “Kill your darlings. I had to be prepared to NOT talk about some
things I absolutely love and would have liked to squeeze in, but they were not
part of the main narrative. That was tough but essential.”
One of the most popular TED speakers, Brené Brown, also struggled to
meet TED’s tight time demands. She recommends this simple formula. “Plan
your talk. Then cut it by half. Once you’ve grieved the loss of half of your
talk, cut it another 50 percent. 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?’”
This same issue applies to talks of any length. Let me try a personal
example with you. Let’s say I’ve been asked to speak for just 2 minutes to
introduce who I am. Here’s version 1:
Although I’m British, I was born in Pakistan—my father was a
missionary eye surgeon—and my early years were spent there and in
India and Afghanistan. At age thirteen, I was sent to boarding school
in England, and after that I went to Oxford University for a degree in
Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. I started work as a local
newspaper journalist in Wales, then moved to a pirate radio station in
the Seychelles Islands for a couple of years to write and read a world
Back in the UK in the mid-1980s, I fell in love with computers and
started a series of magazines devoted to them. It was a great time to
be launching specialist magazines, and my company doubled in size
every year for seven years. I sold it, moved to the US, and tried again.
By the year 2000 my business had grown to 2,000 employees and
150 magazines and websites. But the tech bubble was about to burst,
and when it did, it nearly destroyed the company. Besides, who needs
magazines when you have the Internet? I left at the end of 2001.
Happily, I had put some money into a nonprofit foundation that I
was able to use to buy TED, which, back then, was an annual
conference in California. That’s been my full-time passion ever since.
And here’s version 2:
I want you to come with me to a student’s room at Oxford University
in 1977. You open the door, and at first it seems like there’s nobody
But wait. Over in the corner, there’s a boy lying on the floor, face
up, staring at the ceiling. He’s been like that for more than 90 minutes.
That’s me. Twenty-year-old me. I am thinking. Hard. I am trying . . .
please don’t laugh . . . I am trying to solve the problem of free will.
That deep mystery that has stumped the world’s philosophers for at
least two millennia? Yup, I’m taking it on.
Anyone looking objectively at the scene would have concluded that
this boy was some weird combination of arrogant, deluded, or perhaps
just socially awkward and lonely, preferring the company of ideas to
But my own narrative? I’m a dreamer. I’ve always been obsessed
by the power of ideas. And I’m pretty sure it’s that inward focus that
helped me survive growing up in boarding schools in India and
England, away from my missionary parents, and that gave me the
confidence to try to build a media company. Certainly it was the
dreamer in me that fell in love so deeply with TED.
Most recently I’ve been dreaming about the revolution in public
speaking, and what it could lead to . . .
So which version tells you more about me? The first one certainly has far
more facts. It’s a decent summary of big parts of my life. A 2-minute resume.
The second one focuses on just a single moment of my life. And yet, when I
try this experiment on people, they say they find the second far more
interesting, and also far more revealing.
Whether your time limit is 2 minutes, 18 minutes, or an hour, let’s agree to
this as a starting point: You will only cover as much ground as you can dive
into in sufficient depth to be compelling.
And this is where the concept of a throughline really helps. By choosing a
throughline you will automatically filter out much of what you might
otherwise say. When I did the above experiment, I thought, What aspect of me
should I focus on for a little more depth? The decision to go with “dreamer”
made it easy to anchor version 2 on my time studying philosophy at Oxford
and slash back most of the other parts of my life. If I had chosen
“entrepreneur” or “nerd” or “global soul,” I’d have made different cuts.
So a throughline requires you first to identify an idea that can be properly
unpacked in the time you have available. You should then build a structure so
that every element in your talk is somehow linked to this idea.
FROM THROUGHLINE TO STRUCTURE
Let’s pause for a moment on that word structure. It’s critical. Different talks
can have very different structures tied onto that central throughline. A talk
might begin with an introduction to the problem the speaker is tackling and
give an anecdote that illustrates that problem. It might then move to some
historical attempts to solve the problem and give two examples that ultimately
failed. It could continue to the speaker’s proposed solution, including one
dramatic new piece of evidence that supports the idea. Then it might close
with three implications for the future.
You can picture the structure of that talk as like a tree. There’s a central
throughline, rising vertically, with branches attached to it, each of which
represents an expansion of the main narrative: one at the bottom for the
opening anecdote; two just above that at the history section for the examples
that failed; one at the proposed solution to mark the new evidence; and three
at the top to illustrate the implications for the future.
Another talk might be simply sharing, one after the other, five pieces of
work that have a connected theme, beginning and ending with the speaker’s
current project. In that structure you can think of the throughline as a loop that
connects five different boxes, each representing one of the pieces of work.
The most viewed TED speaker at the time of writing this book is Sir Ken
Robinson. He told me that most of his talks follow this simple structure:
A. Introduction—getting settled, what will be covered
B. Context—why this issue matters
C. Main Concepts
D. Practical Implications
He said, “There’s an old formula for writing essays that says a good essay
answers three questions: What? So What? Now What? It’s a bit like that.”
Of course, the appeal of Sir Ken’s talks goes way beyond their structural
simplicity, and neither he nor I would recommend that everyone adopt that
same structure. What matters is that you find the structure that most
powerfully develops your throughline in the time available, and that it is clear
how each talk element ties into it.
TACKLING TOUGH TOPICS
Your throughline needs handling with special care if you have to speak on a
heavy subject. The horror of a refugee crisis. The diabetes explosion. Genderrelated violence in South America. Many speakers on these topics view their
job as to highlight a cause that needs to be more widely known. The structure
of these talks is typically to lay out a series of facts that illustrate how awful a
situation is and why something must be done to fix it. And indeed there are
times when that is the perfect way to frame a talk . . . provided you’re
confident that your listeners are ready and willing to be made to feel
The trouble is that if an audience sits through too many talks like this, it
will get emotionally exhausted and will start to switch off. Compassion
fatigue sets in. If that happens before your talk is done, you’ll have no impact.
How can you route around that? The first step is to think of your talk not as
being about an issue, but about an idea.
My former colleague June Cohen framed the difference this way:
An issue-based talk leads with morality. An idea-based talk leads with
An issue exposes a problem. An idea proposes a solution.
An issue says, “Isn’t this terrible?” An idea says, “Isn’t this interesting?”
It’s much easier to pull in an audience by framing the talk as an attempt to
solve an intriguing riddle rather than as a plea for them to care. The first feels
like a gift being offered. The second feels like an ask.
As you work on developing your throughline, here’s a simple checklist:
Is this a topic I’m passionate about?
Does it inspire curiosity?
Will it make a difference to the audience to have this knowledge?
Is my talk a gift or an ask?
Is the information fresh, or is it already out there?
Can I truly explain the topic in the time slot allocated, complete with
Do I know enough about this to make a talk worth the audience’s time?
Do I have the credibility to take on this topic?
What are the fifteen words that encapsulate my talk?
Would those fifteen words persuade someone they’d be interested in
hearing my talk?
Speaking coach Abigail Tenembaum recommends testing your throughline
on someone who could be a typical audience member, and to do so not in
writing but verbally. “Saying it out loud often crystallizes for the speaker
what is clear, what is missing, and how to sharpen it.”
Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert also believes in planning a talk for an
audience of one. She offered me this advice: “Choose a human being—an
actual human being in your life—and prepare your talk as if you will be
delivering it to that one person only. Choose someone who is not in your
field, but who is generally an intelligent, curious, engaged, worldly person—
and someone whom you really like. This will bring a warmth of spirit and
heart to your talk. Most of all, be sure you are actually speaking to one
person, and not to a demographic (‘My speech is for people in the software
field who are between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-eight.’), because a
demographic is not a human being, and if you speak to a demographic, you
will not sound like you are speaking to a human being. You don’t have to go
to their house and practice your talk on them for six months; they don’t even
need to know that you’re doing this. Just choose your one ideal listener, and
then do your best to create a talk that would blow their mind, or move them,
or fascinate them, or delight them.”
But most important of all, says Gilbert, is to pick a topic that lives deep
within you. “Talk about what you know. Talk about what you know and love
with all your heart. I want to hear about the subject that is most important to
your life—not some random subject that you think will be a novelty. Bring
me your well-worn passion of decades, not some fresh, radical gimmick, and
trust me—I will be captivated.”
Once you have your throughline, you’re ready to plan what you’ll attach to
it. There are many ways to build ideas. Over the next five chapters we’ll look
at five core tools that speakers use:
They can be mixed and matched. Some talks stick to a single tool. Others
incorporate multiple elements. A few use all five (and often approximately in
the order above). But it’s worth looking at them separately because the five
techniques are strikingly different.
Knowledge can’t be pushed into a brain. It has to be pulled in.
Before you can build an idea in someone else’s mind, you need their
permission. People are naturally cautious about opening up their minds—the
most precious thing they own—to complete strangers. You need to find a way
to overcome that caution. And the way you do that is to make visible the
human being cowering inside you.
Hearing a talk is a completely different thing from reading an essay. It’s not
just the words. Not at all. It’s the person delivering the words. To make an
impact, there has to be a human connection. You can give the most brilliant
talk, with crystal-clear explanations and laser-sharp logic, but if you don’t
first connect with the audience, it just won’t land. Even if the content is, at
some level, understood, it won’t be activated but simply filed away in some
soon-to-be-forgotten mental archive.
People aren’t computers. They’re social creatures with all manner of
ingenious quirks. They have evolved weapons to protect against dangerous
knowledge polluting the worldview they depend on. Those weapons have
names: skepticism, mistrust, dislike, boredom, incomprehension.
And, by the way, those weapons are invaluable. If your mind were open to
all incoming language, your life would quickly fall apart. “Coffee gives you
cancer!” “Those foreigners are disgusting!” “Buy these beautiful kitchen
knives!” “I know how to give you a good time, baby . . .” Every single thing
we see or hear is evaluated before we dare embed it into an actionable idea.
So your very first job as a speaker is to find a way to disarm those weapons
and build a trusting human bond with the audience so that they’re willing—
delighted, even—to offer you full access to their minds for a few minutes.
If military metaphors aren’t to your liking, let’s go back to the idea of a talk
as a journey. It is a journey you take your audience on. You may have figured
out a brilliant route to a powerful destination. But before you can take people
there, you have to make the journey seem enticing. Task one is to go to where
the audience is and win them over. Yes, you’re a guide who can be trusted.
Without that, the whole endeavor may bog down before it has even started.
We tell our speakers that TED offers a warm, welcoming audience. But
even so, there’s a huge difference in impact between those speakers who
connect and those who unconsciously trigger skepticism or boredom or
Happily, there are numerous ways to make that vital early connection. Here
are five suggestions:
MAKE EYE CONTACT, RIGHT FROM THE START
Humans are good at forming instant judgments about other humans. Friend or
foe. Likable or unlikable. Wise or dull. Confident or tentative. The clues we
use to make these sweeping judgments are often shockingly light. The way
someone dresses. How they walk, or stand. Their facial expression. Their
body language. Their attentiveness.
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. Take a look at the
first few moments of Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk on the upside of stress. “I
have a confession to make.” [she pauses, turns, drops hands, gives a little
smile] “But first, I want YOU to make a little confession to me.” [walks
forward] “In the past year” [looks around intently from face to face] “I want
you to just raise your hand if you’ve experienced relatively little stress.
Anyone?” [an enigmatic smile, which a few moments later turns into a
million-dollar smile]. There is instant audience connection there.
Now, not all of us are as naturally fluent, relaxed, or beautiful as Kelly. But
one thing we can all do is make eye contact with audience members and smile
a little. It makes a huge difference. The Indian artist Raghava KK maintains
great eye contact, as does Argentine democracy advocate Pia Mancini. Within
seconds of them starting, you just feel yourself being reeled in.
There’s a reason for this. Humans have evolved a sophisticated ability to
read other people by looking at their eyes. We can subconsciously detect the
tiniest movement of eye muscles in someone’s face and use it to judge not just
how they are feeling, but whether we can trust them. (And while we’re doing
that, they’re doing the same to us.)
Scientists have shown that just the act of two people staring at each other
will trigger mirror neuron activity that literally adopts the emotional state of
the other person. If I’m beaming, I will make you smile inside. Just a bit. But
a meaningful bit. If I’m nervous, you’ll feel a little anxious too. We look at
each other, and our minds sync.
And the extent to which our minds sync is determined in part by how much
we instinctively trust each other. The best tool to engender that trust? Yup, a
smile. A natural human smile. (People can detect fake smiles and immediately
feel manipulated. Ron Gutman gave a TED Talk on the hidden power of
smiles. It’s well worth 7½ minutes of your time.)
Eye contact, backed by an occasional warm smile, is an amazing
technology that can transform how a talk is received. (It’s a shame, though,
that it’s sometimes undermined by another technology: stage lighting. Some
lighting setups mean a speaker is dazzled by bright spotlights and can’t even
see the audience. Talk to the event organizer about this ahead of time. If
you’re on stage and feeling disconnected, it’s OK to ask for the house lights to
be raised or the stage lights dimmed a little.)
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. Be warm. Be real.
Be you. It opens the door to them trusting you, liking you, and beginning to
share your passion.
When you walk onto the stage, you should be thinking about one thing:
your true excitement at the chance to share your passion with the people
sitting right there a few feet from you. Don’t rush in with your opening
sentence. Walk into the light, pick out a couple of people, look them in the
eye, nod a greeting, and smile. Then you’re on your way.
One of the best ways to disarm an audience is to first reveal your own
vulnerability. It’s the equivalent of the tough cowboy walking into a saloon
and holding his coat wide open to reveal no weapons. Everyone relaxes.
Brené Brown gave a wonderful talk on vulnerability at TEDxHouston, and
she began it appropriately.
A couple years ago, an event planner called me because I was going to
do a speaking event. And she said, “I’m really struggling with how to
write about you on the little flyer.” And I thought, “Well, what’s the
struggle?” And she said, “Well, I saw you speak, and I’m going to call
you a researcher, I think, but I’m afraid if I call you a researcher, no
one will come, because they’ll think you’re boring and irrelevant.”
You love her already.
By the same logic, if you’re feeling nervous, it can actually work in your
favor. Audiences sense it instantly and—far from despising you as you may
fear, the opposite happens—they begin rooting for you. We often encourage
speakers who look like they may struggle with nerves to simply be ready, if
necessary, to acknowledge it. If you feel yourself choking up, then pause . . .
pick up a bottle of water, take a sip, and just say what you’re feeling. “Hang
in there a moment . . . As you can see, I’m feeling a little nervous here.
Normal service will be restored soon.” Likely as not, you’ll get a warm round
of applause, and a crowd dying for you to succeed.
Vulnerability can be powerful at any stage of a talk. One of the most
stunning moments witnessed on the TED stage came when neurosurgeon and
best-selling author Sherwin Nuland had just completed a tour-de-force history
of electroshock therapy, the treatment for severe mental illness that involves
sending electric current directly through a patient’s brain. He was
knowledgeable and funny, and he made it all seem interesting, if a little
terrifying. But then he stopped. “Why am I telling you this story at this
meeting?” He said he wanted to share something he’d never spoken or written
about before. You could have heard a pin drop.
“The reason . . . is that I am a man who, almost thirty years ago, had his life
saved by two long courses of electroshock therapy.” Nuland went on to unveil
his own secret history of debilitating depression, an illness that got so bad
doctors were planning to remove part of his brain. Instead, as a last resort,
they tried electroshock therapy. And eventually, after twenty treatments, it had
By making himself so deeply vulnerable to the audience, he was able to
end his talk with extraordinary power.
I’ve always felt that somehow I was an impostor because my readers
don’t know what I have just told you. So one of the reasons that I
have come here to talk about this today is to—frankly, selfishly—
unburden myself and let it be known that this is not an untroubled
mind that has written all of these books. But more importantly, I
think, is the fact that a very significant proportion of people in this
audience are under thirty and it looks to me like almost all of you are
on the cusp of a magnificent and exciting career. Anything can happen
to you. Things change. Accidents happen. Something from childhood
comes back to haunt you. You can be thrown off the track . . . If I can
find my way back from this, believe me, anybody can find their way
back from any adversity that exists in their lives. And for those who
are older, who have lived through difficult times, perhaps where they
lost everything, as I did, and started out all over again, some of these
things will seem very familiar. There is recovery. There is redemption.
And there is resurrection.
This is a talk everyone should see. Sherwin Nuland passed away in 2014,
but his vulnerability, and consequent inspiration, live on.
Willing to be vulnerable is one of the most powerful tools a speaker can
wield. But as with anything powerful, it should be handled with care. Brené
Brown has seen a lot of speakers misinterpret her advice. She told me:
“Formulaic or contrived personal sharing leaves audiences feeling
manipulated and often hostile toward you and your message. Vulnerability is
not oversharing. There’s a simple equation: vulnerability minus boundaries is
not vulnerability. It can be anything from an attempt to hotwire connection to
attention-seeking, but it’s not vulnerability and it doesn’t lead to connection.
The best way I’ve found to get clear on this is to really examine our
intentions. Is sharing done in service of the work on stage or is it a way to
work through our own stuff? The former is powerful, the latter damages the
confidence people have in us.”
Brown strongly recommends that you don’t share parts of yourself that you
haven’t yet worked through.
“We need to have owned our stories before sharing them is experienced as
a gift. A story is only ready to share when the presenter’s healing and growth
is not dependent on the audience’s response to it.”
Authentic vulnerability is powerful. Oversharing is not. If in doubt, try
your talk on an honest friend.
MAKE ’EM LAUGH—BUT NOT SQUIRM!
Concentrating on a talk can be hard work, and humor is a wonderful way to
bring the audience with you. If Sophie Scott is right, part of the evolutionary
purpose of laughter is to create social bonding. When you laugh with
someone, you both feel you’re on the same side. It’s a fantastic tool for
building a connection.
Indeed, for many great speakers, humor has become a superweapon. Sir
Ken Robinson’s talk on schools’ failure to nurture creativity, which as of 2015
had powered its way to 35 million views on TED, was given on the final day
of the conference. He started like this. “It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been
blown away. In fact, I’m leaving.” The audience giggled. And basically never
stopped. From that moment, he owned us. Humor hacks away the main
resistance to listening to a talk. By offering little gifts of laughter from the
start, you are subtly informing your audience . . . Come along for the ride,
dear friends. It’s going to be a treat.
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 to say.
Laughter blows open someone’s defenses, and suddenly you have a chance to
truly communicate with them.
There’s another big benefit of laughter early in a talk. It’s a powerful signal
that you’re connecting. Monica Lewinsky told me that the moment her
nervousness went away during her TED Talk was when the audience erupted
with laughter. And if it’s a signal to the speaker, it’s also a signal to everyone
else in the room. Laughter says, We as a group have bonded with this speaker.
Everyone then pays more attention.
It’s striking that some of the very best speakers spend a significant portion
of their talks building this connection. In Sir Ken’s case above, almost all of
the first 11 minutes is a series of hilarious education-related stories that do
little to advance his main idea, but instead create an extraordinary bond with
the audience. We’re thinking: This is SO much fun. I never thought education
could be such an engaging topic. You are such an appealing person . . . I’d go
with you anywhere. And when he eventually gets serious and moves into his
main point about the loss of creativity in schools, we’re hanging on every
Likewise, in Bryan Stevenson’s spellbinding talk about injustice, he spent
the first quarter of his time on a single story about how his grandmother had
persuaded him never to drink. The story ended hilariously, and suddenly we
all felt deeply connected to this man.
Caution: Successfully spending that much time on humorous stories is a
special gift, not recommended for most of us. But if you can find just one
short story that makes people smile, it may unlock the rest of your talk.
Comic sci-fi author Rob Reid offered a very different type of humor: satire.
His tone throughout was serious. He claimed to be offering a sober analysis of
“copyright math.” But after a minute or so, people began realizing that
actually he was mocking the absurdity of copyright laws that regarded every
illegally downloaded song as the equivalent of stealing $150,000. The giggles
started and quickly flared into guffaws.
Of course, it doesn’t always work. One speaker at TED a few years ago
clearly thought he was being hilarious in telling a series of ever more
awkward stories about his ex-wife. Maybe a couple of friends in the audience
were chuckling. The rest of us were cringing. On another occasion, a speaker
tried to perform every quotation in his talk in the accent he imagined the
author of the quote might have had. Perhaps his family found this to be
endearing. On a public stage, it was just embarrassing. (Unless you’re
extremely talented, I strongly recommend avoiding accents, other than your
Thirty years ago, speakers packed their talks with jokes based on gender,
race, and disability. Don’t go there! The world has changed.
Humor is a skilled art, and not everyone can do it. Ineffective humor is
worse than no humor at all. Telling a joke that you downloaded off the
Internet will probably backfire. Indeed jokes per se seem hackneyed, clumsy,
and unsophisticated. What you’re looking for instead are hilarious-but-true
stories that are directly relevant to your topic or are an endearing, humorous
use of language.
The funniest person on our team is Tom Rielly, who runs our fellows
program and for years gave a final wrap-up of the conference that skewered
every speaker with wicked hilarity. Here’s his advice:
1. Tell anecdotes relevant to your subject matter, where humor is natural.
The best humor is based on observation of things occurring around you
and then exaggerating or remixing them.
2. Have a funny remark ready if you flub your words, the A/V goes awry,
or if the clicker doesn’t work. The audience has been there and you
instantly win their sympathy.
3. Build humor into your visuals. You can also have the humor be the
contrast between what you’re saying and what you’re showing. There are
lots of great possibilities for laughter.
4. Use satire, saying the opposite of what you mean, then revealing your
intent, though this is really hard to get right.
5. Timing is critical. If there’s a laughter moment, you have to give it a
chance to land. That may take the courage to pause just for a moment.
And to do so without it looking like you’re fishing for applause.
6. Very important: If you’re not funny, don’t try to be funny. Test the humor
on family or friends, or even a colleague. Are they laughing? If not,
change it or spike it.
Dangers (even in the hands of people blessed with the gift of humor):
1. Off-color remarks and offensive language: Don’t. You’re not speaking at
a late-night comedy club.
2. Limericks or other seemingly funny poetry
5. Going on too long
6. Any attempted humor based on religion, ethnicity, gender identity,
politics. Members of those communities maybe can; outsiders definitely
All of these can work in the right circumstances but are fraught with the
possibility of bombing or causing offense. If the au…
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