For many people, TED Talks represent the epitome of public speaking. These people have likely only seen the best talks offered by TED, conveniently overlooking the more “average” presentations given over the years.
That being said, there’s still a lot we can learn about good public speaking skills from TED presentations. All it takes is a critical eye and a willingness to adopt some of these principles.
Note: We fully recognize that TED Talks tend to observe a particular style of presentation. We also recognize that the “TED style” is neither the perfect way nor the only way to speak in public. Feel free to pick and choose which elements to incorporate into your own presentations.
Be Bold, Passionate, and Genuine
There’s something entrancing about someone who loves a topic so deeply that you can feel the passion ooze from every word. Benjamin Zander is one such person. It only takes a few seconds to see that classical music courses through his veins.
But more importantly, his overflowing passion is infectious. Even if you have no background in classical music and even if you never (voluntarily) listen to it, you can’t help but pay attention to this man. By the end, you may even find a newly ignited fondness for classical music in your own heart.
This is what a top-notch presentation is all about: boldness in being able to open up and share your love of a topic with the audience; passion that leads to confidence, almost to the point of being one with the topic; and a genuine message that pours from the heart.
Most people would be bored to tears by classical talk. This man shows that any topic can be interesting with the right amount of warmth and spirit.
Move Around but Don’t Overdo It
The only thing worse than a timid presenter who’s frozen in place is an obnoxious presenter who’s obviously generating false excitement and false enthusiasm. The former bores the audience. The latter is distracting at best, grating at worst.
Avoid the extremes and strike a balance.
Amy Cuddy is a great example of someone who knows how to walk this line (no pun intended). Notice how she starts off within a red circle on the ground. Throughout her talk, she’ll pace back and forth from here to there and address different sections of the audience, but she never steps outside the circle.
This movement adds a dynamic element that makes her more interesting to watch because it forces your eyes to track her. However, note that she also takes time to pause and stand still every once in a while. Constant motion is just as bad as no motion at all.
Lastly, pay attention to her hand gestures. They add another dynamic element, this time to her words. She uses them for emphasis, tone, and to demonstrate her points. Keep in mind that her motions are animated yet reserved, neither timid nor exaggerated.
Smile, Smile, Smile
The easiest improvement you can make to your presentations? Smile more! Try this quick experiment. Watch the first two or three minutes of this TED Talk in which Brene Brown talks about her research and results, then come back. (Or keep watching if it interests you!)
As a viewer, how did you feel? Were you drawn in? Interested? Did you feel compelled to keep watching?
I know I was. Much of that can be attributed to one simple fact: she’s smiling! She smiles a lot, actually. None of what she says in the first few minutes is particularly interesting on its own, but her facial cues invite you in as more of a friend than an audience member.
In Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk (which you can watch in the previous section above) she explains how our body language and posture can affect our mood and thoughts. One of the more important discoveries is that smiling isn’t just a reaction to happiness, but can also cause happiness.
As long as you don’t force it, smiling can make your audience members more receptive as listeners and can help ease some of the stress in delivering a presentation.
Engage the Audience with Stories
Never underestimate the power of a good story. Narratives, both oral and written, are the bloodline of humanity — there isn’t a single society that doesn’t tell stories, whether fiction (creative) or non-fiction (recollection). Why? Because stories are a major form of communication for us.
A great example is Tania Luna‘s TED Talk, which is little more than a 5-minute telling of life anecdotes yet compelling to watch anyway. She recalls her childhood of poverty and how that has impacted her throughout the years. It’s strong, emotional stuff.
Of course, it depends on the type of presentation you’re giving since some are more suitable for stories and narratives than others. However, in general, short anecdotes are a great way to prepare an audience at the start of a talk and to reengage an audience throughout the talk.
Simplify Until It Can’t Be Simpler
Few things are more frustrating than a presenter who outstays his welcome. It’s always better to err on the side of shortness (and leave your audience wanting more) than it is to drone on and on (and leave your audience shifting impatiently in their seats).
Check out the talk by Derek Sivers above and notice how short it is. He has a razor-sharp outline that hinges on the one specific idea that he wants to explore and spends a full 3 minutes on that idea only. No unnecessary tangents or diversions.
Should every presentation be that short? Obviously not. However, the real point to be made is that your presentation should only include talking points that are absolutely crucial. Or in other words, keep cutting out the fat until you’re left with the meat. That’s the only thing your audience cares about.
In fact, we’ve collected a handful of concise TED Talks that demonstrate this idea. None of them exceed 5 minutes in length, yet each of them delivers a poignant message worth considering. Check them out and see how they’ve simplified their talks down to the bare essentials.
Practice Until You’re Comfortable
As with all things, public speaking is not something you can pick up overnight. You have to work at it, putting in deliberate practice for various things like posture, diction, gestures, delivery, etc.
It’s easy to be inspired by watching great TED orators, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can imitate that greatness without putting in some hard work. Without practice, it’ll all just be in your imagination.
Which TED Talks best represent good public speaking skills? Are there any other public speaking tips you know? Share them with us in the comments below!