The Best of TED: 5 Public Speaking Lessons From 30 Years Of Spreading Ideas

After analyzing hundreds of hours worth of TED Talks, author Carmine Gallo has gleaned some great tips for any public speaker who wants to present like a TED Talk pro.

The Best of TED: 5 Public Speaking Lessons From 30 Years Of Spreading Ideas
[Image: Flickr user jurvetson]

As the annual TED conference is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary next week, the popularity of TED talks has never been higher–viewers now download or stream presentations on up to 2 million times per day.


After analyzing 500 of the most popular TED talks (more than 150 hours) and speaking directly to many of TED’s most successful speakers, I’ve discovered that the best TED presentations share several components. Here’s how you can harness them to transform any pitch or presentation:

1. Dig deep to identify your true passion.

In March 2010 University of Waterloo professor Larry Smith gave a funny, blunt, and passionate talk titled, “Why you will fail to have a great career.” Smith, an economics professor, didn’t speak about economics. Instead he unleashed his real passion on the audience–helping students find careers they will really love.

You’ve heard the old adage that passion is contagious–today scientists are finding that the adage is true. Professors Joyce Bono at the University of Minnesota and Remus Ilies at Michigan State University found that people who others label as “charismatic” rate higher than average on the positive expressions of passion, enthusiasm, and excitement. Bono and Ilies also discovered that positive emotions are contagious, lifting the moods of the participants in the audience.

2. Stories illuminate, inform, and inspire. Tell more of them.

Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights attorney who wins cases in front of the U.S Supreme Court. Stevenson’s 2012 TED talk received the longest standing ovation in TED history. In 18-minutes Stevenson told three personal stories reinforcing his theme that in poor communities, many young people grow up without a sense of identity and make profoundly harmful decisions as a result. Stories made up 65% of Stevenson’s content. The statistics Stevenson used to back his arguments comprised only 25% of his presentation (the rest fell under the category of ‘ethos,’ establishing credibility). Statistics support your argument, but stories connect you with your audience.

3. Package your message in an unexpected way.

In 2009 Bill Gates gave a TED talk on the topic of reducing childhood deaths in Africa. “Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” Gates told the audience as he picked up a glass jar sitting on a table in front him. He opened the jar and said, “I brought some here. I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.”

The audience sat in stunned silence for a moment, then laughed, applauded, and cheered. They weren’t happy about the topic, of course, but they knew that Gates had given them a novel way to consider the problem. Gates had created what neuroscientists call an “emotionally charged event.” It’s a shocking, impressive, or surprising moment that is so moving and memorable, it grabs the listener’s attention and is remembered long after the presentation is over.


4. Explain Through Imagery.

Use more pictures than text in your PowerPoint. I spoke to Robert Ballard, the explorer who discovered a little ship you might have heard about: the Titanic. His TED presentation contained 57 slides. Interestingly, there were no words on his slides. They were mostly pictures, images, and animations. “I’m not lecturing, I’m storytelling,” Ballard explained to me. Ballard is on to something. Scientists call what he did “picture superiority.” Simply put, if you hear information, you are likely going to remember about 10% of that information three days later. Add a picture, however, and your recall rate will soar to 65%.

While you don’t have to avoid all text on slides as Robert Ballard did, picture superiority proves that your next PowerPoint presentation should contain text and pictures.

5. Stick to the 18-minute rule.

No TED speaker is allowed to speak for more than 18 minutes. TED Curator Chris Anderson has said 18 minutes is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. There’s science behind why the 18-minute rule works so effectively. When you give people too much information it results in what scientists call “cognitive backlog”: the more information you ask someone to retain, the more likely they will be to forget everything!

If you must speak or present for more than 18 minutes, reengage your audience frequently. Reengagement techniques might include videos, stories, compelling slide designs, or simply taking a break from your presentation to let the audience ask questions.

While you may never speak at an actual TED conference, if you want to succeed in business, you’d better be able to deliver a TED-worthy presentation. TED represents a bold, fresh, contemporary, and compelling style that will help you win over any audience.


About the author

Author of Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds (St. Martin’s Press, March 4, 2014).