The best way to make an impression in today’s world is to stand up and say something. The written word is important, but the spoken word is infinitely more powerful. For today’s leaders and advocates public speaking is a core skill, a way to inspire, explain, inform, or persuade—whether in business, in education, or on a public stage.
TED Talks explains how to achieve the miracle of a powerful public speech. It offers a set of tools to choose from to craft the speech that will work for you: how to share an idea, build a throughline, and connect with your audience; the best ways to practice a speech, craft a powerful opening statement, and bring it to a close; how to use visuals, what to do about nerves, and the traps to avoid. This set of tools will give you the presentation literacy you need to succeed in the internet age.
There is no one way to give a great speech; it all depends on what works best for you. The key is to have an idea you are passionate about sharing. Spend time crafting a talk with a defined throughline, a powerful opening, and a clear ending. Avoid sales pitches or unstructured rambling; use visuals to boost your talk; and find ways to connect with the audience. Whether you use a script or a set of notes, rehearse your talk until you can give the whole thing comfortably, speaking in a natural conversational style. Thanks to the power of the internet, you can share your idea with others around the world; it’s a revolution in public speaking that is open to everyone.
The most intense form of human-to-human communication takes place on the public stage. It is an ancient art, hard-wired deep in ourselves from the time when sharing tales around the campfire was a key step in human survival.
The best way to make an impression is to stand up and say something. Today, the internet has become a campfire for the whole world; and thanks to its power we are seeing a resurgence of the ancient skill of rhetoric, the art of speaking effectively. A talk takes the power of the written word and amplifies it with new tools, making for an even more compelling message; a talk that is shared online can reach millions of people.
TED began as an annual conference for the fields of Technology, Entertainment, and Design (hence the acronym); and it became the perfect format for online public speaking. As of 2016 over 1.5 billion TED Talks were being viewed annually.
There is no one way to give a great talk because everyone is different. Rather, what is needed is a set of tools that can allow anyone to develop the presentation literacy needed today. Anyone can use these tools to design the speech that will work for them.
Everyone has experienced the fear of speaking in public. We’re social animals, we want to connect with others, and we also know there’s a lot at stake when we do speak—our reputation, in fact! But, with the right set of skills, you can overcome this fear and deliver a successful talk.
1. BUILD THE SKILL
Use your fear of public speaking as a powerful asset; let it be the driver that persuades you to prepare properly for your talk.
There are plenty of stories of people who overcame their fear of public speaking and ended up being really good at it—like Eleanor Roosevelt, Warren Buffet, and Monica Lewinsky. It’s not a gift granted from on high, it’s a skill that can be learned.
Consider the story of Richard Turere, a twelve-year-old boy in Kenya who had invented a way to keep the lions away from the village’s cattle at night: a system of lights that would turn on and off in sequence. His idea was spreading quickly to surrounding villages and we wanted him to give a TED talk to spread his invention more widely. Could this painfully shy boy with limited English skills get on a plane for the first time in his life, fly to California, and deliver a compelling talk to 1,400 people?
We worked with Richard for months to figure out the best way to frame and deliver his talk, including practicing in front of his classmates at school. He was obviously nervous when he walked out on the TED stage but thanks to his preparation those nerves only made him more endearing to the audience. When he finished, the entire auditorium stood and cheered.
You don’t have to be Winston Churchill or a famous actor to deliver a great talk—like Richard, you can just be yourself as long as you prepare thoroughly.
2. BUILD THE IDEA
Talk about something that matters deeply to you and rebuild it in the minds of your listeners. Give them an idea: something they can value, hold on to, and take away with them. Anyone who has an idea worth sharing can give a powerful talk.
The secret to giving a great talk is simple: have something worth saying. An idea. It could be a simple how-to or a description of a new invention; it could be a reminder of what is important in life; or it could be a discussion about a beautiful image with meaning. It could be an experience that is unique to you. Think about the one thing you’d love to be able to share with everyone—just make sure it is something that offers real insight to the audience (style without substance is awful!).
Being able to talk about your idea in public could be just the push you need to really delve deep into a subject. At TED headquarters everyone gets an extra day off every two weeks to study something; they just have to commit to give a talk about what they have learned.
Human language is an astonishing and powerful tool. We can conjure up incredible images in the minds of our listeners with just a single sentence—as long as the words used are ones that are shared by both the speaker and the listener. There are some speaking coaches who claim that most of communication comes from tone of voice and body language; but in reality, tone and body language communicate emotion, not ideas. The whole substance of a talk comes down to one key ingredient—the words you use to tell your story and guide your audience along their journey.
3. AVOID THE TRAPS
Stay away from the four worst talk styles: the sales pitch, the ramble, the organization bore, and the stylish performance that lacks substance.
Some talk styles are just plain ugly; avoid them at all costs.
The sales pitch: the speaker’s job is to give to the audience. But, a sales pitch does the opposite; it tries to take something from the audience. It’s not just greedy, it’s boring to the listeners and it will undermine your reputation.
The ramble: an unfocused list of thoughts isn’t just dull to listen to, it’s insulting to your audience. Clearly, you don’t care enough about them to have prepared your talk properly. They’re giving you 15 minutes of their time; the least you can do is make it worthwhile.
The org bore: organizations are only interesting to the people in them—to everyone else, they are incredibly boring. Instead of focusing on your organization, talk about the work itself and the power of the ideas that infuse it.
The empty style: at its best, a great talk inspires others—but the power to inspire must be handled with care. A speaker who obviously craves the audience’s approval will end up focusing on style over substance, delivering a talk that tries to manipulate the audience’s emotions without delivering anything really worthwhile.
4. BUILD THE THROUGHLINE
Every talk needs a throughline—a connecting theme that ties the various narrative elements together. Try to capture your throughline in fifteen words or less; this is the rope onto which you will attach the parts of your talk.
Your talk has to say something meaningful. The best way to ensure this is to have a clear throughline—a concept from movies and novels, the throughline is the core theme that ties the whole thing together. A talk with no throughline might start with, “I want to share some experiences from my recent trip.” Compare that with a talk that starts, “On my recent trip I learned when it is OK to trust strangers.” Now you have a rope—trusting strangers—on which to hang each of the parts of the narrative.
The throughline should have an intriguing angle or unexpected twist to it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be stated right at the start of your talk, but it should at least be hinted at, so the audience gets a sense of where you are headed. Note, too, that a throughline is not the same as a topic.
To develop your throughline, start by finding out as much as you can about your audience: what do they care about? How knowledgeable are they? What are they expecting? Next, think about how you will say what you want to say in 18 minutes or less. This does not mean briefly covering everything you think you want to say: there’s a limit to how many things you can hang on your throughline before it feels overstuffed. To make your talk interesting you need to take the time to (a) show why it matters and (b) flesh out each point you make with real examples.
Cut back the range of topics you want to cover so that there is a single, clear thread that can be developed. Instead of asking yourself, “How much can I say in 18 minutes?” ask instead, “What can I unpack in a meaningful way in 18 minutes?” Your throughline will help you decide what to leave out.
Structure: once you have your throughline, build the structure of your talk so that every element connects to that line. There are a lot of different ways to structure a talk. It could be like a tree, with each idea branching off the central throughline trunk; or it could be a series of sequential ideas where the throughline is like a loop connecting the beginning to the end.
Tough topics: how to tackle something really tough, like the refugee crisis or a major health problem without your audience collapsing from compassion fatigue? Try to frame your talk not around an issue but around an idea. An issue says, “Isn’t this awful?” whereas an idea says, “Isn’t this interesting?” Frame the talk as an attempt to solve a puzzle rather than a demand to care.
Prepare your talk as if you will be giving it to someone you really like, a person who is not in your field but who is intelligent and worldly. Imagine talking just to that one person, about a topic that is close to your heart. Now, use some or all of the following five techniques to craft your talk. Most talks contain elements of many of these techniques; think of them as tools you can mix-and-match to construct your own talk.
Find a way to disarm your audience’s caution and build a bond with them, so that they will be willing to open their minds to you. Eye contact and a smile can go a long way.
Knowledge has to be pulled in by the listener, not pushed at them; which means there has to be a human connection between speaker and listener. Start by walking confidently onto the stage and make eye contact with a few people in the audience. Smile. If you’re nervous, admit it; vulnerability goes a long way in building audience trust.
Humor is another great tactic to build a connection, but not everyone can do it; bad humor is worse than none at all. Above all, avoid anything off-color or offensive, and stay away from limericks, puns, or sarcasm.
Don’t try to be someone you’re not; an audience can quickly spot a faker. Avoid name-dropping, boasting, or making the talk all about you. Tell a story, either as a way to open or a way to illustrate the middle part of your talk. Finally, to connect with your audience stay away from tribal thinking—the kinds of political or religious references that can turn off swathes of your audience.
Everyone can relate to a story. They are an inherent part of human evolution, helping to shape the way our minds receive information. Many of the best talks are anchored in storytelling.
A story is a powerful tool; it lets you take the audience with you on your journey. You could build the entire talk around one story; just make sure it’s a story worth telling, and not just a personal anecdote with no powerful idea behind it. Above all, the story has to be true. However you use a story, remember these four things:
Character: base it on a character the audience can empathize with.
Tension: use curiosity, intrigue, or actual danger to build a sense of tension.
Just enough detail: too much detail bogs down the story; too little, and the story won’t be vivid.
Resolution: it can be funny, moving, or revealing, but the resolution must be satisfying.
A combination of metaphors and stories can spark your audience’s curiosity, allowing you to explain complex ideas without baffling your listeners.
Explaining complex and difficult ideas can be done if you bear five points in mind. First, start with where the audience is; don’t assume any advanced knowledge. Next, spark their curiosity; then, introduce your ideas one at a time. Use metaphors to make it clear what you’re talking about; and, finally, use examples, little stories that lock the explanation in place.
Practice your explanatory talk on friends and colleagues. Does what you are saying make sense to them? Does one point flow clearly into the next? Remember your throughline and make sure the audience knows where each point connects to the central rope. Consider telling your audience what the idea isn’t before launching into what it is—this builds curiosity.
To persuade your audience, you first have to convince them that the way they see the world now isn’t quite right. Use the power of reason, accompanied with some good stories, to replace their worldview with something better.
Where explanation means building a new idea in someone’s head, persuasion means tearing down an old idea and putting something different in its place. You have to take your audience on this journey one step at a time, priming them first before getting to your main argument. Alternatively, you can try reductio ad absurdum or reduction to absurdity—take the counter position to what you are arguing and show how it leads to a contradiction.
One effective approach to persuasion is to make the audience into detectives—start with a mystery then travel the world of ideas looking for a solution, ruling them out until only one logical answer is left.
Just realize that reason alone may not be enough to take the audience on this journey with you—be prepared to also use some humor, an anecdote or two, vivid examples, third-party validation (“Every mother of a toddler knows this to be true”), and powerful visuals.
The most direct way to gift an idea to an audience is to show it to them: a series of images, a demo of a new product, a description of your vision.
There are a wide variety of revelation talks; it all depends on what is being revealed.
The wonder walk: this is a talk based on a succession of images or wonder moments; it is most often used by artists and designers but can also be used by scientists. “If you liked that just wait ‘til you see what comes next!” Just make sure there’s a clear, linking theme, a throughline that pulls it all together.
The dynamic demo: for this one, make sure you have something truly compelling to showcase, like a new invention or design. Start with a tease (“Wouldn’t it be great if we could do X?”); add some background or context; then reveal the thing itself; and end with the implications of this new idea.
The dreamscape: communicating a dream can yield a powerful talk—Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous August 1963 talk comes to mind. The key is to paint a bold picture of the future you desire; and to do it in such a compelling way that others will also want that future.
There are four key elements in any talk that will determine whether or not it is a success.
There is a stunning array of visual techniques that you can use in your talk; but first ask yourself, do you really need any of them? One third of TED talks have no slides or visuals at all. But in some cases, good visuals are the difference between success and failure.
Photographs, infographics, animation, video, big data simulations—all of these can be used to augment your talk, but should you use them? Slides can actually get in the way of building a connection with your audience and having none is better than having bad ones. So, how to decide if your talk needs visuals? There are three categories of strong visuals: to reveal, by showing something that is hard to describe; to explain, where a picture can be worth a thousand words, but make sure there is a compelling fit between what you say and what you show and avoid overload; and to delight, which can work well for visual artists.
The four main presentation tools are PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides, and Prezi. Whichever software you use, make sure its display is set to 16:9, the dimension of most projectors and screens. Avoid the built-in templates, or you’ll end up with something that looks like everyone else’s presentation. Photographs should cover the entire screen—if that’s not possible, put the picture on a black slide—and use the highest resolution possible.
Stick to one typeface—preferably something like Helvetica or Arial—and use a 24-point font or larger so your audience can read it. But, only use three sizes of font altogether: one for the titles, one for the main text, and one for supporting ideas. Color wise, go for simple and contrasting, black or a dark color on white.
- Avoid bullets, dashes, underlining, and italics. They all make the slide harder to read.
- Videos can be great but keep them to 30 seconds or less and don’t show more than four in an 18-minute talk unless it’s absolutely essential to your work.
- Make sure you have the rights to any photos, videos, or music that you use, and give credits where appropriate.
- Test your slides on family or friends who are not in your field. And never, ever give a talk with slides without first running through the whole thing on the actual equipment you will be using at the talk.
- Send your presentation to your hosts and bring a USB stick with you that has the whole thing on it. Better to be safe than sorry.
You can write out your entire talk and memorize the script; or, you can clearly lay out the structure and speak in the moment on your main points. Either way works fine; many talks are some combination of the two.
Some speakers are adamant that the only way to deliver an effective talk is to memorize a complete script; others are equally adamant that it is better to have a clear structure and speak to your main points. Which approach you use depends entirely on what is most comfortable for you. The important thing is to prepare thoroughly.
The advantage of a scripted talk is that you know it will fit the time allotted; the disadvantage is that it can sound impersonal. To overcome this either make sure you know the script so well that it can sound natural; or, look up after each sentence to make eye contact with your audience; or, condense the script into bullet points and plan to express each one in your own language (which is essentially the unscripted route). The only time you can maybe get away with actually reading a script is if you have some stunning visuals to showcase or you are a truly exceptional writer.
Most of the time an audience can tell when you’re reading a script, so you will have to prepare so thoroughly that you can deliver the thing without it sounding like a read-through. Memorize it until you can deliver the talk at the same time as doing something else (like filing all the papers on your desk). Above all, don’t think of the delivery as reciting the talk but as living something that you know inside-out. It takes a lot of time to get to this point, but for some people it’s the best way to go.
This is not the same as unprepared. You’ll likely have a set of notes somewhere nearby to guide you through your talk, but you’ll still have to practice it repeatedly in advance. Make sure you know the transitions from one point to the next, so you don’t inadvertently leave anything out. Prepare your talk to fill about 90% of the time allotted, so you don’t run over the limit.
It’s OK to pause occasionally and check your notes, the audience will understand. The key is to be relaxed about it.
Many speakers write out a script but are prepared to speak off-the-cuff on the day. The majority actually do memorize the whole talk and do their best to make it sound natural.
The best way to improve your talk is to rehearse it. Repeatedly. Musicians and actors always do this; so too should public speakers. Aim to know your talk so well that you can focus on your passion.
Truly successful TED talks happen because the presenter spent hours on preparation. Even if you’re using the unscripted approach, rehearsal is imperative. It not only helps you to memorize the material, it makes you more confident and less stressed. The best memorized talks are known so well that the speaker can focus on their passion for the subject; the best unscripted talks have been so well practiced that the speaker already knows the best and most powerful words to use.
Practice, time yourself, cut out all the unnecessary stuff, then practice again. Repeat. Have someone record the rehearsal on a smartphone, so you can see how it comes across. If the talk sounds rehearsed it’s because you still haven’t practiced enough for it to sound natural.
13. STARTING AND ENDING
Take a minute at the start of your talk to intrigue people with what you’ll be saying. Make sure you end in the way that you want your talk to be remembered.
Even if you’re going the unscripted route, take some time to memorize your opening lines. You want to grab people from the start. Here are four examples:
Drama: “I am not drunk . . . but the doctor who delivered me was.” This was the dramatic way that comic Maysoon Zayid opened her talk on her cerebral palsy. The entire audience was instantly riveted.
“A herd of wildebeests, a shoal of fish, a flock of birds. … Why do these groups form?” This is how science writer Ed Yong started his talk on parasites.
Visual: “Let me show you something.” “What you are about to see changed my life.” “Can you figure out what this thing is?” A gorgeous, impactful, or intriguing picture or video can be a great talk opener.
Tease: “Over the next few minutes I will reveal what I believe is the key to success as an entrepreneur.” You haven’t given away very much, but you have stoked your audience’s interest. Just be sure you really do fulfill the promise of the tease.
Do not close with something like, “OK, I’m out of time so I’ll end there” or “Finally, thank you to my team.” Avoid clichés, don’t end with a video, don’t ask for support or money, and don’t spin out the thank you. Plan an elegant closing paragraph, followed by a simple “thank you.” End on a powerful note, like one of the following:
Pull-back: like a camera pulling back at the end of a movie, show us the bigger picture, the broader possibilities implied by your work.
Call to action: you’ve given your audience a powerful idea; now nudge them to act on it.
“I would like to close here by putting a stake in the sand at TED. I intend to lead that expedition.” This is how Bill Stone ended his talk on humans returning to the moon.
Vision: turn what you’ve discussed into an inspiring or hopeful vision of what might be.
Encapsulate: reframe the case you’ve been making in a new or surprising way.
Symmetry: if your talk has a clear throughline, close by linking back to the opening. Steven Johnson began his talk on where ideas come from by talking about the importance of coffeehouses in industrial Britain. He wrapped up with a discussion of how the GPS was invented and ended by pointing out that everyone in the audience had likely used a GPS that week to do things like . . . find the nearest coffeehouse.
Lyrics: if your talk has really opened people up, you can end with an inspiring lyric, some poetry that might really move the audience. But, only use this approach when the rest of the talk has prepared the groundwork.
There are a few simple rules to follow, to make sure you are as effective as possible when speaking on stage.
Wear something reasonably casual; avoid jangly jewelry; and remember that both the audience and the camera love bold, vibrant colors.
As you plan your wardrobe for your talk, start with your audience; how will they be dressed? Aim for something similar but a little smarter. If the talk is being filmed, avoid brilliant white or jet black, or anything with a small, tight pattern. Wear something bright that can be seen in the back row.
Leave off the jangly jewelry that can clank in the microphone and have a belt or defined waistline to attach the microphone battery pack. Make sure your clothes are neat and pressed. Practice giving your talk in these clothes, to catch any unexpected wardrobe problems that might arise.
15. CONTROLLING NERVES
Nerves need not be a curse; turn them around and make them work for you!
There are a number of tricks you can use to calm the nerves and make them work for you, not against you. Use your fear as a motivation to really commit to practicing. Breathe deeply, meditation-style, before going on stage. About five minutes before going on drink a glass of water, to help stop your mouth from getting dry. An hour or so before your talk, eat something healthy, even if it’s just a protein bar.
Remember, there is power in being vulnerable in front of your audience. Find a friendly face or two and speak to them. If you’re afraid of things going wrong, have a backup plan—notes or script within easy reach.
Most important, focus on what you are talking about. Remind yourself that this idea matters; you’re passionate about this topic and you’re here to share it as a gift to your audience.
16. STAGE SETUP
Minimize distractions like lecterns or teleprompters, but feel free to have a set of note cards in your hand or use the most minimal lectern possible—whatever you need to feel comfortable.
The physical setup of your talk really matters. Try to avoid using a lectern; if you need the feel of having a backup, place your notes on a lectern to the side or back of the stage. You can also have a series of small note cards in your hand, just make sure they are on a ring clip to keep them in order. Avoid using a tablet or smartphone—there’s too much distracting scrolling involved.
If the venue uses confidence monitors, use them only to display your slides, not your complete notes. Teleprompters should also be avoided; the audience can tell that you’re reading at them, not talking to them.
If there’s no way you can talk without a lectern in front of you, make it the most unobtrusive one possible. Monica Lewinsky propped her notes on a music stand.
Talks offer more than just the printed word; the human voice can turn information into inspiration. Speak with meaning; communicate your passion. Above all, give your talk in your own, authentic way.
Your voice can connect, engage, motivate, and excite your audience more powerfully than just the printed word. Speak meaningfully—practice using different tones and pitches, pacing and volume, throughout your talk. The aim is to inject variety into your talk so that you communicate your passion for the subject.
Speak at your natural, conversational pace. Slow down when you introduce new or important ideas; speed up in the lighter moments. Modern amplification technology means you don’t have to orate slowly to the back of the crowd; the microphone will pick up every word and nuance just as clearly as if you were speaking to someone standing right in front of you.
Stand tall, weight equally distributed on both feet, and use your hands and arms to naturally amplify whatever you are saying. If it helps you to relax and focus, by all means walk the stage, but beware of pacing like a caged animal; stop periodically to emphasize a key point. Some speakers sit down—that can work, too. Just do whatever feels most natural for you.
18. INNOVATIVE IDEAS
Innovative ideas can deliver powerful performances; but nothing beats the human-to-human connection of just speaking. Ultimately, the substance matters more than the presentation style.
There is both promise and peril in making use of new, innovative ideas in your talk. Dramatic props can be great, as can ultra-wide panoramic screens. Some speakers have used aromas in their talks. Design guru Roman Marks delivered his entire talk as if it were a live-mixed podcast, complete with audio clips and images—most of us lack the skill to do this but employed effectively it makes for a memorable presentation.
At TED we have seen live interviews, presentations by spoken word artists, dual presenters, and the use of musical soundtracks. Law professor Lawrence Lessig has pioneered the PowerPoint on steroids—where every sentence, even every significant word, is accompanied by a new visual. We’ve had surprise special guests, and virtual presenters who were not actually on the stage. And, thanks to the power of the internet, we have talks that were not delivered in front of a live audience.
Just make sure that these innovative ideas aren’t over-used. It’s the idea that matters.
THE WIDE WORLD OF TED
19. THE KNOWLEDGE
Public speaking skills are going to matter even more in the future than they already do today. We’re entering an era when we’re all going to need to spend a lot more time learning from each other.
Learning to present your ideas live to other humans is an essential skill. The TED short talk format exposes people to new ideas. It both connects and invigorates. It shows us that all knowledge is connected, in a giant web. At TED there is truly something for everyone, and we will never run out of things to talk about.
The old, industrial economy required people to develop expertise in specific subjects. In the new, knowledge-based economy, computers can take over the repetitive, specialist tasks, leaving humans free to explore more system-level strategic thinking, more innovation, and more creativity. This means we’re going to need knowledge that is contextual and creative, and that deepens our understanding of our own humanity.
20. THE PEOPLE
Technological change has given all of us the power to connect with each other. It’s a revolution in public speaking that is open to everyone.
In 2005 a quirky little online site called YouTube was launched. In 2006 we debuted a handful of TED talks on our website. Today, TED Talks has mushroomed into a global enterprise, with 125 million views every month. More than 1,000 of our speakers have each ended up reaching an audience of over one million people, with just one talk.
Today, it is possible for anyone on the planet who has access to the internet to call up talks by the world’s greatest teachers and inspirers; an interactive ecosystem in which we can all learn from each other. This is a recipe for an upward spiral of learning and innovation.
There are TEDx events that are independently organized under license from TED; more than 3,000 are held every year in over 150 countries. TED-Ed clubs allow kids the chance to give their own TED talks. And, OpenTED allows anyone to upload their own TED-like talk onto our site. The revolution in public speaking is for everyone.
21. THE SECRET
“The future is not yet written. We are all, collectively, in the process of writing it.” Chris Anderson
Pursue an idea that is bigger than you—that is how you discover something worth saying. Step outside the comfort zone of what you know for sure, or what others have already said, and give the world inspiration that sparks a thousand conversations.
Yes, public speaking can be used for harm, whipping up anger and division. But, when we are more closely connected, and people actually listen to each other, we start to see the world from a broader perspective. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
We are physically connected one to another as never before; which means that we can share our best ideas with each other as never before.