Frame a takeaway in 15 words. Every talk should have a through-line, a connecting theme that ties together each narrative element. Think of the through-line as a strong cord onto which you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building

Every talk should have a through-line, a connecting theme that ties together each narrative element. Think of the through-line as a strong cord onto which you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building. A good exercise is to try to encapsulate your through-line in no more than 15 words. What is the precise idea you want to build inside your listeners? What is their takeaway?

It’s sort of like the thesis statement of an essay (something I totally didn’t get in high school) or the answer you’d give if a friend asked you “so what’s the big takeaway of that talk?”

  • Amy Cuddy’s through-line might have been something like: Small changes in your posture can profoundly influence your mental and emotional state (13 words)
  • Daniel Pink’s through-line might have been something like: We have to stop using carrots-and-stick incentives if we want thoughtful, creative work (15 words)

Rehearse like your life depends on it

This aspect of the TED talk experience was not a surprise to me, and if you’ve read my guide to deliberate practice, it won’t be a surprise to you either.

The number one reason TED speakers look and sound fantastic is because they invest an enormous amount of time preparing for their talk. Most of them reach what Wait But Why author Tim Urban of calls “Happy-Birthday-Level Memorized”.

Tim Urban’s Memorization Spectrum

After speaking at TED2016, Tim wrote a post detailing his experience and this is what he had to say about level of memorization (3C) is this:

Writing a great script means working on it a ton and carefully honing every sentence, and memorizing it to Happy Birthday level takes a huge amount more time. You’re essentially writing a play, casting yourself, and then learning the part well enough to act it on a stage with no fear of forgetting your lines. Preparing to this level is a nightmare — but if the stakes are high enough, it’s worth the time.

Not every TED talk is memorized, but memorizing your talk cold¹ means you can devote more of your brain to other things in the moment. It’s much easier to make a joke or adjust a point in real-time if you’re supremely confident about where you are in your talk.

Starting maybe a month before the talk, I started rehearsing my speech on my commute. I started by saying the talk out loud from the script on my phone. I had also recorded myself giving the talk and would listen to myself say it through my headphones. Over time, I started saying parts of the talk without looking. Then, the whole thing.

I would say it to myself in the shower, while biking around the city, during my lunch break. I rehearsed it to Amanda, to other residents in my cohort, and to a few friends.

Note: One important thing I did was start rehearsing a lot even though the talk wasn’t completely finished. The truth is, your talk is never done. You’ll get ideas and suggestions as you rehearse even into the final week. Memorization takes calendar time and cramming is a really bad idea.

Once I was able to reliably give the whole talk without looking at my script, I then had to improve the pacing. When I had just barely memorized it, my talk would come in at 7 or 7.5 minutes, well over my time limit. I had to practice speeding up my talk so that it was right around that 6 minute mark, without sounding like I was rushing through it.

Towards the end, I was hitting the 6 minute mark reliably and was able to use my last few days of rehearsals on delivery and timing of slide advancement.

Fewer slides, better slides

One thing that we often associate with TED speakers is great slides. Our brains devote tremendous resources towards processing visual information so it’s not crazy to think that great slides matter.

The truth is, plenty of great TED talks have no slides. Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on education is one. Susan Cain’s talk on introverts is another (though she uses a suitcase as a prop).

Having too much great visual material can also be a problem. Amanda is a designer, so when she was asked to give her first talk at the end of her TED Residency, she jam-packed it with lots of amazing visuals. But what she noticed is that during the talk, people mostly looked at the screen, not her.

So when she gave her TEDWomen talk a year later, she made fewer slides and made ample use of the “blank slide” option where nothing was projecting on the screen. Just as how when a talk is shorter, each word has greater meaning, when a talk has fewer slides, each slide packs a bigger punch.

I don’t have much to say in the way of slide design, but Aaron Weyenberg, a UX lead at TED, has a great post called 10 Tips for Better Slide Decks that can help you improve your own slide. Then be sure to eliminate any that don’t add power to your message: edit with a heavy hand. 

Tell stories

We often miss opportunities to pursuade because we don’t tell enough stories.

I am all for making decisions using logic and data. But it’s hard to get people interested in pure data without a story behind it. A number doesn’t matter until you understand where the number is coming from and what it means.

Nonprofits have learned that telling the story of a single person who needs help is more effective at eliciting donations than using a data-driven approach, or even including the story and the data together². For some, this is maddening or seems sentimental. But the truth is, human beings evolved to tell and hear stories. It’s effective.

Stories create impact by getting the brains of your audience members literally in sync with your own.

Uri Hasson runs a psychology lab at Princeton and has used functional MRI scanners to show how when a listener hears someone telling a story, their brain waves start to align. The effect was limited if everyone was simply hearing the same non-verbal sounds, or sentences without real meaning. But only when a fully coherent and engaging story was told, the synchronization, or “neural entrainment,” spread to major parts of the brain, including the frontal cortex. 

I was able to tell two personal stories in my TED talk — the first about the creative tactics I used to land a job as a product manager at Etsy, and the second about how I was almost put into a special needs track as a kindergartner. This experience taught me that there’s always time and room for stories, and that they are too powerful to ever be skipped or glossed over. 

What is your body saying?

Photo: Jurga Anusauskiene/TEDxVilnius (source)

The last thing I’ll touch on is your physical presence. When you speak, it’s not just about the sounds you’re producing from your throat. Impact also depends on your facial expressions, your gestures, and your body language.

A talk delivered with slumped shoulders, glazed over eyes, and a hunched-over posture sounds pathetic compared to those same words being said with an open upright chest, expansive gestures, and a smile.

Going back to the Science of People research, Van Edwards found that speakers who smiled more were rated as more intelligent. It can feel strange to smile so much at a group of strangers, particularly when you are talking about something that might be pretty serious, but smiling puts people at ease and lets them know they can trust you, which may lead to their trusting what you have to say.

Meanwhile, when they looked at the total number of hand motions, whether up-and-down or side-to-side, they found it correlated with number of views of that presentation. Her hypothesis:

If you’re watching a talk and someone’s moving their hands, it gives your mind something else to do in addition to listening. So you’re doubly engaged. For the talks where someone is not moving their hands a lot, it’s almost like there’s less brain engagement, and the brain is like, “this is not exciting” — even if the content’s really good.

In retrospect, I felt like I could have been more generous with my gestures. There were certain parts of the talk where I think I had thoughtful gestures that aligned with my point, but it’s definitely something I’m going to continue to work on.