I found out the hard way that bad public speaking is contagious. As a schoolboy I was pretty good at speeches, in a schoolboyish way. I won competitions; being a sharp, witty speaker was a defining part of who I felt myself to be.
Then I grew up and started a corporate job, and something strange happened. My talks sagged into “presentations”, burdened by humourless clip art and plodding bullet points. The reason? I was surrounded by people who were stuck in the same beige offices giving the same beige presentations. Like many workplaces, we had reached an unspoken consensus that giving bad talks was just the way things were done.
Aside from tradition — and it is a powerful one — why else are most talks bad talks? One reason is fear. Being afraid does not itself make a speech bad; fear can make a talk electrifying or touching. But most speakers take the coward’s way out. Afraid of running out of words, they overstuff their speeches. And they prop themselves up by projecting their speaking notes on the wall behind them, even though everyone knows that providing rolling spoilers for your speech is a terrible idea.
A second reason is lack of preparation. Most speakers rehearse neither their argument nor their performance. That is understandable. Practising in front of a mirror is painful. Practising in front of a friend is excruciating. Rehearsing offers all the discomfort of giving a speech without any of the rewards of doing so. But it will make the end result much better.
For these reasons, I think you should give a TED talk. Almost anyone can. All you need is 18 minutes, a topic and an audience — if only your cat. No matter how often or how rarely you usually speak in public, the act of trying to give a talk in the tradition of TED will change the way you think and feel about public speaking.
As with anything popular, TED talks have their critics, but it is hard to deny that the non-profit organisation behind the videoed presentations on subjects from science to business has helped reinvent the art of the public speech.
TED talks are vastly more entertaining than traditional lectures, while more thought provoking than most television. But that is TED from the point of view of the audience. From the view of an aspiring speaker, the lesson of TED is that most speakers could raise their game. A few TED talks are by professional politicians or entertainers such as Al Gore or David Blaine. Most are not.
There are more than 1,000 talks on the TED website with more than 1m views, typically delivered by writers, academics or entrepreneurs who have been giving mediocre talks as a matter of habit, and who have been suddenly challenged to stop being mediocre. Faced with the obligation to deliver the talk of their lives, they decided to do the work and take the necessary risks.
These speakers have been offered good advice by the organisers of TED, but that advice has never been a secret. It is now available to anyone in the form of TED Talks (buy in the UK) (buy in the US), a guide to public speaking from Chris Anderson, the TED boss. It is excellent; easily the best public speaking guide I have read. (I should admit a bias: I have spoken twice at TED events and benefited from the platform that TED provides.) Unlike many in the genre, Anderson’s book is not a comprehensive guide to going through the motions of wedding toasts and votes of thanks. Instead, it focuses on the stripped-down TED-style challenge: an audience, a speaker, plenty of time to prepare, and 18 minutes to say something worth hearing.
There is no formula for a great talk, insists Mr Anderson, but there are some common elements. First and most important: there is a point, an idea worth hearing about. Second, the talk has a “throughline” — meaning that most of what is said in some way supports that idea. There may be stories and jokes, even surprises — but everything is relevant.
Third, the speaker connects with those listening — perhaps through humour, stories, or simply making eye contact and speaking frankly. Finally, the speech explains concepts or advances arguments by starting from what the audience understand, and proceeding step by step through more surprising territory. It can be very hard for a speaker to appreciate just how much she knows that her audience do not. One reason to rehearse is that an audience can tell you when they get lost.
Most speakers are able to do some of this, some of the time — an interesting anecdote, a funny line, an educational explanation. We are social beings, after all. We have had a lot of practice talking.
Much of what turns a half-decent talk into a brilliant one is the ruthless excision of the fluff — the throat-clearing introduction, the platitudes, the digressions, the additional points that obscure the central message, and the “er, that’s about it” conclusion. With an audience of 60 people, for instance, every minute you waffle is an hour of other people’s time you are wasting. Sharpen up.
My only quibble is that the book offers less to a speaker who is short of preparation time. Because Mr Anderson is so keen to tell speakers how to prepare, he does not fully engage with the challenge of improvised speaking or debating.
Marco “Rubot” Rubio’s presidential dreams may have been snuffed out because he seemed over-rehearsed and unable to improvise. And Martin Luther King Jr’s greatest moment as a speaker — the second half of “I have a dream” — was unscripted. Sometimes the improvised response is more powerful than a prepared speech can ever be.
Instead, Mr Anderson’s aim is to help readers give a full-blown TED talk, despite the hard work that entails. Fair enough. Preparing to give a high-stakes speech is like training for a marathon or studying for an exam: even if you only do it once, the process will teach you things you will always remember.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times.
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A short-cut to speeches
A TED-style talk takes weeks of preparation. What if you have hours, or minutes, to prepare?
• Say something worth hearing. “It’s not about you,” says Chris Anderson, who warns that business presentations are often sales pitches or boasts. He adds that the same information will land much better if it is “here’s what we’ve learnt” rather than “look how great we’ve been”.
• Less is more. Once you have found something worth saying, focus. Strip it down to a single core point. Everything about your speech — stories, jokes, statistics, graphics — should connect to that point.
• Your speaking notes should not intrude. Bullet points are a good idea if they are written on handheld cards, but not when projected on the wall behind you. If your speech is scripted, do not try to memorise it if you have no time, but become familiar with it. “There’s a big difference between being 90 per cent down in the script, and 60 per cent up and connected,” says Anderson.
• You are usually your own best visual aid. By all means use pictures, diagrams or video when they are good. But do not use substandard slides as wallpaper; when you have nothing to show, show nothing. Hit “B” to blank the screen and focus attention on you, or use empty slides.
• Practise. Even one run-through with a friend will help. Or find an empty room and record yourself on your phone. It is awkward but worth it.
• First and final impressions last. Improvised talks often suffer from a slow start and a limp finish. Think of a good opening and closing, and practise them. If you can start and finish strongly, you and your audience will both feel better.