As a presentation skill consultant and coach, I spend a lot of time watching TED talks and sharing them with clients. It is fantastic to have such a diverse database of speaking performances to learn from and teach with.
But in a recent conversation, a client challenged me on the usefulness of TED Talks, suggesting that TED speakers have raised the bar to the point where mere mortals like him were expected to deliver TED-quality presentations every time they were asked to speak.
I love contrarian points of view like this because they push me to reflect on my own assumptions. What has TED done for public speaking? Has it changed or improved anything, contributed something positive? Or has it just made things more difficult for aspiring public speakers?
After much debate and discussion, I still come down on the side of TED. And so I give you the top ten very good things TED has done for public speaking:
- It’s made public speaking aspirational again. For a long time, many of us felt that public speaking was something other people did—people like politicians, business leaders or celebrities. TED has challenged this paradigm and made getting up on a stage and sharing ideas publicly an incredibly exciting thing to do. Every year thousands of people clamour for a spot at one of the hundreds of TED events taking place around the world.
It has proved that we have a voracious appetite for great ideas, presented well. I often hear from clients that their time-pressed audiences “just want to get the information and hear our ideas without any fluff or fanfare.” Audiences definitely don’t want fluff or fanfare, but they do want information and ideas served up in inspiring and illustrative ways. When we share our ideas and use stories, examples and demonstrations to elevate their relevance and meaning, audiences connect with us, and the content we share, more deeply. Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk about classical music is a wonderful example.
It has shown how public speaking builds profile. Before she gave her first TED talk, Brene Brown was a research professor at the University of Houston studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. After her 2010 TED talk about shame went viral, she became a recognized and sought-after speaker, a best-selling author and a friend of Oprah.
It's proven that you don’t have to be famous to make a difference. No longer is world stage reserved only for high-profile public figures. TED provides a platform for anyone with compelling ideas. Academics are emerging from scholarly obscurity, technologists are blasting out of their computer labs to share their brilliance on a global stage and unassuming social justice pioneers are compelling international audiences to give more and do more than ever before.
It’s demonstrated that there is no one, single way to be a great speaker. There are important fundamentals, but there is no cookie cutter approach. You only need to watch a few TED talks to realize are so many ways to be brilliant on the stage. Dan Pallotta combines storytelling and statistics to make a compelling case for change in the charitable sector. And Susan Cain proves that soft-spoken introverts can be equally engaging and persuasive in a gentle and thoughtful way.
It’s encouraged people to ditch public speaking conventions. TED has forced people to lose the lectern, give up their addiction to text-heavy PowerPoint slides and say goodbye to the notion that more—more information, more time—is more. And the results speak for themselves
It’s reinforced the importance of speaking fundamentals. For all its convention-busting, the TED format has also provided countless examples of what’s possible when you embrace the fundamentals of delivering a great presentation: (1) developing a talk with your audience in mind; (2) sharing ideas and illustrating them well through examples and story; and (3) preparation, preparation, preparation so you can deliver authentically and without notes.
It has celebrated authenticity and diversity. One of the most powerful things you can do as a speaker is bring yourself to the stage. It seems obvious but so many presenters forget to connect their personality, their history and who they are with the content they’re sharing. If you want to touch the hearts of an audience, you must let them see you. Perfection is not required. Authenticity is must. Jane Fonda’s talk is an honest, strikingly open perspective on aging that is Fonda at her authentic, activist best.
It has proven the tremendous power of storytelling—over and over again. Human beings are wired for story. It’s how we share our experience in the world and we use stories to make sense of what’s happening around us. Stories also connect us to one another in rich, important ways.
It’s raised the bar. Yes, TED has raised expectations and audiences everywhere are rejoicing. The world doesn’t need any more boring, badly delivered presentations. Our ideas deserve to be shared well. We can do better and TED presenters inspire us to do so. As John F. Kennedy once said, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts. How has TED affected your views about public speaking and your practice and experience as a public speaker? Share your experience in the comments below.
And if you've enjoyed this post, please share it with your networks using the "share" buttons below.
Photo credit: elliot brown