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TED Talks Are Making You a Terrible Public Speaker

Topics: Career Advice
TED Talks

In the decade-plus since they arrived, TED Talks have become incredibly popular with professionals, and for good reason. Where else can you see your favorite novelists, social scientists and self-help gurus speak about creativity, happiness and leadership — with insider stories from underwear models, magicians and ocean explorers?

But although TED Talks provide inspiration a-plenty, a recent Fast Company article reminds us that they shouldn’t be construed as a blueprint for effective public speaking.

Anett Grant writes:

I was watching a private-equity exec speak, but it wasn’t easy—imagine following a ping-pong ball with your eyes as it bounced back and forth for three minutes straight.

When he finally stopped, I asked him, “Why do you pace?”

“Pacing helps me control my anxiety,” he said. “And it really works! As long as I keep moving, I feel good.”

It’s also common in TED Talk speakers — but what looks good on stage and in video doesn’t necessarily inspire an audience in person. If you prepare for your next presentation by mimicking your favorite speakers, you’re likely to miss what makes them so compelling in the first place.

What Most Effective Public Speakers Have in Common

1. They move strategically.

As Grant points out, “moving and gesturing strategically isn’t the same as just pacing back and forth.” It might look like TED speakers are aimlessly pacing around, but they’re moving with purpose.

Several of TED speaker coach Gina Barnett’s tips for public speakers revolve around movement or body language, and they all boil down to this: don’t move just to move. For example, she says to beware of repetitive motion.

“You can walk,” she says, “but not pace. You can step forward and or back, but not rock.”

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2. They tell stories.

Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED: The 9-Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, advises speakers to tell stories, not recite facts.

“Tell stories to reach people’s hearts and minds,” he writes at Forbes. “Brain scans reveal that stories stimulate and engage the human brain, helping the speaker connect with the audience and making it much more likely that the audience will agree with the speaker’s point of view.”

He continues, “Recently I wrote this column about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Her original TED talk was going to be ‘chock full of facts and figures, and nothing personal.’ Instead she told three stories and ignited a movement. Stories connect us. Tell more of them.”

Why are stories so important? Because they’re designed not only to reveal what’s important to the speaker, but to connect with the listener. You could convey the same information with a bulleted list — but you can’t make people care about that same information without telling them a story.

3. They resist the urge to lecture.

The difference between telling a story and delivering a lecture is that the first is an interactive process — especially if you’re speaking to a conference room-sized audience, and not an auditorium full of people.

You want your audience to feel that you’re communicating with them. That means making eye contact and connecting with your supporters (meaning, the folks who are listening to you with an open expression, not the scowlers).

Above all, be willing to adapt. If it seems like you’re losing your audience, be prepared to switch gears. Remember that your goal, like a TED speaker’s, is to move your audience — but that the rules are different when you’re not wearing a headset and not potentially speaking to an internet audience of millions.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s the best advice on public speaking you’ve ever received? We want to hear from you. Tell us your tips in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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