The most popular TED Talks share five qualities that any entrepreneur or speaker can -- and should -- adopt in their very next pitch or presentation. The list below is based on an analysis of more than 500 TED Talks (150 hours), interviews with popular TED speakers, and backed by the current neuroscience on persuasion.
1. TED speakers are passionate
Economics professor Larry Smith's blunt TED Talk on following one's passion went viral, attracting more than 5 million views. His talk -- "Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career" -- was the same message he'd been hammering home to his students for 35 years. Smith believes that having a passion for what you do isn't just nice to have; it's a necessary ingredient for success in any field. "If you want to achieve a great career and you don't have passion, you'll fail," Smith told me in an interview after his TED Talk.
Smith's opinion is supported by a growing body of research which finds that passion is contagious, literally. Studies at the University of Minnesota and Michigan State into "mood contagion" have found that positive emotions such as passion, enthusiasm, and excitement actually lift the mood of the audience.
Deliver presentations on topics you're passionate about and don't be afraid to express your enthusiasm about a subject. It's contagious.
2. TED speakers tell stories
Human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson earned the longest standing ovation in TED Talks history with his presentation on inequalities in the criminal justice system. Stevenson held the audience spellbound with personal stories about his grandmother, meeting civil rights hero Rosa Parks, and a chance encounter with a janitor during a particularly contentious court appearance. "Narrative is hugely important in effective communication," Stevenson once told me.
Brain scans reveal that stories stimulate and engage the human brain, helping the speaker connect with the audience and making it more likely that the audience will agree with the speaker's point of view. Personal stories build trust between two people. According to Stevenson, "If you start with something too esoteric and disconnected from the lives of everyday people, it's harder to engage your audience."
Tell more stories to make a deeper, emotional connection with your audience.
3. TED speakers use pictures
When you tell stories, make sure your slides have more pictures than words. The "singing astronaut" Chris Hadfield, delivered a presentation with 35 slides that were all photos, no text. "The majority of [TED] Talks do benefit from slides, and for some Talks, the visuals are the absolute difference between success and failure," writes TED curator Chris Anderson in his book TED Talks. "Bullets belong in The Godfather. Avoid them at all costs."
A concept called "picture superiority" is well established in the neuroscience literature. Our brains are wired to process visual cues very differently than text. In multimodal learning, pictures are processed across several channels, or regions, of our brain instead of one, which results in deeper and more meaningful "encoding."
Simply put, pictures are more effective than text alone on a slide.
4. TED speakers keep it short
As you probably know, TED Talks have a strict limit of 18 minutes. Why 18? According to Chris Anderson, 18 minutes is "short enough to hold people's attention, including on the internet, and precise enough to be taken seriously. But it's also long enough to say something that matters."
Thinking is hard work. The brain is an energy hog, which is why high school students report "SAT hangover" after taking the college admissions test. Researchers have discovered that when people are asked to remember too much information, "cognitive backlog" occurs. It's like piling on weights: The heavier the mental load, the more likely your listener is to drop everything.
Keep your business pitch to no more than 18 or 20 minutes. If your listener interrupts with questions or keeps the conversation going for another 45 minutes, that's fine. But your material should be short and concise.
5. TED speakers put in a lot of practice
Brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor once told me that she practiced her now famous TED Talk more than 200 times. Some of the "rehearsals" were done in her mind, while others were out loud. Her talk -- "My Stroke of Insight" -- has been viewed nearly 20 million times. Far from sounding robotic, her delivery sounds authentic, animated, and conversational. "Rehearse repeatedly" is a guideline that the TED conference gives its speakers. Your business presentation is a performance. Rehearse for it.
You may never give a TED talk, but these five principles will help you stand out when it's time to shine in your very next business pitch or presentation.