TED talks can be amazing. People get drawn in, spend time, consider what the speaker says. Their popularity can run into the tens of millions of views. Only, not all TED talks have the same effect.

There are patterns that people have noticed. Things like good non-verbal communications, using a lot of hand gestures, and smiling, according to a crowdsourced study Science of People did. But even then, you could do these things and come across like another robotron who smiles and moves predictably but fails to entice the audience.

So, waving your hands and grinning at the audience won't make the difference. Is it the content? Sure, that's going to be part, but apparently Science of People also noted that ratings didn't seem to change whether people had the sound on or not.

People liked the same TED talks even if they couldn't hear them. So much for content.

At least, content of the intellectual type. Carmine Gallo, who wrote the book The Storyteller's Secret: From TED Speakers To Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On And Others Don't, watched 150 hours of TED talks. (And you thought you were determined.) After seeing 500 of the really popular ones, and talking at length to some of the most popular speakers, he found that the talks that went viral had three parts:

  • 65 percent personal stories
  • 25 percent facts and figures
  • 10 percent information to back the speaker's credibility on the topic

The big factor is whether people tell a personal story. Amy Cuddy, the Harvard Business School professor who did that talk on taking an expansive posture to build confidence, discussed feeling like an imposter. Sheryl Sandberg was going to talk statistics and facts on how there were too few women in leadership positions, but a friend convinced her to tell the story of how Sandberg's 3-year-old daughter was clinging to her, trying to keep the COO of Facebook from going to give that very TED talk.

Instead of a dry presentation, 72% of Sandberg's talk was personal stories, Gallo said.

We are creatures who crave stories. As a people we've grown up with them, from the tales kept alive by oral story tellers like Homer in Greece, creation myths in so many religions, or the tale a friend tells of something ridiculous that happened at work. We're story junkies.

Make use of it. When you're preparing for a presentation, think about how to make the topic personal. You make connections with the audience, they start rooting for you, and the result is a talk that becomes magnetic. According to Gallo, research has shown that stories turn on the empathy circuits in the brains of listeners.

The next time you have to do a presentation, make it personal. Really personal. And get prepared for a hot reception.

Published on: Mar 31, 2016