The most powerful TED speakers connect with the audience by sharing their own stories and experiences. But according to head curator Chris Anderson, there's one big reason TED turns away really good speakers with great stories to tell. They fail to make those stories universal and turn them into something audience members can benefit from and use in their own lives.

Have you ever dreamed of delivering a TED Talk? Maybe you're already a successful speaker, but do you ever wonder what it takes to be a TED speaker? Anderson has provided some answers to that question in his book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, and in TED's new Masterclass app. In a blog post on the TED website, he delves into perhaps the most important aspect of a good TED Talk: storytelling.

If you've watched TED Talks, you know storytelling is a prominent feature of just about all of them. You might tell someone else's story, as Malcolm Gladwell did when he talked about Howard Moskowitz and his quest to sell chunky spaghetti sauce to those who wanted it. Or, like Tim Urban and many other TED speakers, you might tell your own story about your own experiences, which is often the most powerful way to engage an audience. 

How you tell that story will make or break your TED Talk, or any presentation, and Anderson offers some solid tips. First, choose a character or story your audience can relate to. Next, build tension, either by making your audience curious or by describing a situation of actual danger. Offer just the right amount of detail--too little and the story won't come to life, too much and you risk boring your audience with unnecessary information. Then, end with a satisfying resolution that is funny, moving, or provides some kind of insight.

But Anderson says, you can do all of this really well and still be rejected as a TED speaker if you don't do one final thing: Give the audience something they can take away with them--an insight, actionable information, inspiration, or even hope. "One of the biggest reasons we turn down applications to speak at TED is when they offer compelling anecdotes but no central idea that wraps their narrative together," he explains in his blog post. "This is heartbreaking, because the speakers are often fascinating people. But without an idea, it's an opportunity missed."

Make it universal.

Thus, when Urban describes his own struggles with procrastination and what he calls the Instant Gratification Monkey that led him to write a 90-page thesis in 72 hours, it's funny and entertaining. But then, after blogging on the topic, he says he got thousands of emails from people who said they had the exact same problem. "I had a little bit of an epiphany--that I don't think non-procrastinators exist," he says. "That's right--I think all of you are procrastinators." And he goes on to share some wisdom about how procrastination can affect our lives and prevent us from chasing our dreams.

The very first TED Talk to go viral was "My stroke of insight" by Jill Bolte Taylor. No one who's seen that talk can ever forget her account of being a neuroscientist observing what was happening from the inside as she suffered a stroke. A blood clot the size of a golf ball intermittently shut down the left hemisphere of her brain, leaving her only the right hemisphere's sense of being connected to all living beings, which turned out to be a very lovely feeling. Then she says this:

"So who are we? We are the life-force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world."

And then she asks: 

"Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be. And I thought that was an idea worth spreading."

It's that ending that makes Bolte Taylor's talk truly unforgettable. 

So how about you? Whether you aspire to giving a TED Talk or simply want to be a more effective speaker, what larger point and "idea worth spreading" will you use to inspire your own audiences? What gift will you give them? The answer can make the difference between a good talk and a great one.

Published on: Nov 14, 2019
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