TED Talks: The Official Guide – Review by Tony

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson, Head of TED

I’m a TED Talks fanatic. I literally set a yearly goal of how many TED Talks I want to watch for the year and I always watch at least 100. I find them incredibly motivating and interesting. I love public speaking myself, but I find it very challenging to speak for less than an hour. I’ve always wondered how on earth the amazing speakers that grace the TED and TEDx stage manage to pull off engaging talks in 18 minutes or less, so when I found out about this book by Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, I knew I had to read it, and oh boy I’m so glad I did!

The number one fear in America is public speaking, followed by death in number two. Meaning that most people would rather die than get up on stage. But there is such incredible power to a good speaker that it’s absolutely worth defeating the natural fear! One of the reasons is that “we are a deeply social species” and how others think of can seriously affect our careers, and even our lives. I have my current job largely because of my public presence. Writing our book put me on the map for the CEO of the company I work for, and my public speaking finished sealing the deal that he wanted me on his team, so believe me, public speaking can positively change your life and career. More than anything, a great talk can release an idea into the world and set it on fire. It’s your chance to change the world!

One of the first things I loved about this book is that it’s not just chock full of tips for passionate speakers like myself, who just love being on stage, but it’s also meant for most people who are petrified of public speaking. The book makes it clear that even if you have little confidence in your ability to speak to deliver a presentation, there are things it can teach you to turn that around! “Facility with public speaking is not a gift granted at birth to a lucky few. It’s a broad-ranging set of skills. There are hundreds of ways to give a talk, and everyone can find an approach that’s right for them and learn the skills necessary to do it well.” It’s just a matter of putting the time and energy into it and ANYBODY can be a great speaker, and this short and easy to read book holds the key. You can do this!

One of the key things is to understand that you don’t have to be John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela to be an amazing speaker. In fact, you don’t want to try play the part and be one of those great orators. You want to be yourself. If you’re an insurance nerd, be an insurance nerd. Even better, let yourself be a passionate insurance nerd! Your passion will come across if you speak from the heart and the audience won’t be able to help loving you for it.

The book also makes a point that I completely agree on: In the 21st century “presentation literacy” isn’t just a nice extra, it’s increasingly becoming a core skill you just need to develop. So if you’ll need to become a good speaker to grow in your career, why not take the time to learn that skill now and get as much practice as you can?

If you have an idea worth sharing you have the capability of giving a powerful talk about it, it just takes work. “The only thing that truly matters in public speaking is t confidence, stage presence, or smooth talking. It’s having something worth saying.”

Regardless of how mundane you think your job (or life) is, you have something no one else has: your very unique first-person experience of the world, your world. “Think back over the last three to four years; what really stands out? What was the last thing you were really excited by? Or angered by? What are the last two or three things you’ve done that you’re most proud of? […] If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one idea you’d most love to spread to other people’s minds?”

I had always wondered why TED talks are short, 18 minutes at most, and most are shorter. They did this on purpose because most humans can focus on an interesting topic for around 20 minutes without too much effort, even if they’re not very familiar with that particular field. Their natural curiosity will carry them through a 20-minute talk, but not through a 60 minute one unless it’s truly a topic they’re interested in. TED Talks are purposely short so anyone regardless of background can enjoy them!

The book also introduce the key concept of The Throughline: “the connecting theme that ties together” the entire talk. “You can think of the throughline as a strong cord or rope, onto which you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building.” I found this to be a fascinating explanation and I finally understood why TED talk are so engaging, and why my own session while engaging, is really only for insurance nerds. I’d love to create an inspiring 18 minute version of my session to inspire others to consider pursuing careers in insurance!

Anyway, while most TED Talks are about a single idea, they don’t have to be so. You can have two or three main ideas, as long as you connect them with your throughline in a logical way. It just means everything should connect together! Also, if you can have an element of surprise somewhere in your talk, something the audience just wasn’t expecting, it’ll provide the talk with a jolt of energy to get you through the end.

Speakers often fall in love with their ideas (I’m guilty as charged) and that makes us think that others will feel equally stricken by our genius! Unfortunately, chances are most of your audience won’t just fall in love with your work the way you did. They key is to present a single idea as clearly and passionately as possible so your audience truly, deeply understands this single idea and can describe to others what your talk is about in a matter of 15 seconds.

The idea that inspired your talk is a gift, but you “can only gift an idea to minds that are ready to receive [it].” Every speaker feels that they don’t get enough time to fully present the idea and that’s true. It’s true by design! The time limit is designed to force you to truly work on getting to very soul of the idea and presenting that, without any fluff.

So how do you bring your talk down to 18 minutes or less? Well, the “wrong way to condense your talk is to include all the things you need to say, and simply cut them all back to make them a lot shorter.” Darn it. So there goes my plan! 😛 Quite simply your throughline can’t connect a large number of concepts. You need to stick with 1-3 concepts at most for the talk to land. You need to do at least two things to say something worth saying: Show why it matters and flesh it out with memorable examples or stories.

Musician Amanda Palmer is quoted saying “The only way the talk can truly soar is if you take your ego out of it and let yourself be a delivery vehicle for the ideas themselves.” A popular TED speaker Brené Brown explained that you have to “Plan your talk. Then cut it by half. […] then cut it another 50%.”

The book also does a wonderful job explaining how the introduction and the conclusion are key to the way the talk is remembered and they require special attention. It goes into multiple examples about different types of engaging openings and closings and why they work.

Once you have the thoroughline then you work on structure. There are many potential types of structure but ultimately they all do the same thing, they help answer the questions: What? So What? Now What? Another thing that I found fascinating is that it’s “easier to pull in an audience by framing the talk as an attempt to solve an intriguing riddle rather than as a plea for them to care.” My session on Millennials is basically a plea for people to care about the issue of retaining millennials in the insurance industry. Would it be more engaging if I framed it as solving the puzzle of millennial retention? Something to think about!

Choosing something to talk about is actually very easy. Talk about what you know and deeply care about. It doesn’t matter how simple it is, if you care about it and have cared about it deeply for a long time, the audience will be captivated by your passion.

The middle section of the book goes into many “Talk Tools” that you can use to flesh out your thoroughline into a full on talk. It walks you through how to “make the connection” and get them to care about what you have to say. Then it encourages you to reveal vulnerability. Think about it. The more scared you’ve been of giving this talk, the more likely the audience is to be supportive and encouraging if you’re honest about your nervousness! The book also shows you how to turn nervousness into energy that will come across to your audience.

Humor is important, but using it is hard. A section called “Make them laugh but not squirm” goes into detail on how to properly use humor without blowing it and turning off the audience.

Most importantly you have to be yourself and always remember that “the purpose of your talk is to gift an idea, not to self-promote.”

Storytelling is crucial to the way humans communicate. Quite simply we literally evolved to communicate with stories, long before we even had written communications. Stories are memorable. If you see my own presentation you’ll see for the most part what I do is tell stories, because they are MEMORABLE! The book has a great chapter on storytelling and might be worth the purchase price for that chapter alone. The best advice on it can be summarized to: give your talk to a friend or two, they’ll tell you if you come across as authentic and engaging or not. Ask them to be brutally honest. One of the things I found most interesting is that you’re not supposed to give the audience too much explanation, you don’t want to “force-feeding exactly the conclusion they must draw from the tale”. You have to let them draw their own conclusion. Tell the story in such a way that they convince themselves!

Chapter 8 is on Perception and it’s fantastic. While it’s not quite as good as taking the time to read some of Cialdini’s work, it’s still a solid start.

The second half of the book is all about how to prepare once you have a topic, a thoroughline and a general idea of what your talk will look like. There’s some great discussion on the pros and cons of using slides, and most importantly how to use them well. They key idea is to “limit each slide to a single core idea” and to use as few words as possible. One thing I found amazingly cool is the idea of sending the slide to a blank screen once you’re done talking about it, don’t let it distract the audience from what matters: your idea and your passion for it.

Anderson also spends a lot of time discussing if and how to memorize the speech and what they key pitfalls are that you need to avoid. I must confess that I’m not good at preparing. I’m good at public speaking because I only speak about topics I’m passionate about but I probably haven’t prepared as well as I could. He walks you through exactly how to prepare. If you follow his guidance, and put in the required time, there’s no way you’ll flop your talk like I did the very first time I presented my session on Millennials!

That’s really the core of the book, but as if that wasn’t enough there’s also chapters on how to dress, how to control your nerves, whether and how to use notes, how to modulate your voice (while remaining yourself) and the book finishes with a very interesting “reflection” by Anderson on the future of public speaking and why it’s important for humanity.

Overall I highly encourage everybody who wants a big career to read this book and who knows, you might be using what you learn sooner rather than later! *hint hint*. The book is well worth the $10 or so for the kindle or paperback version, and there’s even an audiobook version if you prefer. Overall it clocks in at under 300 pages so it’s a pretty easy read. What are you waiting for?

About Antonio Canas

Tony started in insurance in 2009 and immediately became a designation addict and shortly thereafter a proud insurance nerd. He has worked in claims, underwriting, finance and sales management, at 4 carriers, 6 cities and 5 states. Tony is passionate about insurance, technology and especially helping the insurance industry figure out how to retain and engage the younger generation of insurance professionals. Tony is a co-founder of InsNerds.com and a passionate speaker.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.