In 1984, architect and graphic designer Richard Wurman noticed the convergence of 3 fields: Technology, Entertainment, Design. He organized the first TED conference—it lost money. Six years later, he tried again. This time it was a small success.
The tipping point came in 2006 when the first 6 TED Talks were posted online. Within months, they reached 1 million views. Nowadays, there are thousands of talks and billions of views—TED inspires the world.
Scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and religious leaders are some of the people who have given talks. Most were not professional speakers. But they were able to learn.
You too can talk like TED. Here is a system that will immediately make you a better speaker:
Rule of 3
Stories and visuals
Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wield a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.
Rule of 3
Neuroscientists have found that short-term memory can hold a maximum of 3 things before performance plunges. Therefore, structure your talks like this:
TED Talks are a maximum of 18 minutes. In support of this time limit, researchers found that test scores and 30-day recall rates were 15% higher when a 1-hour course was split into 3 chunks of 20 minutes.
Everything should be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.
The most-watched TED Talks have headlines that promise something unexpected:
“Do schools kill creativity?”
“The power of vulnerability”
“How to speak so that people want to listen”
“What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness”
“How I held my breath for 17 minutes”
For your talk, what is something interesting that your audience wouldn’t have guessed?
How do you spark curiosity? The obvious way is to ask a question. But not just any question. A surprising question.
Stories and visuals
TED speakers share personal experiences and photos. It’s because stories and visuals are memorable. For example, researchers showed people 400 photos of doors for 5 seconds each. Nine days later, they correctly identified 70%. Another study found that people accurately remembered 70% of a sitcom’s plot after 3 months.
According to screenwriting guru Robert McKee, stories should take the form of a quest in 5 parts:
Inciting incident throws hero’s life radically out of balance
Progressive complications increase tension
Crisis: hero makes a life-changing choice
Climax: irreversible swing from positive to negative, or negative to positive, that was inevitable but unexpected
Resolution: tie up loose ends and show big-picture consequences
Bryan Stevenson, the speaker who earned the longest standing ovation in TED history, spent 65% of his presentation telling stories. 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.
It’s difficult to see yourself objectively. That’s why athletes analyze game films. It’s the same for public speaking. Studies have found that filming yourself in practice improves speaking performance and audience response.
To prevent stage fright, memorize opening and closing lines. And practice like you’re having a casual conversation with friends.
It usually takes me more than 3 weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.
History of TED. (2021, February 27). TED. https://www.ted.com/about/our-organization/history-of-ted
Anderson C. (2016). TED talks: The official TED guide to public speaking. HarperCollins.
Gallo C. (2014). Talk like TED: The 9 public-speaking secrets of the world’s top minds. St. Martin’s Press.
Rule of 3
Zhang W, Luck SJ. (2008). Discrete fixed-resolution representations in visual working memory. Nature. 453(7192): 233–235.
Gobet F, Clarkson G. (2004). Chunks in expert memory: evidence for the magical number four…or is it two? Memory. 12(6): 732–747.
A study of 12 novice, intermediate, and expert chess players found that all groups placed 1.5–1.9 chunks when recalling random board positions
This suggested short-term memory has a maximum capacity of less than 3 chunks
Cowan N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: a reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behav Brain Sci. 24(1): 87–114.
Murphy M. (2008). Matching workplace training to adult attention span to improve learner reaction, learning score and retention. Journal Instruction Delivery Systems. 22(2): 6–13.
110 employees received a 1-hour training session or 3 sessions of 20 minutes each
For a 10-question multiple-choice test, scores were 8.1 for 1-hour learners vs. 9.4 for 20-minute learners
30 days later, repeat test scores were 8.0 for 1-hour learners vs. 9.4 for 20-minute learners
Stahl AE, Feigenson L. (2015). Observing the unexpected enhances infants’ learning and exploration. Science. 348(6230): 91–94.
Stories and visuals
Vogt S, Magnussen S. (2007). Long-term memory for 400 pictures on a common theme. Exp Psychol. 54(4): 298–303.
24 adults were shown 400 color photos of different doors for 5 seconds each
9 days later, they were shown 100 pairs of photos and asked which one they had seen
Image pairs consisted of a previously-viewed door with a new door
Recall accuracy was 70%
Furman O et al. (2007). They saw a movie: Long-term memory for an extended audiovisual narrative. Learn Mem. 14(6): 457–467.
107 participants were shown a 27-minute episode of a sitcom called Curb Your Enthusiasm
3 months later, participants correctly remembered >70% of plot themes, 62% of social interactions, and 45% of minor details
McKee R. (1997). Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting. HarperCollins.
Bourhis J, Allen M. (1998). The role of videotaped feedback in the instruction of public speaking: A quantitative synthesis of published empirical research. Communication Research Reports. 15(3): 256–261.
A meta-analysis of 12 studies with 1,067 participants found that videotaped feedback for public speaking improved recall of speech (effect size = 0.78), skill acquisition (effect size = 0.26), favorable audience response (effect size = 0.23), and objective performance (effect size = 0.21)
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