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How to Dramatically Improve your Public Speaking Skills

What Giving a TED Talk Taught Me About Becoming a Better Speaker

Jason Shen
Jan 8, 2018 · 13 min read

The ability to communicate a message, sell an idea, or paint a vision is a critical skill for anyone who wants to have an impact on the world. And even in the age of emojis, animated GIFs, and Snapchat filters, public speaking is still the most effective way to move, persuade, and inspire.

It’s why people pay a premium to attend conferences and see experts and leaders speak live, and why Americans took 460 million business trips in 2017 to communicate in person.

My journey as a speaker

As a child, no one would have said that I was destined to become a public speaker.

I didn’t do theater, debate, or mock trial. In one class activity, we took turns “reporting the news” in front of a video camera — every time I started talking, I would just burst into hysterical laughter. Eventually I’d regain my composure and try again, but the cycle would repeat itself.

Even as an adult, I used like as a filler word so often that the CEO of a company I interned for called me out for sounding like an airhead.

But for some reason, I was drawn to public speaking. And so I studied and I learned.

Nancy Duarte’s work taught me how to build better presentations. Seth Godin’s blog showed me what remarkable ideas look like. Gymnastics taught me how to deliver under pressure. Toastmasters helped me eliminate verbal tics and think on my feet.

I made huge progress. I ended up delivered the graduation speech at my high school (I was not valedictorian — it was selected in a blind review process). I have given dozens of internal presentations and have been flown out to speak to companies and conferences across the United States, Europe, and Asia. I gave the pitch for my first startup, Ridejoy, in front of hundreds of investors at Y Combinator’s Demo Day, and went on to raise $1.3 million in seed funding.

That is to say, by mid-2017, I felt like I was already a pretty strong speaker. But there’s always room for improvement.

Enter TED

When I was accepted into the TED Residency in the summer of 2017, I knew that I was about to go to the next level as a speaker.

If you’re not familiar, the TED Residency is a semi-annual incubator that brings artists, entrepreneurs, social activists, and researchers together to launch projects and share their big ideas with the world. Some of the talks from former residents have appeared on TED.com, including the story of a 66 year-old startup founder and a woman who’s changing how society thinks about disability.

We all know the high bar that TED puts on its speakers — I had seen my fiancée, Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, grow tremendously as a speaker during an earlier TED Residency cohort. She went from almost no speaking experience to speaking at Microsoft’s Outside In series, RISD, and Brown University, and delivering a main stage talk at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans.

I went through my own three-month journey to prepare and rehearse a talk about the future of hiring. Between my own talk preparation for my TED Residency, Amanda’s preparation for TEDWomen, and a close reading Chris Anderson’s book TED Talks, I have gained a new appreciation for the art of public speaking.

Here are some of my key takeaways and how you can implement them yourself.

Make every word count

All the TED Residency talks were capped at six minutes. While that might sound like a ludicrously short amount of time, it’s actually a great forcing function and gives you ample opportunity to explore an idea.

Assuming you speak around 150 words per minutes, that’s 900 words, or the length of a short blog post or opinion piece. You can say quite a bit at that word count, if you do it right. This recent NYTimes op-ed on criminal justice reform, for instance, is only 850 words.

My talk started around 1,000 words, went upwards of 1,200, and eventually was trimmed down to just 896 words, taking around 6 minutes and 15 seconds to complete.

Traditional TED talks might go upwards of 18 minutes, but in recent years, even those “long” talks have been pushed down to 15 or 12 minutes.

Why? Because attention is a scarce resource. And just as a magnifying glass focuses to the sun’s rays to produce intense heat, a short talk, if properly delivered and received, can have tremendous impact.

You have to start by making every word, every sentence, every story, count.

So, try the 6-minute limit.

Start strong

The best talks grab you from the first moment and never lets you go. Research done by Vanessa Van Edwards and her team at Science of People found that the top TED talks receive similar ratings on intelligence, charisma, and credibility when someone watches the whole talk, or just the first seven seconds.

We found that the ratings overall — who people liked overall and who they didn’t like — matched, whether they’d watched the first seven seconds or the full talk. We think that the brain actually decides as soon as that person takes the stage and begins speaking, “You know what? I’m gonna like this talk.”

Here are some examples:

  • Amy Cuddy’s video on body language starts with her offering “a free, no-tech life hack” that just requires the audience to change their posture for a few minutes. Who wouldn’t be interested in what she has to say next?
  • Dan Pink’s talk on motivation starts off with a fake-out—revealing that he has something to confess, a deep, dark, humiliating secret he’s kept to himself for many years. A secret that turns out to be attending (and doing really poorly in) law school. This beginning gets the audience laughing and sets up his frame: that he wants to make the case for changing how we incentivize people.
  • My talk on the future of hiring began with a bit of humor: “You know who I’m envious of?” I asked the audience. “People who work in a field that has to do with their college major.” That got a few laughs, but more importantly, it teed up the idea that what we study in school and what we do for work often are unrelated.

If you’re committed to making every word count, you can’t waste any time with a rambling introduction. Surprising personal anecdotes, new research with intriguing implications, provocative questions that demand answers, bold claims backed by evidence: these are all great ways to start a talk, provided they help us get into the main idea, the through-line.

Know your through-line

TED’s motto is “ideas worth sharing”. Their talks center around a core idea or message. If there was one word that I heard over and over again at TED, it was “through-line”. Here’s how TED’s Speaker’s Handbook elaborates on this:

Every talk should have a through-line, a connecting theme that ties together each narrative element. Think of the through-line as a strong cord onto which you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building. A good exercise is to try to encapsulate your through-line in no more than 15 words. What is the precise idea you want to build inside your listeners? What is their takeaway?

It’s sort of like the thesis statement of an essay (something I totally didn’t get in high school) or the answer you’d give if a friend asked you “so what’s the big takeaway of that talk?”

  • Amy Cuddy’s through-line might have been something like: Small changes in your posture can profoundly influence your mental and emotional state (13 words)
  • Daniel Pink’s through-line might have been something like: We have to stop using carrots-and-stick incentives if we want thoughtful, creative work (15 words)
  • My talk’s through-line was this: The future of work demands we hire people for their ability to perform, not their resume (14 words)

This through-line is something you come back to again and again. It can take time to nail down and I went through several versions of mine before I felt like I had it exactly right.

The TEDWomen curators also took several passes at Amanda’s talk and many of the suggested cuts or changes were to make sure the talk’s through-line was clear and well-supported, with no extraneous material.

Rehearse like your life depends on it

This aspect of the TED talk experience was not a surprise to me, and if you’ve read my guide to deliberate practice, it won’t be a surprise to you either.

The number one reason TED speakers look and sound fantastic is because they invest an enormous amount of time preparing for their talk. Most of them reach what Wait But Why author Tim Urban of calls “Happy-Birthday-Level Memorized”.

After speaking at TED2016, Tim wrote a post detailing his experience and this is what he had to say about level of memorization (3C) is this:

Writing a great script means working on it a ton and carefully honing every sentence, and memorizing it to Happy Birthday level takes a huge amount more time. You’re essentially writing a play, casting yourself, and then learning the part well enough to act it on a stage with no fear of forgetting your lines. Preparing to this level is a nightmare — but if the stakes are high enough, it’s worth the time.

Not every TED talk is memorized, but memorizing your talk cold¹ means you can devote more of your brain to other things in the moment. It’s much easier to make a joke or adjust a point in real-time if you’re supremely confident about where you are in your talk.

Starting maybe a month before the talk, I started rehearsing my speech on my commute. I started by saying the talk out loud from the script on my phone. I had also recorded myself giving the talk and would listen to myself say it through my headphones. Over time, I started saying parts of the talk without looking. Then, the whole thing.

I would say it to myself in the shower, while biking around the city, during my lunch break. I rehearsed it to Amanda, to other residents in my cohort, and to a few friends.

Note: One important thing I did was start rehearsing a lot even though the talk wasn’t completely finished. The truth is, your talk is never done. You’ll get ideas and suggestions as you rehearse even into the final week. Memorization takes calendar time and cramming is a really bad idea.

Once I was able to reliably give the whole talk without looking at my script, I then had to improve the pacing. When I had just barely memorized it, my talk would come in at 7 or 7.5 minutes, well over my time limit. I had to practice speeding up my talk so that it was right around that 6 minute mark, without sounding like I was rushing through it.

Towards the end, I was hitting the 6 minute mark reliably and was able to use my last few days of rehearsals on delivery and timing of slide advancement.

Fewer slides, better slides

One thing that we often associate with TED speakers is great slides. Our brains devote tremendous resources towards processing visual information so it’s not crazy to think that great slides matter.

The truth is, plenty of great TED talks have no slides. Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on education is one. Susan Cain’s talk on introverts is another (though she uses a suitcase as a prop).

Having too much great visual material can also be a problem. Amanda is a designer, so when she was asked to give her first talk at the end of her TED Residency, she jam-packed it with lots of amazing visuals. But what she noticed is that during the talk, people mostly looked at the screen, not her.

So when she gave her TEDWomen talk a year later, she made fewer slides and made ample use of the “blank slide” option where nothing was projecting on the screen. Just as how when a talk is shorter, each word has greater meaning, when a talk has fewer slides, each slide packs a bigger punch.

I don’t have much to say in the way of slide design, but Aaron Weyenberg, a UX lead at TED, has a great post called 10 Tips for Better Slide Decks that can help you improve your own slide. Then be sure to eliminate any that don’t add power to your message: edit with a heavy hand.

Tell stories

We often miss opportunities to pursuade because we don’t tell enough stories.

I am all for making decisions using logic and data. But it’s hard to get people interested in pure data without a story behind it. A number doesn’t matter until you understand where the number is coming from and what it means.

Nonprofits have learned that telling the story of a single person who needs help is more effective at eliciting donations than using a data-driven approach, or even including the story and the data together². For some, this is maddening or seems sentimental. But the truth is, human beings evolved to tell and hear stories. It’s effective.

Stories create impact by getting the brains of your audience members literally in sync with your own.

Uri Hasson runs a psychology lab at Princeton and has used functional MRI scanners to show how when a listener hears someone telling a story, their brain waves start to align. The effect was limited if everyone was simply hearing the same non-verbal sounds, or sentences without real meaning. But only when a fully coherent and engaging story was told, the synchronization, or “neural entrainment,” spread to major parts of the brain, including the frontal cortex.

I was able to tell two personal stories in my TED talk — the first about the creative tactics I used to land a job as a product manager at Etsy, and the second about how I was almost put into a special needs track as a kindergartener. This experience taught me that there’s always time and room for stories, and that they are too powerful to ever be skipped or glossed over.

What is your body saying?

The last thing I’ll touch on is your physical presence. When you speak, it’s not just about the sounds you’re producing from your throat. Impact also depends on your facial expressions, your gestures, and your body language.

A talk delivered with slumped shoulders, glazed over eyes, and a hunched-over posture sounds pathetic compared to those same words being said with an open upright chest, expansive gestures, and a smile.

Going back to the Science of People research, Van Edwards found that speakers who smiled more were rated as more intelligent. It can feel strange to smile so much at a group of strangers, particularly when you are talking about something that might be pretty serious, but smiling puts people at ease and lets them know they can trust you, which may lead to their trusting what you have to say.

Meanwhile, when they looked at the total number of hand motions, whether up-and-down or side-to-side, they found it correlated with number of views of that presentation. Her hypothesis:

If you’re watching a talk and someone’s moving their hands, it gives your mind something else to do in addition to listening. So you’re doubly engaged. For the talks where someone is not moving their hands a lot, it’s almost like there’s less brain engagement, and the brain is like, “this is not exciting” — even if the content’s really good.

In retrospect, I felt like I could have been more generous with my gestures. There were certain parts of the talk where I think I had thoughtful gestures that aligned with my point, but it’s definitely something I’m going to continue to work on.

Great public speaking skills aren’t are learned in a few hours, a few months, or even a few years. It is a lifelong process.

There’s still so much I can do to improve as a public speaker, but I am deeply grateful to TED as an organization for showing me what great talks look like, and giving me an opportunity to level up my skills. I hope these lessons help you deliver your next toast, presentation, or speech with greater confidence and power.

Additional Resources

Toastmaster’s World Championship speeches are a great place to see how storytelling, body language, vocal delivery, and preparation come together into memorable and powerful public speaking experiences. Here’s one from 2016:

Footnotes

  1. Memorizing cold: Some people are against memorization because “it sounds canned or stiff”. But that’s only because they have experienced people who didn’t care about what they were saying (like when you get a dinner call from a telemarketer) or just barely have it memorized. Happy-Birthday-level-memorized actually allows the performer to express themselves in a more genuine and meaningful way.
    Another way to think about is to consider plays or movies — when a character goes into a monologue, it only sounds impromptu. Behind that bright-eyed freshness is many rehearsals and earlier takes that had to be cut and redone.
  2. Stories vs. data: The general idea that stories outweigh data has been demonstrated a number of times, including 1980 at the University of Michigan. More recent research in 2007 study done at Carnegie Mellon University found that donors explicitly give more to story-only appeals vs data-only or story-and-data appeals. As reported in Contributions magazine:

While students who had read Rokia’s story alone donated an average of $2.38, those who read the story plus the data donated an average of $1.43. Slovic attributes this nearly 40 percent fall-off to what he calls the “drop in the bucket” effect. When people read about Rokia, he explains, their emotions are engaged and they are inclined to give. But when they also read about the millions who are in distress, “the data sends a bad feeling that counteracts the warm glow from helping Rokia,” he says. People may still give, but they will give less.

Stories or Data: Which Makes the Stronger Case?

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Coach.me, Terrie Schweitzer, and Brittany Jezouit.

Jason Shen

Written by

Serial entrepreneur & Asian American advocate. Co-Founder and CEO of Midgame.gg - esports analytics co. TED, Etsy, Stanford, Y Combinator alum. BOS ✈ SF ✈ NYC.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.