Public Speaking: Strategies for Success

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "TED Talks" by Chris Anderson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What makes a great speech? What are some things you need to consider to plan an effective speech?

To make an impactful and memorable speech, it’s essential to have a strategy in place. The first step in planning your strategy is to identify what type of speech you’re giving: explanatory—when you teach your audience something new,  persuasive—when you try to change your audience’s mind, or “revelatory” or imaginative—when you aim to delight or inspire.

Let’s explore how public speaking strategies differ depending on the type of speech.

Strategies for Explanatory Speeches

The most common types of speeches are explanatory when you’re teaching your audience something new or explaining a difficult concept. To connect with your audience in an explanatory speech, Anderson recommends the following public speaking strategies:

  • Meet them where they are. Reference the current moment or state of the world to make your topic relevant to the audience. Ask yourself, “How can I connect this new information to what they already know and why should they care?”
  • Spark the audience’s curiosity. Pose an interesting question without an obvious answer, tell an entertaining story, or show a striking image.
  • Introduce terminology and concepts one by one using familiar metaphors, clear examples, and stories. Mix the new with the familiar.
  • Do a jargon check. If you’re using words the layperson doesn’t know, you need to either eliminate them or explain them. (Shortform note: Consider the “layperson” to be the average audience member. If you’re presenting to a group of astrophysicists, it’s safe to assume that they have a different vocabulary base than someone who works in a different field.) 

Beware the curse of knowledge: The better you know something, the harder it is to imagine not knowing it. This is why so many experts give dry, incomprehensible explanations. Anderson recommends you practice your speech on a private audience and ask them afterward if anything was confusing. (Shortform note: Try using the kindergarten test: If you’re able to explain the concept to a 5-year-old, then you’ll be able to explain it to any group of adults. This isn’t to say that you should use the same explanation as you would with a kindergartener, but it shows that you understand how to break a concept down into its most elementary parts and relate them to the world.)

Strategies for Persuasive Speeches

To change someone’s opinion, Anderson says you must nudge them in your direction one small step at a time so that by the end, your argument is completely plausible in their minds. He says that you should start by priming your audience, and by the end they should be motivated to make a change. In the middle, you can employ strategies such as appealing to logic, discrediting the opposite stance, or guiding them to the conclusion through process of elimination.

Strategy #1: Prime the Audience 

Anderson says that a good persuasive speech begins with priming. To prime someone is to expose them to a certain image or thought to influence how they react to the next image or thought. For example, if your speech is about the benefits of art in elementary education, showing a photograph of children happily painting primes your audience to think positive thoughts about creative activities.

Strategy #2: Appeal to Logic 

Anderson says that appeals to logic are the most commonly used techniques in persuasive speaking, and they include: citing evidence and expert opinions, using “if, then” statements to show cause and effect, displaying statistics, and using anecdotes. While these aren’t the most groundbreaking techniques, he says that every persuasive speech should employ at least some of these strategies.   

Strategy #3: Discredit the Opposite Stance

Anderson says an effective persuasive technique is to display the opposite viewpoint and show your audience why it won’t work, why it’s an inferior choice, or why it’s dangerous or immoral. For example, proponents of electric vehicles could show how fossil fuel pollution is damaging animal and human habitats (dangerous and immoral), discuss the rising cost of gasoline (an inferior choice), or present statistics that show why gasoline isn’t a sustainable resource (won’t work). 

Strategy #4: Guide the Audience to Their Conclusion 

Anderson says one of the most entertaining ways to engage your audience is to present a big question at the beginning of your talk that sparks curiosity. Then, take your audience through all of the possible answers, eliminating them as you go and arriving at the conclusion. People love to feel like they’re solving a mystery. (This is one reason why true crime documentaries are so popular.) 

Strategy #5: Leave Them Motivated

Effective persuasive speeches leave the audience energized and motivated to make a change. Even if the audience agrees with you by the end of the speech, if they aren’t left motivated, they’ll quickly forget the whole experience. If this happens, you can’t say that you have actually changed this person’s view of the world. Anderson says that telling a personal and memorable story that humanizes the issue will move your audience and imprint your speech into their memory. (Shortform note: Experts say that persuasive speeches should end with “attitude not platitude,” meaning that the finale of your talk should be exciting and not a lecturing statement. One suggestion for how to do this is to give your speech a provocative title, and then use that title in your final sentence. It provides lyrical symmetry to the speech, closes the loop, and helps your audience remember and reference your performance.)

Strategies for Imaginative Speeches

Unlike explanatory or persuasive speeches, the purpose of imaginative speeches is to delight or inspire. Anderson offers one strategy for artists, and another for inventors. 

Strategy for Artists: “The Tour”

Most often used by artists, designers, architects, and photographers, “the tour” is a talk that walks the audience through a series of images. Displayed one after another, each image inspires a bit more wonder than the last. Anderson explains that in this speech, the purpose is to inform or inspire, and it’s meant to be an enjoyable experience. The subject can be serious, funny, or even provocative.

This type of talk has a simple structure (going from one image to the next), but to be effective, each image needs to build on the one before it, or they need to have a throughline that links them all together. He adds that if you’re showing something you created, show your process (including mistakes) to add interest. Although you can explain each image as it comes, you should also feel free to embrace silence as the audience takes in each image.

Strategy for Inventors: “The Demo”

If your presentation is about a new invention or process, images and words won’t be enough—a demonstration is ideal. These talks are exciting because they give the audience a glimpse of the future. Anderson advises against beginning your presentation with detailed context and terminology. Instead, he says to tease and intrigue the audience: Give them only as much information as they need while you reveal more and more, building to a climax where you demonstrate the full technology. End your talk with how this new technology or invention will impact the world, and leave the audience feeling inspired and hopeful about the future. 

Unconventional Strategies

If you want your speech to stand out, incorporate “out of the box” methods to elevate it and leave a memorable impression. However, Anderson warns that if not done correctly, these strategies can come across as gimmicky. 

Here are the five unconventional strategies that Anderson believes can be carefully employed:

1) Use props: Dramatic or unexpected props can ignite an audience’s curiosity and deepen their understanding. If you use a prop, Anderson says to make sure it’s serving one of those two purposes—if it isn’t, then it’s a distraction. 

2) Stimulate the senses: During most speeches, the audience sees and hears you. Multisense stimulation is the act of involving the audience’s other senses—smell, taste, or touch. For certain subjects, this can work well. For example, if you’re discussing cooking, a taste for the audience will elevate the experience. 

3) Interview the subject: This format is half speech, half interview. The speaker is interviewed by another person, which gives the talk a more “in the moment,” conversational feel. The speaker has an idea of the topics ahead of time, however, and relevant images are queued up throughout to keep the talk visually interesting and on track.

4) Hold a faux debate: If you are delivering a talk with another person or within a group, present the information in a debate format. Both sides of the issue are presented one at a time, and each side presents a short closing argument at the end. You can even have the audience vote on a winner. Because the presentation is a group effort and not a true debate, you can lead the audience to the conclusion you want.

5) Feature a surprise guest: If your talk is about a specific person, usher that person onto the stage near the end as a surprise for the audience. Anderson makes it clear that the purpose shouldn’t be for them to simply say “hello” to the audience. Rather, it should be to perform in a way that amplifies the speech. For example, if your speech is about the process of writing a hit song, bringing an artist on stage to sing one of your #1 songs would be a valuable addition.

Public Speaking: Strategies for Success

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chris Anderson's "TED Talks" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full TED Talks summary:

  • A nuts-and-bolts guide to public speaking that takes you from the initial idea to your final bow
  • TED curator Chris Anderson's public speaking advice on everything from scripting to wardrobe
  • A comparison of Anderson's advice to that of other public speaking experts

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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