TED Talks: The Official Guide to Public Speaking

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What is Chris Anderson’s TED Talks about? What advice does he give to aspiring public speakers?

In TED Talks: The Official Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson, the head of TED, shares his secrets to a spectacular public speech from the initial idea to the final bow. A great speech has the power to inspire and change the world, but most people believe that public speaking is an innate talent. Chris Anderson wrote this book to derail that self-limiting belief.

Below is a brief overview of TED Talks by Chris Anderson. We’ll take you through Anderson’s advice piece by piece, from scripting to wardrobe and everything in between, condensing his advice into thematic sections.

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking

Chris Anderson has been the TED Conference curator since 2002. One of his primary responsibilities in this role is to select speakers for the nonprofit’s premier medium: TED Talks. When Anderson’s company acquired TED in 2001, it was a struggling organization. He turned the nonprofit around and helped make it the international success that it is today. After watching hundreds of TED talks, Anderson believes he knows the secrets to a spectacular speech, which he shares in his book TED Talks: The Official Guide to Public Speaking.

Why Is Public Speaking So Scary?

Anderson says the fear of public speaking is two-fold: There is the in-the-moment fear of temporary humiliation—stumbling over words, forgetting what to say, and so on. Then there is the long-term fear of a damaged reputation. Most people care deeply about what others think of them, and they worry that a public flop will change the way they’re viewed. While these fears are normal and common, Anderson stresses that they must be overcome. Why? Because you’ll likely have to speak publicly at some point, whether you fear it or not, so you might as well reap the rewards of good public speaking.

(Shortform note: If you have an intense fear of public speaking, psychologists recommend that you attack the speech and the fear separately. Attack the speech by preparing as much as you possibly can—practice the words and movements, and visualize yourself delivering the speech successfully. Attack the fear by learning how to manage your emotions—for example, if you tend to become overly energized with adrenaline, make a plan for how you will handle that excess energy before speaking.) 

Misconceptions and Their Truths

Anderson says the first step is to face your fear by debunking common misconceptions. 

Misconception: Great public speakers are eloquent and perfectly polished.

Truth: Incredible speeches can be delivered in a conversational style.

(Shortform note: To avoid being overly formal, write your speech as if you’re talking with a friend or colleague whom you deeply respect—you won’t be too casual, but you also won’t be speaking as if you’re addressing the President.) 

Misconception: You need to have a stage and an audience to be a public speaker.

Truth: The internet is available to anyone, and there’s always an audience waiting.

(Shortform note: Online public speaking is so common that it now has a name—digital oratory—and it’s being taught as a skill in all levels of education.) 

Misconception: To be worthy of a public speech, your idea must be revolutionary.

Truth: Small but meaningful ideas and observations have value.

(Shortform note: People love to learn—in fact, neuroscientists have shown that humans receive a rush of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) in their brains when they learn something new. As Anderson says, this isn’t to say that the idea needs to be new to the world; it need only be new to your audience.)

Begin With an Idea and a Throughline

Your idea is the topic you want to discuss. Some ideas are big—for example, an invention that will save lives—and some ideas are subtle, like an observation about human behavior. Both have the potential to influence or move an audience. 

(Shortform note: In one of the most popular TED Talks of all time, “Looks Aren’t Everything,” model Cameron Russell illustrates an old idea in a novel way by detailing how a team of professionals manipulated her photo to make her look older, sexier, and more glamorous than she really was.)

After coming up with an idea, Anderson says the next step is to determine your throughline, the lesson you want your audience to take away. Think of it as the point of your speech. For example, if your idea is, “I want to talk about my trip to Alaska and how the Inuits live,” your throughline could be, “People who live in small, self-sufficient communities live more creatively than people in big cities.”

Avoid predictable throughlines and keep them to one sentence. Additionally, Anderson says an element of surprise ensures your audience’s curiosity from the beginning. For example, which speech sounds more interesting: The Dangers of Procrastination or The Benefits of Procrastination? 

(Shortform note: In Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo recommends incorporating a “shocking moment” into your presentation. This can include an unbelievable statistic, a startling photo, or a surprising story. He says that this shocking moment should drive home the message of your speech—or, in Anderson’s terms, your throughline.)

Engage Your Audience

Developing a solid idea and strong throughline are the first steps to a successful speech, but they don’t guarantee you’ll make an impact. Anderson explains that you must connect with your audience in order to be effective and memorable. He provides strategies for engaging your audience based on the type of speech you’re giving.

Strategies for Explanatory Speeches

When you’re trying to teach your audience something new, or explain a difficult concept, Anderson recommends the following strategies:

  • Meet them where they are. Reference the current moment or state of the world to make your topic relevant to the audience. 
  • Spark the audience’s curiosity, for example by posing a question without an obvious answer or showing a striking image.
  • Introduce terminology and concepts one by one using familiar metaphors, clear examples, and stories. Mix in the new with the familiar.
  • Do a jargon check. If you’re using words the layperson doesn’t know, 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.) 
Tips for Explaining Complex Topics

Physicist and TEDx speaker Dominic Walliman gives four steps for explaining difficult concepts:

Meet the audience where they are. (This advice is the same as Anderson’s).Stay on topic. Don’t get sidetracked by tangents or rabbit holes. 

Favor clarity over accuracy. It’s okay to sacrifice complete accuracy as long as the audience understands the majority of what you’re saying. If they want more information afterward, you’ll have the opportunity to educate them further.

Tell them why this matters to you. Enthusiasm is contagious, and unless you care deeply about your topic, why should they?

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.

Prime the audience: 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.

(Shortform note: Priming is a manipulation of the subconscious often used by salespeople and advertisers. For example: If you own a restaurant and want your customers to order Italian wine, you can prime them to desire it by playing Italian music in the background. However, after several studies failed to replicate earlier findings about the impact of priming, some psychologists are now skeptical about its effects.)

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.  

(Shortform note: Aristotle determined that effective persuasive speaking has three components: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is the credibility and trustworthiness of the speaker, pathos is the appeal to emotion, and logos is the appeal to reason. While many argue that appealing to emotion is more effective than appealing to reason, you should strive to do both.) 

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. 

(Shortform note: If you present your opponent’s viewpoint upfront and show why it’s not good, you leave little room for argument. However, rather than using the “straw man” technique (a fallacy in which you create a weakened version of someone’s argument and destroy it), it’s more effective to build a “steel man”—create the strongest version of your opponent’s argument that you can, and show why it wont’ work.)

For All Speech Types: Connect With Your Audience

Anderson provides five strategies to connect with your audience: Meet their eyes, drop your ego, be vulnerable, use humor, and tell them a story. You can use any or all of these strategies in your speech. 

Writing and Rehearsing Your Speech

All speeches fall into one of four categories: Scripted and memorized, scripted and read, unscripted but planned out, and unscripted and given off the cuff. Anderson strongly discourages winging speeches, as he considers them disrespectful of the audience and their time. He explores the benefits, risks, and rehearsal strategies for the other three. 

(Shortform note: Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh famously encouraged public speakers to “wing it” in his book, Delivering Happiness. He said that his own perfectionism and nerves couldn’t handle making mistakes during speeches, and the stress leaked into his performance; winging it took away that pressure. However, most experts vehemently disagree.)

Category 1: Scripted and Memorized

Benefits: You can ensure that there’s time for everything you want to say; you can choose your words carefully; and you can practice your speech in front of other people, which allows for feedback and improvement. (Shortform note: For people who suffer from intense fear of public speaking (glossophobia), scripting and memorizing is the favored option because it gives a feeling of control and preparation.)

Risks: Memorized speeches can come across as dry and unengaging. Even though your audience knows that your thoughts are scripted in one way or another, they like to feel as if they’re part of the moment as it unfolds naturally. (Shortform note: While inspiring your audience is the ideal result, those with the most severe forms of glossophobia should prioritize making it through the speech over avoiding the risks Anderson mentions here.) 

Rehearsal: If you memorize your speech, Anderson says you have to really commit. At the beginning of rehearsal, the speech will come out passionately but not super smooth. Once you achieve memorization, the speech will come out smoothly but without passion. Anderson says it’s key to push past this stage and continue to practice—you’ll eventually know the speech so well that you’re no longer concentrating on the words, and the passion will return to your voice. 

(Shortform note: This method requires a lot of time: Jill Bolte Taylor says she rehearsed her TED talk over 200 times, and Amanda Palmer says she practiced over a period of four months.)

Category 2: Scripted and Read

Benefits: Anderson says there are two occasions when reading your speech works well: First, if the speech is paired with gorgeous imagery and your audience’s eyes are on your images instead of you. Second, if you’re a gifted writer and the audience understands that they’re hearing a piece of written work. (Shortform note: With the right tools (such as a teleprompter) and lots of practice, you can master reading without drawing attention to yourself. We discuss these tools in the section on stage setup.) 

Risks: There are three major risks if you choose to read your speech: First, your audience might not trust your authenticity. Second, they might perceive you to be unprepared. Third, they might become so bored that they tune you out or leave. (Shortform note: Despite these risks, reading a speech might be the better option if you don’t have time to memorize it, especially in situations where your authenticity isn’t going to be doubted—for example, eulogies at funerals are usually read, not memorized.)

Rehearsal: If you’re a writer reading a written work (such as a poem), Anderson recommends you still know your speech well enough that you can look up at your audience from time to time and so your voice will sound natural. He adds that with read speeches, it can be especially impactful if you stand up at the end and deliver your last paragraph without reading. (Shortform note: Amanda Gorman balanced reading and looking up at the audience—to great effect—while reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Biden’s inauguration ceremony.)

Category 3: Unscripted (But Planned Out)

Benefits: The speech is passionate, fresh, and in the moment. Anderson says the audience feels your authenticity and wants to go on the journey with you.

Risks: With this much flexibility in your wording, you risk using too much jargon, not fully explaining difficult concepts, rambling, and running out of time.

How to prepare: Even with an unscripted speech, rehearsing is crucial. While you aren’t planning out exact words to use, you do need a structure in place to keep you on track. Start by identifying the point you’re trying to make (your “big idea”), then decide how you’ll get there. (Shortform note: Those who don’t want to write a script might prefer a “mind map,” which is a visual representation of where you’re starting, where you want to go, and the stops you’ll need to make along the way. Draw it out like a literal map with your opening and closing statements, your big idea, and the concepts that lead to your idea.)

The Opening

Anderson says you only have about 60 seconds to keep your audience’s attention once you begin your speech. Your opening sets the tone for the rest of the talk, so even if you choose not to script your speech, you should carefully consider how you plan to open. Here are three ways that he says you can grab your audience from the beginning: 

  • Say something dramatic within the first minute.
  • Show a fascinating image (this can be beautiful, confusing, or funny).
  • Pique their curiosity with a question or counterintuitive statement.

(Shortform note: Besides getting your audience’s attention, a strong opening should reveal your speech’s purpose (the “what”), explain why the audience should care (the “so what”), establish your credibility, and preview the major points.)

The Closing

Anderson warns that a spectacular talk can be ruined by a bad ending. The way a talk ends is the way the audience will remember it. Avoid boring endings, asking for money, or alluding that there was more you couldn’t get to. Instead, use these strategies to end your talk on a high note:

  1. Apply what you’ve discussed to a broader situation. For example, “If this management style can transform Fortune 500 companies, imagine what it could do in the White House.”
  2. Declare a personal mission. End your speech by making a proclamation about how you are going to use this knowledge to improve the world.
  3. Leave them with a dream. Paint a picture of a better world. Inspire your audience with your dream for the future, but be sure to avoid clichés.
  4. Call them to action. Ask your audience to take the information you just gave them and do something with it. For example, “If we all contact our congressmen, they’ll have to listen.”
  5. End with beautiful language. A poetic statement, song lyric, or eloquent phrase can add a somber and memorable touch.
To give your speech a rhythmic end, you can use any of the above strategies in combination with a pattern of three. Some of the most well-known examples of this are:

Julius Caesar: “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered)
General Patton: “Blood, sweat, and tears”Thomas Jefferson: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

Hearing information in threes is satisfying and feels like closure. Many TED speakers have employed the power of three in their final lines, including Brené Brown.

Stage Setup

If you have your speech memorized and feel confident speaking without notes, setup isn’t important—it’s just you and the stage. However, most people feel more confident with a strategic setup in place. Anderson recommends choosing a setup early in your planning so that you can practice using the chosen tool many times.

Note Cards

Advantages: Anderson believes that this is the most invisible way to reference notes. A small card held in your hand is less obtrusive than a lectern, and it’s less off-putting to the audience than your eye-line moving to a teleprompter. 

Disadvantages: If you have multiple notecards, there is the risk of dropping them or getting them mixed up. For this, Anderson recommends you keep them in order on a keyring. 

(Shortform note: One expert suggests using just five cards—one for the introduction, three for your main points, and one for the conclusion. On each card, he details how to set up a keyword outline, which includes word prompts rather than full sentences.)

Small Lectern

Advantages: If you need to have your full speech available to read, Anderson says the best option is a small, unnoticeable lectern. A podium with a thin or transparent stem with enough room for a few sheets of paper is all you need.

Disadvantages: Even with a small lectern, you have an object between you and the audience, which can affect the connection. If you choose this set-up, Anderson recommends you know your speech as well as possible so that you can connect with the audience through lots of eye contact.

(Shortform note: If you choose to use a music stand or small lectern, be sure to rehearse using the same stand. It’s not unusual for a speaker to rehearse using a sturdier piece of furniture, only to have a clumsy moment when they lean on a tinier one during the actual speech.)

Confidence Monitors and Teleprompters 

Advantages: With a confidence monitor, you can see your slides with added notes (called “presenter view”) which will keep you from turning around and checking the slides that your audience is viewing. Teleprompters display your written speech in scrolling format so that you don’t have to find your place on a piece of paper.

Disadvantages: Anderson cautions against this setup, as he finds that speakers tend to rely on them and don’t connect with the audience as a result. Even if you use the right vocal inflections, the audience can tell by your eye-line that you’re reading, and this is off-putting.

(Shortform note: A common mistake is transfixing your eyes on the prompter, which leads to an unnaturally stoic facial expression and robotic vocals. One tip is to practice using the prompter while manipulating an object in your hands. By doing another action that pulls focus, you’ll learn to read without staring intently at the words.) 

Stage Presence

If you want to give a great speech, it isn’t enough to have the perfect words, strategies, and setup—you also need stage presence. Anderson explains that the way you present yourself makes the difference between a forgettable speech and one that leaves your audience inspired

Wardrobe Guidelines

  1. Above all, dress in something that makes you feel great. 
  2. Dress slightly more formally than the audience. 
  3. Avoid accessories that make noise. 
  4. Avoid black, white, and small patterns if the speech is being video recorded. 
  5. Consider where your microphone will go. 

(Shortform note: In addition to this advice, there are a few actions you can take to prevent wardrobe malfunctions from occurring: Bring a back-up outfit in case something goes wrong with your first choice, keep a Tide instant stain removing pen in your bag to remove small stains, and carry a travel-size sewing kit to repair loose buttons.)

Voice and Movement

Anderson writes that the best speech in the world will fall flat if the speaker doesn’t appear genuine and passionate. He offers three techniques to ensure that you bring your best self to the stage.

1. Speak with inflection, but avoid orating. Anderson argues that a speech without emotion and inflection will accomplish the same (if not less) than if you emailed your words to the audience. To inspire your listeners, use your voice to show them which parts are important. When should they feel angry, or sympathetic? (Shortform note: One study supports this notion by showing that when it comes to communicating emotions, sound carries as much weight as words. If the sounds you make support your words, the audience will trust you.)

At the same time, if you orate—speaking slowly, loudly, and with many dramatic pauses—you can come across as arrogant or gimmicky. (Shortform note: Orating can cause the audience to miss or forget your message entirely. When done in excess, your displays of emotion can overshadow the content of your speech.)

2. Vary the speed of your voice. Rather than trying to slow down, focus on changing up the speed of your speech. The fluctuation will help keep your audience’s attention and will also help them comprehend the content.  

  • When you’re telling an anecdote, speak more quickly because the information is easy to take in and process. 
  • When you’re explaining a concept, slow down so the audience has time to digest and comprehend the information.
  • Add a few pauses to highlight important points or to allow the audience time for laughter.

(Shortform note: Anderson says that speaking too quickly is better than speaking too slowly, but it is possible to speak so quickly that you lose your audience. Extremely fast speech often sacrifices enunciation, so words can slur together in an incomprehensible jumble. In addition, if listeners have to concentrate to keep up, they are likely to miss information and be irritated at the same time.)

3. Move your body in a way that’s natural. If you prefer to walk, Anderson recommends you do so in a relaxed and natural way. When you make an important point, stop walking, face the audience, and pause for a moment before resuming. If you prefer to stand, keep your weight evenly distributed between both feet and avoid leaning, continually shifting your weight, or rocking forward and backward. If you prefer to sit (or need to because of a physical constraint), this is okay as well.

(Shortform note: With the recent increase in video conferencing, it’s more common than ever to sit while presenting. In this instance, focus on posture (sitting straight with shoulders back) to display confidence, and use hand gestures and facial expressions for emphasis and emotion.)

Managing Your Nerves

Whether you’re a seasoned speaker or not, Anderson says adrenaline comes with the territory. He explains that adrenaline gives you energy and animates your voice, which can be great for your speech. However, in large doses, it can also make you shaky, give you dry mouth, and cause anxiety. The following are ways that Anderson says you can manage your adrenaline and project confidence:

1) If your adrenaline is high enough to make you shaky, do something physical to get rid of the excess. (Shortform note: Anderson doesn’t say how far in advance you should do this, but we can infer that you should allow for enough cool-down time that you won’t be out of breath when you walk onto the stage.)

2) Five minutes before you speak, drink five or six ounces of water. This is enough to keep dry mouth at bay but not enough to fill your bladder. (Shortform note: Even if you’re hydrated, your mouth can still get dry because of nerves. For the stage, experts recommend that you stick to flat, room temperature water.)

3) In the minutes before speaking, focus on your breathing. Make sure the oxygen is going all the way down into your stomach (shallow breathing does more harm than good) and hold it for a moment or two before exhaling. (Shortform note: Too much oxygen in the blood raises its pH and leads to dizziness, tingling, anxiety, and chest pain. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, breathe into a paper bag or hold your breath for a few seconds before exhaling.) 

If all else fails (you begin stuttering or your mind goes blank), Anderson says to simply tell the audience you’re nervous. They want to root for you, and admitting that you’re experiencing nerves only makes you more relatable. (Shortform note: Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous, and those who are liars.” Nobody in the audience is going to judge you for feeling nervous.)

TED Talks: The Official Guide to Public Speaking

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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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