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Tips on Persuading People From the Head of TED Talks

Chris Anderson has the inside scoop on the famed lecture series and advice for our sixth grade listener.

The TED stage
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images.

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These days, TED Talks have become synonymous with great speeches. There’s Angela Duckworth on the importance of grit, Susan Cain on the power of introverts, and Dan Pink on the puzzle of motivation. Bill Gates even released live mosquitoes into the audience during his talk. So when a 6th grade listener named Lucy wrote into How To! looking for help with an important speech, she mentioned she too hoped to someday share the TED stage. So who better to help than Chris Anderson, the head of the TED Talk series and author of TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking? On this recent episode of How To!, Chris helps Lucy craft the perfect speech to wow her school board and, in the process, reveals expert tips that can help all of us give TED-worthy speeches—whether in an auditorium, a conference room, or, these days, on Zoom. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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David Epstein: Chris, to start can you walk us through what makes a good TED Talk? 

Chris Anderson: Sometimes speakers think a talk is their chance to push their agenda onto the world. If that is how you’re thinking, the talk is almost certain to fail. So instead, know that in your head there is something really special called an idea, this little pattern of knowledge that can be amazingly transferred to the people in the audience. Just by opening your mouth and sending sound waves out, you can literally rewire their brains. And if you do that in the right way, you have given them a gift that can matter to them for the rest of their lives.

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It starts with making a connection with the audience. You have to signal “It’s OK. You can open the doors of your mind to me. We can be friends for the next 15 minutes.” That’s why a lot of talk starts with relaxed humor or the telling of a story that is engaging. The second piece is showing early on why this even matters. It might be articulating a question: “Here is a problem in the world that I’ve been thinking about” or “Here’s something big that happened to me that had really big implications for me and I want to share them with you.” But you have to do something to give people an incentive that they should continue to pay attention.

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David: We were hoping that you could give some of this advice directly to our 6th grade listener. Lucy, can you tell us why you wrote into us? 

Lucy: I was trying to write a speech and I was struggling with the beginning and the end especially. I recently read a book called Free to Learn, and I thought that maybe if I could write a speech and talk to my school board, then maybe some of the stuff from the book could be implemented into my school.

David: And so your speech, which you shared with us earlier, is about the benefits of less homework and non-age segregated play. Chris, what advice would you give to Lucy that might help anyone giving a speech for the first time? 

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Chris: Goodness, Lucy. If I could have given that talk when I was in 6th grade, I’d have been a very proud boy. I would say a couple of the things you might tweak are first, you asked about how you begin it. [In the version of your speech I heard], you just went straight in—“My name’s Lucy and I’m here to talk about a book I read.” Is that the best way to really grab the attention of the school board? I think you could play with some ideas about why they should listen to this. The way to do that is to think about what is important to them. You could play with something like, “My name is Lucy, I’m in 6th grade and I want to talk about something that I know we all care a lot about here—how to make a great school even greater.”

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Then the other main thing I’d say is a really clever technique to persuade someone of something that might seem a bit controversial is to recognize the likely objection. So less homework, right? You know, in some adults’ minds, they’re going, “Oh boy, here’s a sixth grader being lazy and wanting to spend more time playing rather than doing actual work.” I think there’s a case to try and take that head on and say, “I know that this sounds really self-serving. Of course, every 6th grader wants to have less homework, but what I’ve been persuaded of is that play could be more than you think it is. It’s not just wasting time. It’s actually learning.” Then to make that really land, you might need to do one more thing, which is to tell a personal story of when play did something important for you. A story will really make something vivid and land even deeper.

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Lucy: OK. And I’d also add how less homework could benefit the teachers. They would have less stuff to do as well.

Chris: Yeah, a key piece [of a good speech] is that you’ve got to explain what’s in it for them. You also asked about the ending and how you could make that more powerful. If you want people to act on an idea, they need to be able to picture what the action is. So could you ask, for example, “I know this seems weird, but here’s a suggestion, why don’t we just try a little experiment. Pick a small group of us and try this policy for one semester and then see what happens. I’m betting you’re going to be amazed.” I always remember a couple of TED Talks where a person made a commitment at the end of the talk and it was super powerful. So if you’re willing to say, “Why don’t you try this and sign me up? I’ll be your guinea pig,” that could be something powerful given how confident and compelling you are.

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David: So let’s say Lucy has the speech all written. How can she deliver it well when under pressure? 

Chris: Nerves are there for a reason. They’re there to tell us that this matters. Before the talk, breathe deep. Go for a really vigorous walk to get the blood flowing. Do what you can physically so that you’re relaxed. Also, give the talk to four people in different parts of the room. Give a sentence to one person and look at them and then look at the next person. That will help you ground it. I think that kind of practice is much more powerful than imagining the audience in their underwear. Don’t do that.

David: Have you ever had a mishap during a speech? 

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Chris: Oh, goodness, yes. I’ve definitely had moments where I completely freeze. My biggest single failure on stage was when I was carrying a Burmese python. We had a session about the wonder of nature. I wanted to say, “Hey, this thing is incredible.” It was like a yellow python, so beautiful, around my neck. I was just saying, how nature was amazing and then, unfortunately, the audience started guffawing. And what I didn’t know was this python’s head had gone down my back and had emerged from between my legs, waving itself at the audience. That was kind of hilarious.

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But I’ll be honest, in many ways I’m baffled by how the great orators do what they do. It’s a skill that arose in times well before microphones, well before the internet, well before television, where one person with a big crowd could weave a kind of magic. You are aware that you are one of thousands of people listening, and you are aware of the sort of the growing belief of those around you. It’s far, far more than simply listening to a talk. You’re part of a movement. I’m going to learn something and listen to this person. Oh gosh, I hope there’s some way to solve this problem. Wait a second, this is making sense. You end up coming to a place of sharing someone’s vision. You start with curiosity and you end with inspiration. That makes the difference between just understanding something and wanting to do something about it.

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To hear Lucy give her speech and more behind-the-scenes details about TED Talks from Chris, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts. 

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