How To Give a Killer Speech

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S1: I don’t know if you remember this, but we had sort of a tech mishap at my TED talk.

S2: Oh no,

S1: I remember there was someone who if things didn’t go well, who you could sort of go talk to, would give you a hug or something like there’s someone. Right. If things didn’t go

S2: well, I think I think I have a team of hackers if things don’t go well.

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S1: Welcome to How To I’m science writer David Epstein. At some point, everyone’s got to give a speech that could be on stage, it might be in your office or these days staring into the dark black hole of your computers camera. And I’ve given a lot of speeches these last few years, and I still get nervous every single time because you can prep and you can plan all you want, but successfully captivating an audience that’s different and tricky every time. That’s why we’re focusing on TED talks today, because they’ve set the standard for popular speeches in the digital age. And our expert this week, he knows a thing or two about them.

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S2: My name’s Chris Anderson. I’m the guy lucky enough to run Ted, as in TED talks.

S1: And so you’ve you’ve been the curator for TED in this period where in some ways it became synonymous with with giving a public talk. You know, maybe you’ve seen and thought about more talks than any human being who’s who’s ever lived.

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S2: I’ve definitely had a good front row seat.

S1: Chris has had more than a front row seat over the past 20 years. He’s helped transform Ted from an annual conference on technology, entertainment and design to the Internet behemoth that it is today. The best speeches, they get tens of millions of online views.

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S2: We thought the Internet was only supposed to be for cute kitten videos. It turns out not people actually wanted to learn. And and so Ted took off in a in a way that was quite surprising.

S1: You’ve probably seen some of the most popular videos. There’s Angela Duckworth on the importance of grit, Dan Pink and the puzzle of motivation. Susan Kane on the power of introverts in a world that won’t stop talking. In one talk, Bill Gates pulled a stunt that captured worldwide attention. I wrote a letter last

S2: week when he came to it the first time, he really surprised people by bringing on stage with him a jar and he started talking about malaria and how it’s in it’s caused by mosquitoes. He said, oh, by the way, I brought some with me. Let me just let them out here, you know? You know, this shouldn’t just be a poor person’s problem. And so, you know, he literally released, I don’t know, a dozen mosquitoes into this big auditorium.

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S1: Experiences will let

S3: let those roam around the. Out of time a little bit,

S1: unless you’re Bill Gates, Chris is maybe skip the mosquitoes, but he’s got plenty of other practical tips and Chris has worked with tons of speakers. But our listener this week presents an especially unusual challenge.

S4: So my name is Lucy. I’m in sixth grade and 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.

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S1: Basically, Lucy wants her school to try a new approach to learning that involves a way less homework. But she has to convince the school board. So can the head of TED help our sixth grader with the biggest speech of her young life? And today’s episode, how to communicate your idea so that it’s as impactful as a TED talk, whether you’re in a sixth grade classroom or a corner office. We’ll get the inside scoop from Chris who help us break down some of the greatest speeches of all time. I hope I’ve persuaded you to stick around. So, Chris, I’m curious if you can maybe walk us through some of the elements that a good TED talk has.

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S2: Hmm. We love to say to our speakers that they should think of their talk as a gift. You know, sometimes speakers think he has a talk. It’s my chance to push my agenda onto the world. And if that is how you’re thinking, the talks are almost certain to fail. So instead, I know that in your head there is something really special called an idea, this little pattern of knowledge that can be amazingly, it can be transferred to the people in the audience. Just by your 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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S1: Kris’s sentiment here. It’s inspiring the idea that simply sharing your ideas effectively can actually change lives forever. But how do we actually do it?

S2: It starts with making a connection with the audience and signal to that person, it’s OK. You can open the doors of your mind to me. We can be we can be friends for the next 15 minutes. That’s why a lot of talk start with relaxed humor or telling of a story that is engaging. A second piece is showing early on why this even matters. And so, you know, it might be articulating a question. You know, here is a problem in the world that I’ve been thinking about or here something big that happened to me that honestly 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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S1: And can you take us through a speech that you think did that especially well?

S2: One that’s probably relevant to the conversation today and is actually the the most viewed TED talk of all times is by an educator, Ken Robinson. He actually spent the first part of his talk just building a relationship with the audience really around humor.

S5: Good morning. How are you? It’s been great, hasn’t it? You know, it’s been I’ve been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I’m leaving.

S2: And then he started to talk about the problems that happen in schools when creativity gets shut down. He argued that, you know, that creativity in schools in general is shamefully underplayed and that we could do so much more if we allowed that part of education to flourish.

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S5: I had a great story recently. I love telling it. I’m a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six inches at the back drawing and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention. And in this drawing lesson she did. And the teacher was fascinated. She went over to her and she said, What are you drawing? And the girl said, I’m drawing a picture of God. And the teacher said, But nobody knows what God looks like. And the girl said, they will in the minute.

S2: You sort of felt, wow, I’m having such a good time, I will go where ever this man wants to take me. This is this is really fun.

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S1: I mean, there’s surprise. There’s humor. But there’s also you can hear the audience, I think, sort of acknowledging a truth.

S2: I think a lot of people recognize listening to that talk that, you know, in their own education that they that they sometimes just weren’t allowed to shine. They weren’t allowed to really express themselves.

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S1: This is actually not that far off from our sixth grader, Lucy’s topic, which we’ll hear later, but for now, this is our first tip for giving a great speech. Find a way to connect with the audience right away. That could be humor like Sir Ken Robinson did. Or maybe it’s with a surprising or endearing anecdote after Robinson made that initial connection. And that was what Chris calls the open the doors of your mind moment. Then he deepened it by telling specific stories that reminded listeners of their own memories of school and that built empathy for the characters he was describing.

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S2: He gave that talk to 800 people. But on average, since then, in the 15 years since he gave that talk, approximately seventeen thousand people a day have heard it. It’s like selling out Madison Square Garden every night for 50 years. When you get it right, the potential for impact is really quite extraordinary.

S1: You know, I want to think about another great speech a little bit. And sometime last year, I kind of got obsessed with reading the papers of Martin Luther King, his academic writing his sermons and all these things, and realized that he used what some researchers called typology a lot, where he would build he would start with something that everyone thought was kind of irrefutable, and then he’d find other examples of it in history and bring it up to the present day. So here he is, starting with Abraham Lincoln in his famous I Have a Dream speech

S3: five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.

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S2: I think part of what is what is happening there, although who am I to decode, you know, one of the greatest speakers of all time, but, you know, starting with something familiar and then. You bring it into the present and suddenly it creates this sort of sense of destiny that, of course, these pieces must fit together that way and there’s a kind of conviction and an excitement that goes with that. You have learned something. You are seeing the world in a different way by just by it, by sort of by repositioning. And it’s hugely satisfying when someone can do that. Right.

S1: You’ve written very wisely about the fact that actually you need a certain level of familiarity. Mike, there are surprises, but if everything is is totally surprising and unfamiliar, it’s sort of hard to get a footing, basically.

S2: Yeah. You have to start where people are. You have to build from the tools that are already in their brains,

S3: meaning my country, tis of thee, sweet land, of liberty, of land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride from every mountainside. Let freedom ring in the Americas to be a great nation. This must become true. And so let freedom ring.

S2: I mean, there is so much going on there that in many ways, I’ll be honest, I’m baffled by it. I don’t know how the great orators do what they do. It’s a skill that arose in times, you know, well before microphones, well before the Internet, well before television, where one person with a big crowd could weave a kind of magic, a kind of biological. 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. And so it’s it’s it’s far, far more than simply listening to a talk, it’s, you know, you’re part of a movement.

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S1: I do think that sometimes the best TED talks do make you feel like you could play your little role in some larger effort.

S2: That is true. That is absolutely true. The journey that I think is so exciting to see is a journey that starts with curiosity. I think I’m going to learn something. Therefore, I’m going to give myself up and listen to this person. Oh, gosh, I hope there’s some way to solve this. To say this is making sense. This is making sense. It’s that that makes the difference between just understanding something and understanding something and wanting to do something with it.

S1: Here’s our next tip, the most effective way to share your vision meets the audience where they are, it’s not enough just to give listeners what you think is important and hope they agree. You have to ground it in what they think is important and familiar and help them reframe how they think about it. So how can our sixth grader Lucy get her school to share her vision of change? When we come back. She’ll take center stage. We’re back with our expert, Chris Anderson, head of Ted and our listener Lucy, who lives in Michigan, likes animals, fantasy novels and apparently podcasts. Hi, Lucy, how are you?

S2: Hello, Lucy. Great to see you. I’m Chris.

S4: Hi, I’m Lucy.

S1: Lucy just got out of school for the day and agreed to join us for one more lesson. Speech writing.

S4: Yeah. So I was trying to write the speech and I was just struggling with, like, especially the the beginning, the end and how to give the speech. And so I thought that it would be cool if I could write and how to and get an expert to help me.

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S1: When Lucy wrote in us, she actually said she hoped to someday give her speech on the TED stage. So who better than Chris to give her some advice? Maybe we can take a look at your speech, Chris. Does that does that seem like an OK, wait.

S2: I’d love to hear it. I would love to hear it.

S4: OK, so here this is my speech. Hello, sir. Hello, my name is Lucy and I’m here to talk about a book that I recently read called Friedler. Friedland talks about schools more specifically the things we need to change about it. It also describes an amazing, cool school called Sudbury Valley. When I heard about the school, I immediately wanted to go there. Then I learned that I was in Massachusetts. The top two things that stuck out to me but Sudbury Valley, where one non segregated play and two less homework. Let me explain why. Yes, it may sound counterproductive, but it’s not less. Homework means more time for kids to play and do things that they’re more interested in. Furthermore, homework and negatively affect family life. Most kids don’t like homework, and when parents force them to do it can damage the relationships. Second off is not a Chegwidden play. By this, I mean, at least in

S1: this part of the speech, Lucy goes on to talk about the benefits of nonwage segregated play where children of different grades can play together and learn from one another

S4: around younger ones. As you can see, a few simple changes to our school can make a big difference. Thank you.

S2: I’m going to have a round of applause. Huge round of applause.

S4: Thank you.

S2: Goodness, Lizzie. Well, first of all, says, if I could have given that talk when I was in sixth grade, I’d have been a very proud boy, like your your confidence and eloquence are really something. So bravo. You know, like it’s all it’s all up from here. I would say a couple of the things about about just you might go to tweak this. First of all, just as you gave it to us just now, it was clear that you were reading and just and that that tone of voice doesn’t persuade or connect as powerfully as if people really feeling it’s coming from your heart. So it can’t sound like you’re reciting. It’s got to sound like this is your passion. Just in listening to your voice, that’s where it came alive, was in the moments where you you know, you learn a little bit of humor or we could hear you laughing, you know, then suddenly we feel

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S4: differently about it. Is that memorizing just making sure that you, like, can say it without having to read it?

S2: Yeah, it’s definitely worth rehearsing and just trying to mix in different tones of voice pace and so forth. And and mainly just focus though on on you know, this matters to me. I’m passionate about this. I’m going to look at each one of you. I smile from now and then, and I’m going to I’m going to persuade you that this is a big deal and that should be taken seriously.

S1: So here’s another tip from Chris. Don’t just read the words on a page or sound like you’re delivering a memorized speech. Chris compares this to the difference between an actor who just recites their lines and an actor who really inhabits a character mixing in pauses, facial expressions and different vocal inflections. That’ll make your speech sound more natural because that’s how you actually talk. Lucy, by the way, I know Chris mentioned something that might sound daunting, like sounding like you’re not reading until you once you start memorizing ideas that are important to you and that makes sense in order. It’s way easier than you think. Like, I memorize hour long talks now. And if if if you know these ideas and they matter to you and they’re in a coherent order, it’s not you’re not memorizing X thousand different words. You’re memorizing like three different points or something like that. You know, that’s really helpful. Chris says Lucy’s speech might actually be stronger if she made it shorter and focused only on her first argument about less homework. Convincing your audience of one main idea. It’s often more effective than trying to juggle multiple ideas.

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S2: You know, you asked about how you begin it and how you end it right now. I think you just went straight in. My name’s Lucy. I’m here to talk about a book I read well. Is that the best way to really grab the attention? I think you could play with some of the ideas about why they should listen to this. And the way to do that is to think about what is important to them. Tell you this book is important to you, what’s important to them. And so, you know, you could play with something like this. I’m in sixth grade and I want to talk about something that I know we all care a lot about here, how to make a great school, how to make a good school even greater. This is a really important thing and it’s got me excited. So that’ll be one thing I’d say. And then the other main thing I think I’d just say is to persuade someone of something that might seem a bit controversial. It’s a really clever technique to recognize their likely objection. OK, if this makes that so, so less homework, right? Yes, so you know that in some adults mind, they’re going, oh, boy, here’s a sixth grader basically being lazy and wanting to spend more time playing and hanging out rather than doing actual work. Now, I think there’s a case to try and take that head on and say, now I know I know that this sounds really self-serving. Of course, every sixth grader wants to have less homework, you know, but actually, honestly, that’s not my motivation. I’m not afraid of what what I what I’ve been persuaded of is that some of that time just could be better used. That play were thinking about play the wrong way. Play can be more than you think it is. It’s not just wasting time. It’s actually learning. And and then to actually 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, so a story will really make something vivid and land even deeper.

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S4: OK, here

S1: to Chris’s point about using a personal story, you know, is there anything related to, you know, you mentioned this having less homework and maybe that making your home life better?

S4: Yeah, you know, I feel like there’s always been that moment that you don’t really think about. But when you just you get so angry at your parents and you get, like, sent to your room or something. And it’s just because of like there’s so much stress in involving school with like you want to get a good grade and you have to, like, make sure you know all the material. So, yeah, I probably maybe like put in a story about like a time that I wish that there had been like less homework and then maybe like a time when they really helped me.

S2: That sounds great. OK.

S1: Here’s another couple of tips, tell a personal story to make your ideas more sticky and anticipate the audience’s skepticism and use it to your advantage, especially, you know, your sixth grader trying to convince adults to give you less homework. If you cast a spotlight on their doubts ahead of time rather than avoiding them, you’ll actually set yourself up to blow away their expectations. And they’ll be one step closer to sharing your vision.

S4: Yeah, and it’s also could benefit the teachers have less stuff to do as well.

S2: Yeah, I think that’s that was the key piece in the thought that was clever was that you’ve got to explain what’s in it for them and so, so articulate in that piece. That seems like that’s the heart of the argument. Yeah.

S1: So let’s say your argument is rock solid. You’ve made that connection with the audience. You address their doubts and you’ve shared your vision. You’ve handled everything that’s in your control. But what about things that aren’t in your control? What happens when things don’t go according to plan when you’re actually delivering the speech? Have you ever had a mishap

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S2: during a speech? Oh, goodness, yes. I mean, I’m not a great public speaker myself either. I used to be really bad and then I got to kind of sometimes okay. But I’ve definitely had moments where I where I, you know, like where you completely freeze. My biggest single failure on stage is when I was carrying a Burmese python. I want to I was in host mode

S1: who hasn’t had that in a talk.

S2: At some point we had a session about the wonder of nature. And I wanted to say, you know, this this thing was incredible. I was like a 12 foot yellow python, so beautiful. And so I had a rubberneck. I was just saying, you know, to people how nature was amazing. And then and then, unfortunately, the audience started guffawing. And what I didn’t know was that this pythons had had gone down my back and had emerged from my legs and was sort of waving itself at the audience. Uh, that was that was kind of hilarious

S1: when I gave a TED talk that it was like a technological sort of disaster right before I gave it. And you can’t see this in the video online. But like all the tech stopped working and Chris was like running around trying to fix things. Oh, no. Yeah. Basically, it was like I go up on stage. I hit the clicker to bring up my first slide and the screens just go dark. So I’m standing there like on the circular red carpet. There’s all these celebrities in the audience. You know, I’m staring at Cameron Diaz and Will Smith and wondering what to do. And then after a bit of awkward silence, I basically ended up making a joke about it and it actually helped to warm up the crowd and things went great from there. And I get nervous before talks like. Yeah, like sweaty palms, nervous. And one of the things that I thought helped was I sort of pictured like the worst things that could possibly go wrong. So then when I got there and something went wrong, it was like, well, you know, not a big deal.

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S2: Yeah, I think there is something to be said for nerves are there for a reason. They’re there to tell us that this matters. And if you’ve prepared and, you know, before the talk you like physically, you know, you breathe deep, you go, God, just go for a really vigorous walk beforehand, get the blood flowing and doing what you can physically so that you’re relaxed, then, yeah, just give the talk to four people, four individuals in different parts of the room and just, you know, give a sentence to one person and look at them and, you know, maybe some of them are people, you know, but look, look, look at them and look at the next person. That’s what will help you ground it. And I think that’s much more powerful than imagining the audience in their underwear or whatever. It is silly to do that.

S1: You get that good tip. Here’s our final tip. Use those nerves as motivation to practice instead of just considering your anxiety a fault. Remember that those feelings are signaling how much this matters to you and that’s why you’re doing this whole speech in the first place.

S2: You asked about the ending and how you could make that more powerful. If you want people to act on an idea like they need to be able to picture what that action is. Right. So could you ask, for example? You could say so. I know this seems weird, but here’s a suggestion. Why don’t we just try a little experiment? Let’s just try and experiment, pick a small group of us and try this policy for one semester and then see what happens. You know, 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 if you’re willing to say, why don’t you try this and sign me up, I’ll be I’ll be your guinea pig. We can make this work. Yeah, that could be something powerful in that, given how confident and compelling you are.

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S4: Yeah, that’s a

S1: great it seems like it could be sort of a good kicker. Talk to writers like I’m sticking my neck out, you know. Yeah. Now it’s in your court. Saluzzi, you’ve got some pretty sophisticated pointers from Chris here. Do you feel like it’s helped you?

S4: Yeah, I think it definitely helped. And going back to your point about being nervous about, like, you know. I’m just in sixth grade, I when I e-mailed you guys, I was actually like I wasn’t sure if I should put that I was in sixth grade. I’m like, well, I mean, they might just be like, well, she’s just a kid. So we I don’t know if we can make an episode out of this, but I’m really glad you guys did.

S1: I’m really glad you wrote into us public speaking something that, you know, a lot of us have to do at one point or another. And it really has been just a total treat hearing Chris talk about what makes a successful speech, no matter how old you are. So thanks to both of you.

S2: Thank you. It’s been really interesting. Lizzie, absolutely lovely to meet you. Good luck with this talk and with your life. Thank you. I know it’s going to be an interesting one, so. Yeah. And let me know how this I want to know how this goes.

S1: Thank you to Lucy for writing in and for sharing her speech and a Chris Anderson for all of his great advice. Be sure to check out his book, Ted Talks The Official Ted Guide to Public Speaking. And not long ago, Lucy sent us her new and improved speech.

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S4: Hey, guys, my name is Lucy and I’m in sixth grade. I’m here to talk about a book that I recently read called Free to Learn a great book. You guys should read it anyways. Free to Learn talks about school. More specifically, what we should change about it. It also describes an amazing school called Zuberi Valley. When I heard about the school, I immediately wanted to go there and then I realized that it was in Massachusetts. Now, as you might imagine.

S1: Wow. So I think Lucy’s created another tip for us, which is being receptive to feedback. She obviously took Chris’s advice to heart. You can hear how she infused the speech with her personality, changing the rhythm where she talked and making a joke here and there.

S4: OK, OK. I understand that I probably sound like just another kid complaining about homework, but it’s not just us kids. You know, the negative effects come.

S1: She compared it down and focused on just one point. Like Chris said, she cited specific research.

S4: More than two hours of homework a night can be counterproductive. According to this study,

S1: she anticipated and addressed the skepticism that her audience might have had on, and she included a vivid personal story. By the end, she actually gave specific steps and volunteered to run a small experiment in her school to see if this is actually a good idea. I mean, how do you say no to that?

S4: You have two hours or more of homework. That’s insane. If you could cut the homework down to just one hour, think of all the things kids could do that would benefit them more. Thank you.

S1: Great job, Lucy. We look forward to hearing your TED talk someday. Do you have something to say but aren’t sure how to say it? Send us a note at how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And finally, I hope you’ll consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on how to. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to Slate Dotcom How to plus how TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Janice Brown, remixed by married Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg is probably giving his own talk somewhere right now. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.