Improve Your Speaking Skills

Source: Medium, Jul 2018

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.

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.

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?

  • 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)

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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