What TED Talk Speakers Teach Us About Giving Presentations

Take cues from some of the most popular TED talk speakers the next time you present

(Image: ThinkStock)
(Image: ThinkStock)

This article originally appeared in www.businesscollective.com.

Whether you’re giving a boardroom presentation, an elevator pitch or a conference speech, you have to know how to surprise and delight your audience—I call this the “wow” factor. It’s why some speakers can walk onto a stage and blow the audience away. The wow factor is how some presentations stick in your mind for weeks, and contributes to what makes some TED talks go viral.

[Related: Present Like a Pro: 3 Tips for Mastering Professional Presentations]

Every day at lunch I watch a TED talk and I am always perplexed at how some TED talks can rack up millions of views while others seem to stagnate at a few thousand—even when they are on similar topics. As a behavioral investigator my job is to hunt for puzzles; I am constantly on the lookout for seemingly contradictory or mysterious patterns in human behavior. The TED question seemed like the perfect enigma: why do some TED talks go viral?

TED speakers are incredibly influential—their ideas reach billions of people around the world. In business, we need to know how to make our ideas heard. We need to speak so colleagues listen, we need to pitch our projects and we need to be able to represent our brand and our ideas in boardrooms and trade shows alike.

So what can we learn from the best TED talks? Below, I have simplified the top five patterns of the best TED talks that we can use in everyday life that we uncovered through extensive research at my company, Science of People.

The Power of Nonverbal
Nonverbal communication has often been considered to be just as important, if not more important, than verbal communication. Our research supported this idea as well: in one of our trials we had participants watch and rate TED talks on mute (yes, we felt really bad for this group). Interestingly, these ratings matched the view counts on the video. In other words, the talks that got the highest ratings from our participants also happened to be the most popular talks on TED.com. This tells us that when viewers tune in to listen to a TED talk, they make a lot of their decisions about the speaker’s charisma, intelligence, and credibility based on their nonverbal actions. When giving your next big speech or presentation, pay attention to your nonverbal just as much as your verbal.

Hands Matter
When we began to dive into the nonverbal differences between the talks, one pattern became instantly apparent: hand gestures. Our researchers painstakingly counted the hand gestures in each of the talks and found a huge discrepancy. The bottom TED talks had an average of 124,000 views and used an average of 272 hand gestures. The top TED talks had an average of 7,360,000 views and used an average of 465 hand gestures—that’s almost double! Hand gestures seem to keep your audience more engaged. My take-home tip from this research? Always add nonverbal emphasis to your words. Think about how you can use your hands to explain along with your words.

Never–Ever–Script
Scripting is the biggest mistake you can make. Not a single top TED talker worked off a script, but it was a prominent feature of the least popular speakers. By scripting, I don’t just mean someone reading (although that was terrible too); I also mean speakers who were working off a memorized script. Even participants who were watching TED talks on mute could tell that a speaker was working from a memorized speech. Scripts kill charisma, emotionality, passion and nonverbal emphasis. Specifically, the more vocal variety a speaker had, the more views their talk had. Whether you have an important presentation or an elevator pitch you give all the time, never script out the words. Instead, stick to bullets and practice your delivery at least five different ways by varying volume, changing your cadence, and adding emotion.

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