The Magic and Logic of Powerful Public Speaking: TED Curator Chris Anderson’s Field Guide to Giving a Great Talk
How to master the generous art of inspiration and avoid the pitfalls of attention-hungry manipulation.
By Maria Popova
“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her sublime reflection on telling and listening. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” This mutual transformation takes place in a special atmosphere that exists in no other realm of life — one Paul Goodman captured beautifully in his taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence, among which he listed “the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear.”
The architecture of that singular atmosphere is what TED curator Chris Anderson explores in TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking (public library) — a contemporary counterpart to George Plimptom’s advice on public speaking, drawing on Anderson’s experience in hosting some of the most electrifying, inspiring, and mobilizing idea-packets of our time, delivered from the TED stage to more than a billion people around the world who hunger for intellectual, creative, and spiritual nourishment.
Anderson paints the backdrop for the uncommon magic of a powerful talk:
The house lights dim. A woman, her palms sweating, her legs trembling just a little, steps out onto the stage. A spotlight hits her face, and 1,200 pairs of eyes lock onto hers. The audience senses her nervousness. There is palpable tension in the room. She clears her throat and starts to speak.
What happens next is astounding.
The 1,200 brains inside the heads of 1,200 independent individuals start to behave very strangely. They begin to sync up. A magic spell woven by the woman washes over each person. They gasp together. Laugh together. Weep together. And as they do so, something else happens. Rich, neurologically encoded patterns of information inside the woman’s brain are somehow copied and transferred to the 1,200 brains in the audience. These patterns will remain in those brains for the rest of their lives, potentially impacting their behavior years into the future.
The woman on the stage is weaving wonder, not witchcraft. But her skills are as potent as any sorcery.
Ants shape each other’s behavior by exchanging chemicals. We do it by standing in front of each other, peering into each other’s eyes, waving our hands and emitting strange sounds from our mouths. Human-to-human communication is a true wonder of the world. We do it unconsciously every day. And it reaches its most intense form on the public stage.
But perhaps because this everyday wonder emanates from our basic humanity, it is also highly susceptible to basic human fallibility. Anderson goes on to enumerate the most common pitfalls in public speaking and provides strategies for countering them. In my own experience of having witnessed hundreds of live public talks over the years, at TED and elsewhere, the worst of these foibles is a kind of narcissistic greed on behalf of the speaker — a lack of the core generosity of spirit that lends all true art its power.
Sometimes speakers get it exactly backwards. They plan to take, not give.
Reputation is everything. You want to build a reputation as a generous person, bringing something wonderful to your audiences, not as a tedious self-promoter. It’s boring and frustrating to be pitched to, especially when you’re expecting something else.
The key principle is to remember that the speaker’s job is to give to the audience, not take from them.
Anderson admonishes against another side of the same coin — a kind of transactional pseudo-generosity, in which the speaker creates the illusion of giving in order to wrest out of the audience a desired response. Amid our Pavolvian culture, in which our interior sense of worth is increasingly predicated on constant exterior reinforcement, this temptation is difficult to resist — “likes” and retweets and view counts become a toxic quantitative measure of the quality of our work and, at their most perilous, a sort of valuation of our character. To engage in public life is to be increasingly aware of the vast potential for such response, and to grub for it.
A grave mistake in public speaking, Andersen cautions, is this tendency to try to manipulate one’s way into positive reinforcement — a tendency resulting in talks that “flatter to deceive,” which in turn commodify the greatest gift a speaker can give an audience. Andersen writes:
Absolutely one of the most powerful things you can experience when watching a talk is inspiration. The speaker’s work and words move you and fill you with an expanded sense of possibility and excitement. You want to go out and be a better person… I believe in inspiration’s power.
But it’s a power that must be handled with great care.
When a great speaker finishes her talk and the whole crowd rises to its feet and applauds, it’s a thrilling moment for everyone in the room. The audience is excited by what they’ve heard, and for the speaker, it’s indescribably satisfying to receive such powerful recognition.
But the promise of this satisfaction, Anderson admonishes, can be so alluring that speakers might be tempted to manipulate their way into it — which, of course, not only never works but always backfires. Nothing embitters the sweetness of mutual appreciation more effectively than one side’s ego-driven greed for affirmation. Anderson writes:
Here’s the thing about inspiration: It has to be earned. Someone is inspiring not because they look at you with big eyes and ask you to find it in your heart to believe in their dream. It’s because they actually have a dream that’s worth getting excited about. And those dreams don’t come lightly. They come from blood, sweat, and tears.
Inspiration is like love. You don’t get it by pursuing it directly.
Inspiration can’t be performed. It’s an audience response to authenticity, courage, selfless work, and genuine wisdom.
In this authentic responsiveness, Anderson argues, lies the great promise of a powerful talk — a promise built on the intersection of our most ancient longings, encoded in our elemental humanity, and the singular rewards of our time, an era marked by enormous potential for connection, cross-pollination, and mutual expansion, unimaginable to our ancestors. He writes:
We’re wired to respond to each other’s vulnerability, honesty, and passion — provided we just get a chance to see it. Today, we have that chance… We are physically connected to each other like never before. Which means that our ability to share our best ideas with each other matters more than it ever has. The single greatest lesson I have learned from listening to TED Talks is this: The future is not yet written. We are all, collectively, in the process of writing it.
What is an idea, anyway? You can think of it as a packet of information that helps you understand and navigate the world.
Your mind is teeming with ideas, and not just randomly — they’re carefully linked together. Collectively, they form an amazingly complex structure that is your personal worldview. It’s your brain’s operating system, it’s how you navigate the world, and it’s built out of millions of individual ideas.
For a necessary complement to TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, see Anna Deavere Smith on the art of listening in a culture of speaking, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of human communication.