Learning from TED Talks

TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design is now owned by the Sapling Foundation, a non profit organisation set up by Chris Anderson, and produces or inspires conferences across the world. While each conference has its own unique theme, all TED conferences have a goal to foster the spread of great ideas.

Since June 2006 the speeches have been made available online and today TED provides a library of over 1500 talks. The great thing about these talks is that speakers are strictly limited to 18 minutes, although a few do exceed that length and some are a bit shorter. Speakers are encouraged to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can and that has led to a steady improvement in quality.  Today, according to Chris Anderson, speakers are spending months preparing their speeches.

What is important for anyone looking for examples of great speeches and speakers is that TED speakers are mostly not professional speakers. Most of the people who are invited to speak at TED are experts, people who have made a difference in their chosen field. They are invited to speak because they have earned the right to speak by what they do. Some of the speakers have a lot of speaking experience, others have very little and this means that when you study the talks there are examples of truly great speaking – and there are plenty of examples of speeches that could be improved.

I think that watching TED talks is a great way for anyone to learn how to improve their own speaking and I will be writing a series of articles evaluating many of the speeches. Some articles will feature a specific skill and draw on a number of speeches to illustrate that skill, others articles will simple look in detail at a particular speech to explore what we can learn from that speaker.

You may have already picked up from this site that I have a particular interest in helping women to improve their speaking skills. One of the greatest challenges facing women who want to develop their public speaking skills has been for many years the lack of sufficient role models. That is thankfully changing and in large measure due to TED.

While male speakers still significantly put number women speakers, I have noticed that this seems to be changing.  I have not analysed the date – but as a regular consumer of TED talks (a new talk every day) it seems that the number of women speakers is increasing and moving towards equality.  What you may find here on this site is that my selection of speeches and speakers may actually favour women over men simply because I am keen to highlight the great role models now available.

Evaluation

I have been a member of Toastmasters for many years, and even as a professional speaker I still find the practice of attending Toastmasters meetings and receiving evaluations from club members a great discipline. It is very difficult for anyone to get truly objective feedback on a speech.  People tend to either tell us what they think we want to hear, or they are very critical.

If I hear you speak and say “I just have one criticism…” are you now expecting me to say something good or something bad?  Most people when they hear the word criticism immediately expect a negative comment and so we become instantly defensive and don’t want to hear.

What I learned at Toastmasters is the art of evaluation as a constructive process where the main aim is to encourage a speaker and provide useful suggestions for improvement.

When I am evaluating a speech, I take a blank sheet of paper and divide it into two columns.  At the top of the first column I write the word Commend – and at the top of the other column I write the word Recommend.

As I listen to the speech I write down in the left hand column all the things I like about the speech – and even with a bad speech, there are things the speaker is doing right. It is important in giving objective feedback that you find those things the speaker is doing well. Then in the other column I make a note of what the speaker could have done to make the speech even better.

What I suggest you do as you watch TED talks is follow this same process.

Make a note of what you like about the speech. If you find yourself completely entranced by the speech and not making notes, ask yourself what the speaker is doing to engage you so well.  If on the other hand you find yourself drifting off or losing the plot, ask you self what the speaker could have done to keep your attention better.

Here is a very important point about recommendations. People are mirrors. Whenever I find myself not liking a speech, more often than not the speaker is doing something that I also do.  I tend to use my hands to gesture a lot as a speaker, but when I watch a speaker gestures a lot I find it distracting. Then I remember the words of the assessor when I was being examined for my LAMDA Diploma in Public speaking.

“Do you not think that a gesture has more impact when it comes from a place of stillness?

Gesture and movement are excellent tools to convey meaning and add impact, but if all you do is gesture then the impact of any single gesture is lost. So I will tell a speaker that I found the gestures a little distracting and share the advice I was given.

What you are trying to achieve from this process is to draw out from the speech two or three learning points for yourself. Don’t try to learn everything from one speaker. Look for examples of excellence you can emulate and look for examples of behaviours you need to avoid – and do remember that if you see something that irritates or distracts you it is probably because you do that.

Where are the TED Talks

The TED talks are easy to find

Here on my blog if you look to the right you will see a list of categories – just click on the TED Talk and you will find a growing list of talks I have evaluated.

If you want to dig in yourself simply go to http://www.ted.com and pick one of the popular talks that attracts you and see what it teaches you.

 

 

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