5 TED Talk Strategies to Be More Compelling at Work

September 25, 2019, 4:15 PM UTC
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If you’ve ever lost yourself in a really great TED Talk—perhaps sitting in the driveway for a few extra minutes or even being a bit late for a conference call—you know how compelling they can be. Eighteen minutes seem to fly by, and you end up feeling smarter, or, at least, a little bit inspired.

Here’s something you might not realize: the same techniques that make these talks so powerful can also make you more compelling in the workplace.

“We all know that our attention spans are ruined, so a good way to capture and hold the attention of your audience is to frame your Q4 presentation or that conversation with your boss around a unique idea,” says Briar Goldberg, TED’s director of speaker coaching. It seems like a fairly easy piece of advice to use at the workplace, but there are other challenges besides outlining a single idea, like finding the best way to stand out, establishing yourself as a credible speaker, and delivering your message in an engaging way. 

TED speakers do these things routinely. Mastering them is no secret, but requires practice. Here are five ways you can use TED Talk speaking techniques for everything from asking for a raise to getting your new project off the ground. 

1. Focus on your audience

Even if you frame your presentation around one single, unique idea —TED Talk’s main speaking strategy—, you will not be compelling unless you know exactly who you’re talking to. Most people, especially at work, communicate in the “wrong direction,” Goldberg says. “We build our PowerPoint slides, we draft meeting agendas, we fire off emails without stopping to think what our audience needs or expects to gain from the communication,” she adds. 

Communication isn’t about you; it’s about your audience. First stop and ask yourself: what does your boss or your colleagues need to get out of the meeting or request? TED speakers are asked to identify the “gift” they’re going to give the audience, she says. So take some time to think about how you can frame your message in the context of what you could bring to your audience.

2. Prepare well 

While some worry that prepping too much before an exchange will make them sound overly rehearsed and less authentic. Michael Port, author of From Speeches to Job Interviews to Deal-Closing Pitches: How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation for All the Performances in Your Life and co-founder and chairman of Heroic Public Speaking, a speaker training company based in Lambertville, New Jersey, says that you’re more at risk of blowing an exchange if you’re not prepared. When you know your material well and you have practiced what you want to say, you can more easily think on your feet and adapt to a changing situation. 

Organizing the information you want to convey into a tight, clean message is “a messy process,” Port says. “Through iteration after iteration, it gets cleaner and tighter, and eventually gets to the point where you feel like you’re delivering your message in the way that you intend,” he adds. 

3. Speak clearly 

Audiences respond better to familiar language. Jargon and corporate-speak tend to obfuscate meaning. “The best TED speakers share well-organized thoughts as if they were chatting with the audience over coffee,” Goldberg says. To be clear, specific, and simple in your language, you can lose:

  • Overly complex, formal language (e.g., “Our ability to navigate the trajectory of the new market opportunity is dependent upon our willingness to make astute operational changes.”)
  • Generic, meaningless statements, (e.g., “Our strength is our world-class service.”)
  • Over used phrases with unclear meaning (e.g., “growth mindset”, “digital transformation”, etc.)
  • Clichés (e.g., “Let’s be the Facebook of tax preparation.”

4. Don’t oversell your promise

One misstep people make in persuasive communication is starting with a big claim to impress the target audience, whether it’s a 300 person auditorium or a 9:00 am managers’ meeting. When you do that, you’ve immediately set up people to try to disprove what you’ve said, says director, television producer, and corporate consultant Brant Pindivic, author of The 3-Minute Rule: Say Less to Get More from Any Pitch or Presentation. Instead, place your initial focus on the “reason for being.” That is, in a nutshell share why the issue is important to you or why you believe in it. 

This is where storytelling can be of great value, Goldberg adds. You can share a personal anecdote that illustrates why an idea is important to you. But make sure it’s relevant. “Telling a story about your grandfather in the introduction to your strategy meeting is just distracting,” she says. But, the right story —simple and relevant— can help people see your point clearly. 

5. Share why you’re the right messenger

While you may have a goal and a message, others’ expectations of you might be different than what you want to communicate, Port says. That can lead to conflict. Getting on the same page about why you’re the right person to lead the team or get the raise needs to be a key part of your message.

Goldberg says that one of the things the most compelling TED Talks have in common is that the speaker conveys the fresh perspective they bring to the subject. “This is not done in the form of a resume regurgitation, but rather, the speaker is able to build his/her credibility by using engaging examples or by sharing unique personal stories,” she says.

After all, competing with daily distractions is something everyone has to do to be heard these days. Any of these techniques might give you a better shot, and –who knows?– maybe even a round of applause.

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