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April 2024
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Make Your Next Speech Memorable

What you can learn from TED Talks.

By Lisa B Marshall

They can teach you something new, change your perspective and inspire you to take action. They can make you laugh, cry and think. With over 1 billion views worldwide, it is likely that TED Talks have raised not only your expectations of other speakers, but also the audiences’ expectations of you!

Today, it might be rare to find a Toastmaster who has never watched a TED Talk. Since 2006, TED (a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas) has been providing these massively popular presentations for free to help us become educated and connected global citizens—and they are powerfully addictive. Why? Because each talk focuses on one novel and big idea that the presenter passionately believes will help people, and it’s delivered in an emotional or memorable way.

Let’s break down the principles that make these talks so noteworthy and learn how to apply them to our own presentations.

Focus on one novel idea

One of the biggest mistakes that presenters make is trying to fit too many ideas into a short talk. Resist the urge to talk broadly and instead go deep by purposefully using narrative stories, specific examples and literary devices to support your single, key idea—which, by the way, you should be able to communicate in a sentence.

Next, craft a unique and unexpected approach to the topic. Why? Because the brain pays extra attention to newness—unexpected things spark our curiosity and interest. In fact, research suggests that novelty sets off brain responses that promote learning.

Finally, big ideas are ones that matter to many people. It is important to always choose a topic for which you can articulate not only why you care deeply about it, but more importantly why the audience should care, too. If your audience doesn’t care about your idea, you’ve lost them.

Believe that your idea will help people

One way to boost interest is to share your genuine, authentic enthusiasm. In high school, I attended a Bob Seger concert that I will never forget. Seger and his Silver Bullet Band members were onstage playing and laughing with each other and the audience. It was like we were invited to their own little party. It was impossible for me not to feel their enthusiasm as if it were my own. On the way home I told my friend, “I want to enjoy whatever it is that I end up doing so much that other people around me can just feel it—just like Bob Seger.”

Resist the urge to talk broadly and instead go deep to support your ­single, key idea.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “emotional contagion,” a form of interpersonal influence. Emotion (both positive and negative) is contagious and can be used as a significant force. Presenters often limit their self-expression when delivering a talk—they don’t allow themselves to relax, get carried away or really be in the moment. But it’s exactly that vulnerable and sincere delivery that draws your audience closer and helps to create a personal connection.

Deliver your idea in a memorable way

To be memorable, it is important to share emotion, not logic. Narrative stories allow you to tap into listeners’ emotions—making abstractness and complexity into something simple and concrete. Delivering in an emotional way means more than just sharing a humorous or heart-wrenching anecdote; it requires elements of story such as plot and relatable characters. Catchphrases and props can also create vivid mental images and anchor your message in a person’s mind. Analogies and metaphors are also helpful, particularly for novel ideas, because they relate your new ideas to experiences the audience is already familiar with. Studies show that learning new information is easiest when linked to prior knowledge. Analogies and figurative language facilitate this.

A TED Talk done right

A recent example of a short TED Talk that illustrates all of these points is one by Tim Ferriss entitled, “Why you should define your fears instead of your goals.” The title creates curiosity and a desire to explore this single idea. Early on, Ferriss promises a method to overcome self-paralysis and take action—of course, this creates universal interest! Then within the first few sentences, he shares a shocking personal story and we understand why it’s deeply important to him—creating connection and anticipation of his solution.

Next he rewards us with an emotional and memorable journey, which includes a powerful catchphrase (“fear-setting”), interesting metaphors (“a safety net for emotional free fall”), and novel images (a cow standing in the rain). He closes with a powerful one-two punch: a personal story about Jerzy Gregorek, one of the leaders of Poland’s Solidarity movement, that includes a short motivational quote encapsulated as a chiasmus.

If you rigorously apply these principles, you will improve not only your Toastmaster talks, but your work and community presentations too. 


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