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  • Writer's pictureJo Clubb

Public Speaking Secrets from TED Talks

As scientists, how we communicate our findings and ideas is critical. Whether we are giving an hour-long presentation at a conference, or a two-minute talk to players in the Coach's meeting, we should be intentional with how we convey our message.

We can turn to one organisation in particular for inspiration. TED Talks have become synonymous with thought-provoking and engaging presentations. Thankfully, they’ve shared some of their best tips for public speaking in the book 'Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds'*.

These include nine secrets to help you become a better speaker. In this post, I’ll discuss each of these nine secrets along with a TED Talk that demonstrates each point. If you prefer to watch than read, you can watch my YouTube video on Talk Like Ted's secrets here.

But first, it is worth knowing that the nine secrets are organised into three parts, with three secrets included in each:

  1. Emotional

  2. Novel

  3. Memorable

This rule of three is something that consistently comes up throughout the book, as we shall see...

Unleash the Master Within

The first secret to better public speaking is to unleash the master within. The book emphasises that to connect with an audience, you need to find that spark that ‘makes your heart sing’. When you talk from a place of passion, you are more likely to connect with, and inspire your audience.

Example TED Talk: Matthieu Ricard

Ricard is a former biochemist turned Buddhist monk who left the monastery temporarily to give a TED Talk on the habits of happiness. He shares that these ideas are dear to him not only because they brought him a lot of fulfillment but because he is convinced that they can bring some good to society.

Master the Art of Storytelling

The second secret is to master the art of storytelling. Tell stories; stories that are personal, about others, or about brand success. As Brene Brown once said; “stories are just data with a soul”.

Example TED Talk: Brian Stevenson

Stevenson is a human rights lawyer and the grandson of Rosa Parks, who wrote the book Just Mercy. He shares a very personal TED Talk, which spends approximately 65% of the time telling stories.

Have a Conversation

The third secret is to have a conversation. The book emphasises that to be an effective speaker, you need to be intentional and practice your talk so much that the content becomes as natural as having a conversation with a friend. You should not only focus on the words, but also the rate, volume, pitch, and pauses of your delivery.

Example TED Talk: Dr. Jill Taylor

Dr. Jill Taylor is a brain researcher who actually suffered a stroke herself. In the context of this specific TED secret, she varies the speed of her delivery throughout the presentation to bring varied emphasis to her points. And she has a very cool (and by cool, I of course mean geeky) prop: a human brain!

Teach Me Something New

Brains love novelty. It stimulates the dopamine response. Of course it may not always be possible to present on a new topic, but we should challenge ourselves to package it differently or offer a fresh perspective.

Example TED Talk: Hans Rosling

Rosling is a statistician who helped develop the TED GapMinder and uses it in his TED Talk to dynamically present data and charts in a new and fresh way. This talk is enticingly titled: “The best stats you’ve ever seen”.

Deliver a Jaw-Dropping Moment

The fifth secret is to deliver a jaw-dropping moment. The book “Talk Like TED” suggests that every presentation should have one and recommends taking the time to work out what your jaw-dropping moment is. This could be a soundbite, a social media headline, or the central idea to your talk. Find your version of Steve Jobs’s “1000 songs in your pocket” for the iPod.

Example TED Talk: Bill Gates

Bill Gates of course needs no introduction, but he certainly made jaws drop when he unleashed a jar of mosquitoes on his audience when talking about malaria.

Lighten Up

Use humour in your talk, whether through personal stories (double whammy of storytelling and humour!), analogies and metaphors, or quotes and videos. Of course, be intentional and respectful with what you say and how, especially in light of the topic being discussed.

Example TED Talk: Sir Ken Robinson

This is one of, if not the most popular TED Talk of all time with more than 20 millions view. Sir Ken Robinson's talk about whether schools are killing creativity is perhaps, on the face of it, a dry subject, but he managed to interlace humour throughout.

Stick to the 18-minute Rule

TED curator Chris Anderson argues that 18 minutes is long enough time to be taken seriously and make your point, but short enough for our human brains to give it its full attention. Of course, we are often expected to speak for longer in scientific circles (or less time in applied settings). But perhaps we can think about breaking our presentations into 15-18 minute time slots with less cognitively demanding content between sections. This approach can also fit well with the rule of three that the book also recommends and is something I’ve had success with myself recently.

Example TED Talk: Majora Carter

MacArthur-winning activist Majora Carter details her fight for environmental justice in the South Bronx, using the rule of three to present three case studies during her 18 minutes on the TED stage.

Paint a Mental Picture

We all know the power of pictures but can we be intentional with how we use them in presentations. The book claims that on average we have 10% recall three days after we hear something, but as high as 65% recall when the information is also presented with a visual.

Example TED Talk: David Christian

In this talk, David Christian uses a mixture of different methods and illustrations to illustrate his talk, including opening with a video about scrambled eggs!

Stay in your Lane

While this may sound negative, the point is to be authentic and transparent when on stage. Don’t try to be Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey. Be yourself and make your point. Practicing and presenting in front of family and friends gives them an opportunity to provide feedback as to whether you come across as YOU.

Example TED Talk: Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg presenting from her time as CEO at Facebook. In the book she shares that she wasn’t sure whether to share a particular personal story with the audience, but in doing so - which involved admitting her failings - she was able to connect more deeply.


In putting together this post, I just came across the video of 'How to sound smart in your TEDx Talk' by Will Stephen. It might just be my new favourite! He tells you nothing, literally no content, and yet provides a brilliant demonstration of public speaking skills...

So hopefully this post has provided a useful overview of the book 'Talk Like TED'. Whether you try using one, some, or even all of the secrets described above, the success of TED reiterates the value of a successful message.

How we craft, practice, and then deliver a presentation determines how engaging and inspiring our message is. And if we want to achieve behaviour change (which is often the purpose of a presentation), then engaging and inspiring it must be!

*Affiliate Link: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases but you don't pay any extra! For more book recommendations, check out the Global Performance Insights Amazon shop. Thank you for your support.


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