Content Is King: Public Speaking Secrets from TED


Jessica Stillman recently published an article on Inc. called “5 Secrets of Public Speaking From the Best TED Presenters.”  Naturally, I gobbled up her “secrets” which come directly from Jeremey Donovan’s book How To Deliver A TED Talk.

TED has, thankfully, revolutionized the way some people present information.  Presentations are no longer about delivering a report to an audience and relying on your eye contact and the sparkle in your voice to get you through.  Content is key, as Stillman explains in her article.  Her 5 secrets include crafting one big idea or central message; focusing your content on your audience; creating an effective hook; repeating a catchphrase that will resonate with your audience; and telling stories (Source).  Many of my colleagues are still teaching that basic report style of presenting.  They believe that content is secondary to delivery and that the speaker’s message should be information-packed and logos-driven.  As long as the delivery is charming, they say, the speaker will be successful.  I disagree, and this fundamental difference is what drives the presentation revolution.  I believe in Donovan’s advice.  I believe in TED.  I believe in Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds.  I also believe the tired way of teaching public speaking relies on Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset (check back for tomorrow’s post elaborating on these issues), and a teaching environment where only so-called naturally charismatic people can deliver great speeches is an environment I do not want to be in.



Let’s examine two TED Talks to prove Donovan’s point.  Take Sir Ken Robinson’s “Schools Kill Creativity.”  Perhaps one of the most famous and well-loved TED Talks, Robinson’s 2006 presentation has been viewed 20 million times because of the story-driven content.  I don’t remember Robinson’s factual evidence.  I remember his humor when he talks about his wife and children, and I remember my sadness when he talks about a young Gillian Lynne.  My emotional connection to the content of the speech is what makes “Schools Kill Creativity” successful.  It certainly isn’t Robinson’s delivery!  Stricken with polio at a young age, Robinson doesn’t use movement to get his point across.  His power comes from his content.  Some of my colleagues argue that “Schools Kill Creativity” is too story-driven.  That means they don’t understand how people learn and how ideas are successfully transmitted.  To me, that also means they don’t need to be teaching a public speaking and presentation class.

Let’s also look at Susan Cain’s “The Power of Introverts.”  Her point is that we aren’t all extroverted, social, outgoing people, and we live in a world where these qualities are prized.  So what happens to introverted people?  Does that mean they are poor communicators?  Does that mean they are poor public speakers?  Some of the best presentations ever delivered in my classroom were given by introverts, and that is because I look much deeper than superficial things like eye contact and a powerful voice.  It’s a good thing that I can look deeper, because during her TED Talk, Cain’s delivery isn’t perfect.  She does appear shy, soft-spoken, and timid.  If I prized delivery above all else, I might not even give her speech a chance.  Thankfully, 5 million people did give Cain a chance and watched her TED Talk.  In fact, Cain’s presentation holds the record as gaining 1 million views faster than any other speech in TED Talk history and is one of the most-viewed Talks of all time.  Cain’s TED Talk shows the power of authenticity over showmanship (Source).  To me, that’s what public speaking is all about.  The power of presentations don’t lie in flashy delivery but in that content.  Stillman’s article on Donovan believes this.  The presentation revolution was founded on this.

Why do you think so many people – especially public speaking and presentation instructors – resist the ideas of the presentation revolution?  Is there anything we can do to help them see the light?


One thought on “Content Is King: Public Speaking Secrets from TED

  1. Couldn’t agree more Alex. People are reluctant to change when they perceive their speech making to be good enough. Unfortunately that attitude prevents them from being truly great, and fulfilling their true potential as speakers. All we can do is to keep turning out great speakers with great content and the others will catch on eventually. Thanks for your great work, as usual.

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