TED Talks: The Official TED guide to public speaking

Over the years my job has required me to do varying amounts of public speaking. A few years ago I was doing it weekly to audiences ranging from a handful of people to dozens. I’ve done less recently but it’s something I wanted to get back into, hence this book. TED talks are slickly produced and the speakers almost always appear to be, at the very least, competent, and usually much better than that. That made “TED Talks” a good place to start.

While reading the book I ended up speaking at a conference and I was able to put some of the lessons into practice. Of course I’d only read half of it so I did make some avoidable mistakes. However, it also showed some practical limitations of the book: naturally it’s about the kind of talks given at TED, but most people rarely do that.

My talks are often given at fairly short notice, frequently with a “standard” slide deck that you’re not supposed to edit significantly. The last talk I gave was written entirely by someone else and I only had the time to adjust the slides to work with my delivery style better.

Other than the logistics, the subject matter also differs. If you gave a presentation about your companies product roadmap in the style of a TED talk you’d get laughed out of the room! (That doesn’t stop so many companies trying to ape Steve Jobs, but those are usually also seen as inauthentic.)

And, perhaps unlike at TED, at most places you don’t get to choose how the stage looks. I like to walk around a little. This, I feel, makes the presentation look more dynamic but also means that I can’t look at my notes all the time and I have to engage with that audience; double win! But you can’t always do that. Maybe the stage is too small; perhaps they’re recording and they don’t like you moving out of shot continually; maybe the microphone is attached to the lectern.

What I’m saying is, while the advice is probably great for when you give your TED Talk, you’re going to have to allow for a much greater degree of outside control for most presentations you have to give.

But overall, the advice is good. It covers everything from how to structure the talk, to preparation (including your slides, and whether you should even use any), stage presence, voice and how to work best with your strengths and weaknesses.

Where it lost me, though, are the last few chapters (“Reflection”). After talking about how to give a great talk only at the end does it discuss why it’s important and why you should do it. The little bit of TED history is quite interesting but the book probably could have done without it — presumably if you’re reading the book you’re already convinced — or maybe put it at the beginning as a form of motivation for reading the rest.

Ironically, people who don’t want to ever give a talk are the very people that the last section is really aimed at, unfortunately they’re never going to read it.

Of course, that’s mostly a quibble in an otherwise decent guide. Not everyone is going to want to give talk, but if you do it’s worth a look.

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