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What I Learned about Public Speaking at TEDx

Several weeks ago I received a tremendous honor—I was invited to speak at TEDx Boulder. I’m a huge TED fan, and I believe the TED mission of “spreading ideas worth sharing” is incredibly important for individuals, businesses and our society.

So, of course, I expected to invest a lot of time and effort into preparing for my first TED talk. However, what I didn’t realize was how much I would learn during the process—knowledge that I believe is relevant well beyond the TED stage. I’m sharing four of my discoveries here in the hope that you will benefit as much as I did.

1. People care about what you believe, not just the facts.

This lesson is particularly important for those of us in the business community. Any good TED talk, keynote presentation, or everyday business meeting is founded on belief, not just the numbers and statistics. As humans we’re naturally wired to react emotionally first. Only after that initial response do we search for supporting facts, and we generally seek out data that confirms our emotional reactions.

Think about the most persuasive speech or presentation you’ve ever heard. Chances are it was built on what the speaker believes. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave an “I have a dream” speech, not an “I have some facts” speech. FDR’s famous inauguration speech was built off the belief that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

For a more contemporary business example we can listen to some of Steve Jobs’ speeches. In 2011, he spoke about his belief that “technology alone is not enough.” Jobs asserted: “It’s technology married with liberal arts and the humanities that makes our hearts sing” as he explained why Apple’s competitors in the tablet market had fail.

The lesson here is: The next time you engage an audience, whether it’s for a keynote address or a standard business meeting, start with a strong statement of what you believe, and build your talk from there.

2. Make it personal.

As business people, we often try to distance ourselves from our messages. We hide behind numbers, percentages and fancy graphics. In truth, however, our audiences want to know us as people.

I’ve given more presentations than I could ever count, but my TEDx talk, “Embrace Adversity,” was by far the most personal one I’ve ever given. And it was very difficult to get that personal, revealing what it was like to spend a childhood in poverty and how that experience gave me the strength to succeed in the corporate world. However, that was what my audience wanted and needed—and I received the most enthusiastic response ever.

Your audience can pick up a book on almost any topic, or they could just read your slides. The reason people sit through a presentation is to get to know the “you” behind the facts and figures. Even in the most formal business setting, remember to show who you are as a way of reminding your audience that our work is a human endeavor, no matter how numbers-driven.

This is especially important for leaders who need to inspire. When you bring your full self to a talk, you’ll discover that it’s much easier to bring others along with you.

3. Public speaking is a team sport, so choose your teammates wisely.

We do our best work when we have thought-partners to inspire and challenge us. The TEDx Boulder preparation process includes many hours of peer critiques, during which your fellow speakers provide feedback. My group comprised a wide range of individuals from very diverse backgrounds. The only commonality was that each person was extremely thoughtful and insightful. I witnessed how the process coaxed more out of each of us than we ever knew was there.

The next time you’re planning an important speaking engagement or presentation, find a thought-partner. Ideally this shouldn’t be someone exactly like you, but rather someone who can provide productive challenge. You might even find someone who has a contrasting point of view. You will discover that this kind of critique will increase the quality of your product.

4. It’s a lot harder than it looks.

Really good speakers make it look easy. They can seem casual, free-flowing and un-rehearsed. I’m often told that I look like I’m “just having a relaxed conversation” when I’m on stage. The truth is that it takes a lot of work to look that relaxed and conversational.

For your next presentation, invest the required preparation time. This doesn’t necessarily mean memorizing your talk. In most cases I actually don’t recommend rote memorization, but I do think you need to become very comfortable with your material.

Understand the message you want to convey, the arc of your story line and what you want your audience to take away at the end. When you understand your material this deeply, you really can appear as if you’re just having a conversation with your audience, because you know exactly what you want to say. That kind of preparation is the best way to handle an unexpected question or disruption, because comfort with your material allows you to smoothly move back on track.

I’ve been coaching people on public speaking for many years—literally since my college days—and I’ve learned there’s always opportunity for improvement. I hope this helps next time you have your moment in the spotlight.

Here’s the link to my TED x Talk: Embrace Adversity | Gerry Valentine | TEDxBoulder

 

 

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