Reviewed in the United States on May 6, 2016
TED Talks are a unique and marvelous gift to the world. They have transformed the public speaking landscape; they have certainly upgraded my world-view.
It is therefore easy to predict that a book authored by the most visible face of, and the driving force behind TED Talks is destined to become a ubiquitous guide book—perhaps eventually become a classic.
I have studied many books on public speaking. I pre-ordered this one the moment I heard of it. It has been one of the most satisfying reads on the subject yet. I recommend that if you get only one book on public speaking, let it be this one. I further recommend that no matter how many other books you have on public speaking, if you are a serious student of this engaging art, then get this book.
The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking is beautifully and thoughtfully put together. It is detailed and thorough, yet not difficult or dry. It has five sections (Foundation, Talk Tools, Preparation Process, On Stage, & Reflection). It is simultaneously pragmatic and inspiring—can’t put it down. I badly want to highlight, make notes, visit links etc., & yet I don’t because I can’t get myself to stop reading—even though very little is new to me! For sure, I will have to read this book repeatedly!
The first four sections are excellent, but it is the last section, “Reflections” that takes the book to another level. Here the author exquisitely shares his stories; how he first got exposed to TED, and his subsequent voyage to the present. It is a magical TED Talk like experience. It is the best part of the book. Only after completing this section did I get a fuller understanding of why TED has become the phenomenon it has.
If you are already knowledgeable about public speaking, I recommend you start out by reading this section first. Here are some of my highlights
• I wish to persuade you of something: That however much public speaking skills matter today, they’re going to matter even more in the future.
• There was an exhilaration in learning how many different types of expertise there were in the world.
• On day three, something really strange happened. My overstimulated brain began sparking like a lightning storm. Every time a new speaker got up and spoke, it felt like a new thunderbolt of wisdom. Ideas from one talk would connect in a thrilling way with something shared by others two days earlier.
• For my entire entrepreneurial life, my mantra has been to follow the passion. Not my passion—other people’s.
• Passion was a proxy for potential.
• We must distinguish knowledge from understanding. The key to understanding anything was to understand the context in which it sat … It is only by looking at that larger pattern that you gain actual understanding.
• So actually what made TED work was not really just the synergy between technology, entertainment, and design. It was actually the connectedness of all knowledge.
• In the years since then, I’ve become evermore convinced of the significance of the connectedness of knowledge.
• A deeper understanding of our own humanity comes not from listening to your parents or your friends, nor to psychologists, neuroscientists, historians, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, or spiritual teachers. It comes from listening to all of them.
• We’re entering an era where we all need to spend a lot more time learning from each other.
• The revolution in public speaking is something everyone can be part of. If we can find a way to truly listen to each other, to learn from each other, the future glitters with promise.
In the first 4 sections, (Foundation, Talk Tools, Preparation Process, & On Stage) the author treats the material with even-handed erudition. He discusses common traps. His explanation and evangelization of “the throughline” is excellent, and solidified with examples from TED talks. He conveys the idea of a talk being a journey compellingly. He provides a checklist. He discusses five core tools—connection, narration, explanation, persuasion, and revelation—very well.
The author shines through as wise, thorough, and helpful; committed to sharing everything without holding back, without taking sides, or being preachy or superior.
I will cover one chapter in detail to show that this is so. Chapter 11 discusses scripting vs. not scripting, and memorizing vs. reading. Here the author shares lessons learned from the past and how they found it best not to be too rigid in rules on talk delivery, even though the rules generally make sense. He talks about a phase in preparation called the “Uncanny Valley” where everything is super-close to seeming real but is not quite there. Here are some of my highlights:
• There are many ways to prepare for and deliver a TED talk, and it’s important to find the one that’s right for you.
• More than anything else, what matters is that speakers are comfortable and confident, giving the talk in a way that best allows them to focus on what they’re passionate about.
• Today we don’t have set rules. We just have suggestions for helping speakers find the mode of delivery that will be most powerful for them.
• So what I’d say to speakers planning to memorize their talks is this: “That’s great. You’re giving yourself the best chance for a huge hit. But it is absolutely essential to take yourself through the Uncanny Valley and don’t get stuck there. If you’re not willing to commit to do that, do not memorize!”
• There’s a lot to be said for going unscripted. It can sound fresh, alive, real, like your thinking out loud … But it is important to distinguish between unscripted and unprepared. In an important talk there’s no excuse for the latter.
• Frankly the old-fashioned method of a set of punchy notes handwritten on cards is still a decent way to keep yourself on track.
• TED speakers have widely different opinions, by the way, on whether a memorized script or a prepared talk-in-the-moment is the better way to go.
• Dan Gilbert—A great talk is both scripted and improvisational. It is precisely like a great jazz performance.
• Rehearse your impromptu remarks … If everything in a talk leads in perfect lockstep fashion towards its conclusion, it wins points for logic but can leave the audience feeling as though they have been on a forced march rather than a pleasant, companionable walk.
• The majority of TED speakers do in fact script their whole talk and memorize it, and do their best to avoid letting it sound memorized.
Every chapter is equally strong. I repeat, this is a book absolutely worth owning. It is an excellent Go-To Guide book and a source of inspiration.
The author is also refreshingly blunt on occasion:
• If you’ve picked up this book because you love the idea of strutting the stage and being a TED Talk star, inspiring audiences with your charisma, please, put it down right now … Style without substance is awful.
• If you have dreams of being a rock-star public speaker, pumping your audience as you stride the stage and proclaim your brilliance, I beg you to reconsider … Inspiration can’t be performed. It’s an audience response to authenticity, courage, selfless work and genuine wisdom.
On occasion the author passes the baton to an expert colleague—to cover a subject—and then takes it back and continues. It’s a nice touch.
• Tom Rielly tells us, in his own words, about visuals and graphics—in all its technical glory.
• Kelly Stoetzel tells us, in her own words, on how to handle wardrobe stress—the last thing we need.
These lines jumped out and stuck with me:
• Done right, a talk is more powerful then anything in written form.
• Today in the connected era, we should resurrect the noble art and make it education’s fourth R: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic … and rhetoric.
• Once people have been primed, it’s much easier to make your main argument. And how do you do that? By using the most noble tool of them all, a tool that can wield the most impact over the very long term. And its named using an old-fashioned philosophical word that I love: Reason.
• Most people are capable of being convinced by logic, but they aren’t always energized by it. And without being energized, they may quickly forget the argument and move on.
• Not every talk that is reason based will see immediate success. These talks are generally harder to process than some others, and they may not be the most popular. But I believe they are amongst the most important talks on our site, because reason is the best way of building wisdom for the long term.
• The Pinker/Goldstein dialogue may be the single most important argument contained in a TED talk, yet as of 2015 it has fewer than 1 million views. Reason is not a fast-growing weed but a slow-growing oak tree.
• At TED, most of our talks are told in more conversational language. But the ability to paint a compelling picture of the future is truly one of the greatest gifts a speaker can bring.
• Having no slides at all is better than bad slides.
• We’re planning to introduce more debate to future TED events.
On one occasion I found myself disagreeing a bit with the author. Given that Mr. Chris Anderson is the world’s foremost subject matter expert, I’m probably wrong, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. The author appears to be more accepting of the use of notes than he is of teleprompters or confidence monitors. I find this a little puzzling because the same principle should apply for all three. The golden rule when using notes is “Don’t read and speak at the same time.” I struggle to see why this cannot be applied to confidence monitors and teleprompters too.
What has alternately been called “power reading / see-stop-say technique / Churchill-Roosevelt-Reagan method” goes like this:
1. Look at the line you are about to read (from notes, computer monitor, confidence monitor or teleprompter) and take an imaginary snapshot of them.
2. Bring your head up and/or face the audience
4. Look at an audience member, establish connection, and conversationally deliver the words, as if speaking to only one person.
5. Look down at the next chunk of words and take the next snapshot
There is no fake eye contact or inauthenticity if this is done well. It also requires that reading notes be made differently. The main idea is “never let words come out of your mouth when your eyes are on your notes, or the teleprompter, or the computer/confidence monitor.” If interested, more details can be seen in chapter 12 of the James Humes’ book Speak Like Churchill, Stand like Lincoln.
I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. I am certain that you can get as much value from it as I did. I thank the author for giving yet another gift to the world.