Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #8: Underwater Astonishments (David Gallo)

This is the third in a series of 10 posts, looking at  public speaking lessons from each of the top 10-most viewed TED Talks.David Gallo_Underwater Astonishments

video and transcript

For five and a half minutes, I was transported to the wonder years of my childhood. Mesmerized by the biodiversity of undersea life just as I was as a child when I watched episodes of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, I almost forgot I was supposed to be analyzing the talk.

David Gallo’s “Underwater Astonishments” is one of the “Talks in Less than 6 minutes” TED talks.  A good talk doesn’t have to be long.  In fact, the speaker doesn’t even need to be the star of the talk.

The overall construct of the speech:  Narrated video. In this talk, David Gallo essentially narrated video showing some of the fascinating biodiversity of the ocean, primarily focusing on bioluminescence and cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish).  Gallo was visible for a total of less than a minute, only about 16 percent of the total time.  The longest stretch was about 28 seconds.

Not perfect.  My only major quibble was that I didn’t know exactly what his main point was or where he was going.  He just started with his first point:

“We’re going to go on a dive to the deep sea, and anyone that’s had that lovely opportunity knows that for about two and half hours on the way down, it’s a perfectly positively pitch-black world. And we used to see the most mysterious animals out the window that you couldn’t describe: these blinking lights — a world of bioluminescence, like fireflies.

He also ended very abruptly (although it didn’t seem that odd for this talk) He made a smooth transition from the video of an octopus exhibiting camouflage:

“Just an amazing animal, it can change color and texture to match the surroundings. Watch him blend right into this algae.One, two, three. (Applause) And now he’s gone, and so am I. Thank you very much.”

What the speaker nailed: 

Engaging the audience’s imagination.  Right from the get-go, with “We’re going to go on a dive to the deep sea . . .” he made the audience fellow explorers.  He then fascinated the audience with video of bioluminescent creatures and cephalopod coloration.  The audience oohed and ahhed when he replayed, in reverse, the amazing camouflage sequence with an octopus (shown in the picture sequence above).

Conversational style.  I almost felt like the speaker and I were in his living room and he was sharing his passion with me.  He used short sentences.  He didn’t use complicated jargon (he even briefly defined “cephalopod” as “head-foot”).  His language was colorful.  “Bouncing butts.”  “Bingo.”

Humor.  Some examples:

“Flying Turkey.”

“Cephalopods — head-foots. As a kid I knew them as calamari, mostly.

” . . . the male has managed to split his coloration so the female only always sees the kinder gentler squid in him . . . Now I’m told that’s not just a squid phenomenon with males, but I don’t know.”


The Biggest Take-Away:  If you have fascinating visuals, you can let them be the star.

Next week:  Amy Cuddy:  Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #9: The SixthSense Interaction (Pattie Maes)

hand phone

Video and transcript here

The Big Idea:  An inexpensive, wearable device (SixthSense) can interact with our environment to give us easy access to relevant information to help us make better decisions.

The overall construct of the speech:  A demonstration, mostly via video.  The demonstration was of a device that functioned somewhat like Google Glass, but which was worn like a necklace, made of off-the-shelf components: a webcam, a portable, battery-powered projection system and a mirror.  The components communicated with a person’s cell phone, which acted as the communication and computation device.

Not perfect:  This speech lacked many of the polished presentation aspects you might expect from a TED Talk.

This was apparent in the very first sentence, a long, somewhat confusing opening sentence:   “I’ve been intrigued by this question of whether we could evolve or develop a sixth sense — a sense that would give us seamless access and easy access to meta-information or information that may exist somewhere that may be relevant to help us make the right decision about whatever it is that we’re coming across.” 

Yikes.  “Meta-information.”   Pattie Maes tried to explain that term, which was helpful, but I found myself distracted by such academic  jargon.

Her attempts at humor also fell a bit flat.  For example:  “When you meet someone here at TED — and this is the top networking place, of course, of the year — you don’t shake somebody’s hand and then say, ‘Can you hold on for a moment while I take out my phone and Google you?’”  It’s a funny idea to imagine, but she didn’t play it up.  She acted it out quite quickly, without any exaggeration of movement or facial expression (which would have made it funnier), and then she didn’t pause for people to imagine the silliness of it.

The ending was also quite abrupt.  Pattie Maes again credited the  PhD student, Pranav Mistry, who “was the genius” behind the device (and I kept wondering, “Well, then why isn’t he up there?”). But, on the positive side, she did end with stretching our imaginations even more “. . . maybe in another 10 years we’ll be here with the ultimate sixth sense brain implant.”

Clothing:  Yeah, I’m going to mention what she was wearing.  All black.  Boring, especially with a dark blue background, with dark shadows and a black stage.  Also since she was wearing the device, her black shirt made it harder to see.

Pattie Maes

What the speaker nailed:  Not talking too much!  This talk is only about 8.5 minutes long, and much of it is a video demonstration of what was a fascinating idea in 2009, when the talk was presented.

Some of the demonstrations:

  • Telling time by drawing a watch on your arm.
  • Taking pictures by making a rectangle with your fingers.
  • Getting a word cloud on someone you just met with words from their blog and personal web pages.

word cloud

With the example of the device creating a word cloud when you meet someone, she effectively circled back to her opening example of meeting someone and the awkwardness of asking them to wait while you googled them to get some information on them.  Instead of that awkward exchange, the SixthSense device would project a word cloud about them.

Clearly the reason this speech was the ninth-most watched TED video is that it was a captivating idea, demonstrated clearly.

The biggest take-away:  A unique idea, well-described or demonstrated, will captivate an audience.

Next week: David Gallo: Underwater Astonishments

Speaking Tips from TED Talk #10 The Puzzle of Motivation (Dan Pink)

This is the first in a series of 10 posts, looking at the public speaking lessons from each of the top 10-most viewed TED Talks.

Dan Pink:  The Puzzle of Motivation

Daniel Pink

video and transcript here

The Big Idea:  Science has proven what business is only slowly realizing: Using incentives as rewards in business doesn’t work well for most tasks.  In fact they can destroy creativity.

The overall construct of the speech:  A persuasive speech using the construct of a lawyer presenting a case to a jury (the audience).

Not perfect:  He used um as a filler word fairly often, about six times in just the first minute (and not so much after that).  He also sometimes spoke using a pointing finger gesture, which can make some people feel like they are being scolded or talked down to.  Sometimes he spoke so quickly that he seemed to get out of breath momentarily.

Conversational style of speaking:  “Then they present all of the stuff that they’ve developed to their teammates . . .”  “Stuff” may not be the most elegant word, but it’s how we talk.

Natural gestures:  His gestures fit his emphatic personality, with his hands moving in rhythm to the cadence of his speech. He also used descriptive gestures (e.g. when he talked about having a narrow focus, he held up his hands like blinders on either side of his face).  Some of his gestures were repetitive, but I didn’t find them distracting.

Attention-getting opening:  “I need to make a confession . . .”

Humor at the start:  four lines—all self-deprecating humor—got laughs in the first minute.  One example:   “I, in fact, graduated in the part of my law school class that made the top 90 percent possible.”

Global dexterity:  He clarified meaning for the audience in Oxford, England: “Now, in America, law is a professional degree: you get your university degree, then you go on to law school.”  He also used a “local” example:  “Let’s go across the pond to the London School of Economics.”

Set the stage for persuasion:  “I want to make a hard-headed, evidence-based, dare I say lawyerly case, for rethinking how we run our businesses.”

Gave the audience a role:  “So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, take a look at this.”

Engaged the audience intellectually and personally (by using “you” language):  “Suppose I’m the experimenter. I bring you into a room. I give you a candle, some thumbtacks and some matches. And I say to you, ‘Your job is to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn’t drip onto the table.’ Now what would you do?”

Used visuals to enhance the audience’s imagination.  The experiment is easier to imagine with a visual.

Dan pink candle problem

Acknowledged his own expertise, without tooting his own horn:  “I spent the last couple of years looking at the science of human motivation, particularly the dynamics of extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators.”.

Sign-posted important points:  “Let me tell you why this is so important.” Statements like this, if not overdone, get the listener to pay closer attention.  He also said some things twice for emphasis.  “Think about your own work.  Think about your own work.”  And, “And here’s the best part.  Here’s the best part.”  At the end, he was a bit obvious with “Let me wrap up” but it did frame the summary that followed as a summary.

Appealed to the audience’s own experience for validation of the concept:   “Think about your own work.  Are the problems that you face . . .”

Left us wanting more:  In talking about a new “operating system for our businesses” he mentions three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  He then states “I want to talk today only about autonomy.”  Very smart move if he has a book out with the other points, or wants to have people hire him to speak on the other points.

Supported his points with examples:  “Let me give you some examples of some radical notions of self-direction.”

A line you can use when hardly anyone raises their hands:  “Looks like less than half of you.”  This is a funny line because even “less than half” is a gross exaggeration.

Your thoughts?