Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #1: How Schools Kill Creativity (Ken Robinson)

Ken RobinsonTEDTalk countdown: the #1 most-watched video on TED.

Video and Transcript

The Big Idea:  “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

The overall construct of the speech:  Loosely persuasive, using humor and stories/examples to increase receptivity for his message.

Not perfect: 

Some digressions. This was the sort of speech that is much more engaging if you don’t try to outline it.  While it all flowed, it sometimes digressed. He was masterful, however, at segueing in and out of his digressions.  For example, he talked about moving from Stratford-on-Avon to Los Angeles as a way to segue into two stories, one that somewhat related to his topic, and another that didn’t (but both were funny).  In the first story, he had the audience imagine William Shakespeare as a seven year old.  In the second story he told about his son’s displeasure with moving to America.  He ended that story with “ . . . she was the main reason we were leaving the country.” And moved on to making his point.  “But something strikes you when you move to America . . . “

Verbal fillers— In the first two minutes alone, he had about 15 short “uhs.”    Because they were so short, they were not highly noticeable.  However, with a little awareness, it is easy to reduce the quantity of uhs.

Black suit with a dark background (from the front angle).  Men have fewer fashion choices than women, but a black suit blends in with a darkbackground.  A dark gray suit might have been a better choice.

What he nailed:

A message that resonates.  This talk, as the most-viewed talk on TED, clearly resonates with many people.  Viewers likely feel the pang of regret for their own (or a loved one’s) education because “the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”  And, if viewers have children in their lives, or simply care about the future, the message both calls for change and inspires hope.

Humor.  Ken Robinson has a natural, somewhat dry humor, one that bubbles up with apparent effortlessness.  In his  19.5 minute talk, there were 22 laughs.  His first five laughs came from self-deprecation.  For me, his British accent enhanced the humor.

Ten seconds in to his talk:  “Good morning. How are you? It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I’m leaving.” (Laughter)

Less than a minute later he gets the next laugh: “If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education — actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education. (Laughter) You’re not asked. And you’re never asked back, curiously. That’s strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, ‘What do you do?’ and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, ‘Oh my God,’ you know, ‘Why me? My one night out all week.’”(Laughter)

Started with humor.  Ended with heart.  Although there were 22 laughs in his talk, there were none for about the last three and a half minutes.  The last portion of his talk ended with a moving story about a little girl who couldn’t sit still in class and then, a call for change.  The humor relaxed people and made them receptive. The moving story took people out of their heads and moved their hearts.  Humor to heart to message—an effective pattern, as long as the humor and the heart-story are relevant to the message.

Use of Stories/visual examples:

  • Being an educator at a dinner party
  • Little girl drawing God
  • Son’s Nativity Play
  • Shakespeare as a child
  • Moving to Los Angeles/teen son
  • Aliens view of education
  • Disembodied professors
  • Wife cooking vs. him cooking
  • Story of Gillian Lynne

Use of dialogue:

He didn’t just narrate his stories, he had his characters use dialogue, which made the stories come alive.  For example, instead of just having the audience imagine a seven year-old William Shakespeare, he acted out how Shakespeare’s father might have talked to him:  “‘Go to bed, now,’ to William Shakespeare, ‘and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.’”

Referencing other presenters:  While the video audience might not have appreciated his references to other presenters at that particular TED conference, his live audience surely did.  By referring to other presentations, he connected his talk with the entire event and created a stronger common bond with his live audience.

Memorable statements:

My favorite: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

The Big Take Away:  Start with humor.  End with heart.

Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #2: How Great Leaders Inspire Action (Simon Sinek)


TEDTalk Countdown:  the #2 most-watched video on TED.

Video and Transcript

The Big Idea: People don’t buy what you do.  They buy why you do it.

The overall construct of the speech:  Persuasive, using logic, research and anecdotes

Not perfect:

His opening rhetorical question took me off-track at the start. “How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume?”

And, just when I was about to ponder that question, he came in quickly with another question.  “Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions?”

The problem, for me, with the first question was that he just threw it out there, saying it quickly and then not having a pause for me to reflect for a moment.  And the question was not specifically related to the topic of his speech.  The second question was more related to his topic.  He even tells the audience that with using the opening phrase, “Or better . . .”  Why even bother with that first question?

Perhaps he wanted to build momentum with a series of rhetorical questions.  Right after the second question he says, “For example:  Why is Apple so innovative?”

Building momentum with three rhetorical questions is an excellent device, but I think he missed the boat with the first question.

A minor observation:  he had a slightly distracting habit of pushing his glasses up.  He did this more than a dozen times–which was not so often as to be highly noticeable, but as an eye glass wearer, I noticed it.

What he nailed:

Conversational style:  His attire was casual (personally, I thought the jeans were too casual), his style was relaxed and his voice was soothing and resonant.

Persuasive Structure:

  • Got attention with thought-provoking rhetorical questions and statements 

(7 questions in the first minute.  The statements also foreshadowed the examples he would expand on).  This made the audience lean-forward mentally, anticipating the answers.

  • Built suspense with “I made a discovery”
  • Previewed his main point  with “there’s a pattern . . . “
  • Used a sexy title for his concept:  “The Golden Circle”
  • Used stories/examples to illustrate his concept (Apple, the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr.).  He also had a pattern to his story telling, contrasting failures and successes (Dell vs. Apple, Samuel Pierpont Langley vs. the Wright Brothers, TiVo vs. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr—well, that contrast was a bit of a stretch).
  • Had a little bit of humor:  He got a couple of laughs in this speech.  My favorite was when he was talking about Dr. King.  “And, by the way, he gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”
  • Repetition of a foundational phrase:  He said this phrase seven times:  “People don’t buy what you do.  They buy why you do it.”  The repetition of the phrase and its echo structure made it very memorable.  He said it so often, that he could have had the audience chime in the last few times by starting the phrase for them “People don’t buy what you do . . . (motion to the audience to complete the phrase) . . . They buy why you do it.”
  • Memorable visual:  He only used a flip chart, and made some fairly quick and messy diagrams to illustrate a couple of concepts.  It fit perfectly with his casual style and the physicality of his interacting with the flip chart was more personal than showing slides on a screen.


The Big Take Away:  The idea of “start with why” is one speakers should well remember.  Build your speech from the why of what you do and why your audience would care.  Persuade in your presentations by focusing on the emotional “why” with reason and logic as supports.

Next week:   The #1 most-viewed TEDTalk  Ken Robinson “How Schools Kill Creativity”

Speaking Tips from TEDTalk #3: The Power of Vulnerability (Brenè Brown)


Brene brown

TEDTalk Countdown:  the #3 most-watched video on TED.

Video and Transcript

The Big Idea:  To be fully alive is to be vulnerable.  Embrace vulnerability.

The overall construct of the speech:  A somewhat chronological retelling of events leading to insight.

Not perfect:

Honestly, I was so engaged by this talk that I found it difficult to find fault.  The number one thing I noticed was that the opening, although highly engaging was a bit meandering.  She didn’t clearly state a main point, but did intrigue me with this statement, transitioning from her first story:

“I want to talk to you and tell you some stories about a piece of my research that fundamentally expanded my perception and really actually changed the way that I live and love and work and parent.

Timing of some of her PowerPoint slides.  For example, she displayed the slide below while saying “and lay the code out for everyone to see. So, where I started was with connection . . .”


Actually, the slide may have been displayed even earlier, but on the video, that is when it was displayed.  Showing this slide while she was saying “and lay the code out for everyone to see” created a distraction as it didn’t match what she was saying.  What would have been better would have been for her to pause after saying “and lay the code out for everyone to see.” (Pause) Display the slide (Pause) and then say, “So, where I started was with connection . . .”

What she nailed:

Highly engaging style:  She seemed very relaxed, yet animated. She had a friendly demeanor, with a conversational tone, open body language, frequent smiling.  In the first minute and a half of her talk, she was smiling for about 1 minute of that time (she was telling a story and the only time she wasn’t smiling was when she was saying dialogue of another person).

Use of common, authentic language:

(at first meeting with therapist) “And I think I have a problem, and I need some help.” And I said, “But here’s the thing: no family stuff, no childhood shit.” (Laughter) “I just need some strategies.”(Laughter) (Applause) Thank you. So she goes like this. (Laughter) And then I said, “It’s bad, right?” And she said, “It’s neither good nor bad.” (Laughter) “It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

Being vulnerable: She practiced what she preached when she talked about having a breakdown and seeing a therapist.

Use of stories:  She opened with a story and had a few more stories woven into her talk.

Story 1:  (opening) Story of meeting planner not wanting to call her a researcher

Story 2:  Story of her as a young researcher

Story 3:  Story of her research (extended)

Story 4:  Story of her seeing a therapist

Use of humor:

She got her first laugh in fewer than 30 seconds into her talk.  And she got her second only about 20 seconds after that.  She had several instances of humor throughout the talk. The audience laughed about 20 times during her 20 minute talk.  Not bad for a talk on a serious subject!

Here is part of her opening story, showing where she got her first two laughs:

So, I’ll start with this: a couple years ago, an event planner called me because I was going to do a speaking event. And she called, and she said, “I’m really struggling with how to write about you on the little flier.” And I thought, “Well, what’s the struggle?” And she said, “Well, I saw you speak, and I’m going to call you a researcher, I think, but I’m afraid if I call you a researcher, no one will come, because they’ll think you’re boring and irrelevant.” (Laughter)And I was like, “Okay.” And she said, “But the thing I liked about your talk is you’re a storyteller. So I think what I’ll do is just call you a storyteller.” And of course, the academic, insecure part of me was like, “You’re going to call me a what?” And she said, “I’m going to call you a storyteller.” And I was like, “Why not magic pixie?” (Laughter).

Her humor was not only what she said, but how she said it, with facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice which showed her reactions to situations.

The basis of her humor was largely self-deprecation, one of the “safest” forms of humor.

Use of highly quotable phrases:

“Stories are just data with a soul.”

“Life’s messy, clean it up, organize it and put it into a bento box.”  The unusual use of “bento box” is what made this memorable for me.  As an aside, if you don’t know what a bento box is, it’s a divided meal box, common in Japanese cuisine.  Even if you didn’t know what a bento box meant, you would understand from the context that she meant she liked to contain the mess of life.

“They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.”

“BS Meter”

“You cannot selectively numb.”

“I’m enough.”

Interpretation of original research:  She wasn’t referencing someone else’s material.  She spent years researching the topic.

Memorable visual:  The one at the very top, “You are enough” is stuck in my brain

The Big Take Away:   Be real. Be vulnerable. Connect.

Next week:  How Great Leaders Inspire Action (Simon Sinek)