Public Speaking for the 21st Century

Review: TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking

Connect, narrate, persuade, explain, reveal – and practice, practice, practice

Let‘s start with news you can use – if you‘re in the market for a how to book about public speaking, I suggest you get this one.  You won‘t escape the underlying „you can get if you really want“ theme so prevalent in the genre, but  here it comes in much milder form than usual.  If you need to work on an important presentation urgently, invest in the accompanying „Udemy“ course, too. Anderson delivers it himself and it comes with some helpful worksheets:


The combination is probably the best value-for-money public speaking training material you can find in the English language market. It will almost certainly work for you, provided you are the rare kind of learner able to hone her public speaking skills in a self-directed fashion. Because even if you apply all the useful techniques that Anderson introduces, you still need to practice your delivery.

Recruit an audience

And you‘ll need practice it in front of an audience – an audience which is willing to listen and willing to listen more than once. Not easy for autodidacts, but doable.

So, if you are willing to pester friends and family with your presentation for a couple of weeks: get the book, buy the course, apply the advice and practice as much as you can. You have every chance that your performance as a public speaker will improve significantly.

This just in case you are busy and were reading this article purely to help you decide whether or not to buy the book. Buy it. And get the Udemy course. The video lectures in combination with the blow by blow worksheets make it much easier to actually apply the ideas and create a presentation.

If you have time and would like to know more about the book, read on by all means. Initially, Anderson does wax a little too grandiose about the power of speeches and presentations on the internet, but I guess that‘s to be expected from the Head of TED.

Language is awesome

It is a bit of struggle to get past the „Prologue“ and „Foundation“ with its‘ college dorm-room philosophy: „Humans have evolved a technology that make this possible (the communication of ideas). It‘s called language.“ Reading it, you feel like passing the joint and saying –„Yeah, man. Language is a technology. That‘s amazing“.  –  or „Our ideas make us who we are“.

Anderson obviously skipped the Hume lectures and the Scot‘s insight that reason is a „slave to passion“ while he was at Oxford.

And of course there is a fair amount of the ever popular brain and “neurotalk”: „Rich, neurologically encoded patterns of information inside the woman‘s brain are somehow copied and transferred to the 1200 brains in the audience. These pattern will remain in those brains for the rest of their lives impacting their behaviour years into the future.“

It seems as if every writer of business and self-improvement book feels the need to make his output sound scientific by talking about neurons and the brain. This is unfortunate, because it often fails to provide any insights. If we agree that there is no divine spirit dwelling in the brain, every cognitive process by definition involves the biological matter inside the skull.

Shaping the brain

Unfortunately, business book neurotalk is often misleading and sometimes just plain wrong. Listening to a presentation once will most likely not leave any durable traces in the brain. Learning does shape the brain, but learning takes time, revision and plenty of practice . The audience will simply forget the content if it isn‘t reinforced, no matter how skillful the presentation. “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand“, Confucius is supposed to have said 450 BC. Long before there was neurotalk and modern science.

You also have to navigate past the preachy, seemingly inevitable ideas -can-save the-world stuff: „Ideas that could solve our toughest problem often remain invisible because the brilliant people in whose mind the reside of lack confidence or the know-how to share those ideas effectively.“ Like everybody who has been binging on Silicon Valley Kool-Aid , Anderson seems to be convinced that it‘s all about ideas, innovation and technology. Politics, power and distribution of wealth are ideas that don‘t seem to flourish in sunny California.

But once you made it through the prologue, Anderson‘s polished, self-deprecating style  makes for much better reading than the tedious self-aggrandizing and militant positive thinking so common in American self-improvement literature. Or to say it with Steven Rosenbaum, the American TED speaker who wrote a fawning review for “Forbes” magazine: „Anderson‘s thinking, his evolution, and his emerging leadership in the world of spoken word storytelling is in turns both inspirational and remarkably useful.“

Beware the Org Bore

In addition to the style, Anderson‘s book distinguishes itself by framing a successful talk as a gift, the gift of an idea. This is a good metaphor because it helps to avoid the four types of talk that he warns against: the sales pitch, the ramble, the org bore and the inspiration perfomance. The org bore, i.e. a monothematic rant about the wonders of the organization you work for; and the sales pitch – are in my experience more common in businesses, especially in Germany.

Like every good English language how-to book, the guide presents a mix and match „tool box“. Anderson calls his tools: connection, narration, persuasion, explanation and revelation. These are useful techniques and once he gets on to practical part, the book becomes very valuable. He livens up the narrative with plenty of examples and excerpts from conversations with TED superstars like Ken Robinson and Amy Cuddy.

Cuddy is an interesting case, because the results she based her wildly successful TED talk on are actually hotly debated in the scientific community, to say the least. But this kind of critical, questioning stance isn‘t Anderson‘s forte and he doesn‘t even mention the controversy (For more information, take a look here:


TED freaks also get plenty of TED history, behind the scenes anecdotes and some insights into Chris Anderson‘s own journey.  Anderson took over the TED conferences from its colorfull founder Richard Saul Wurman in 2001. As he reveals in the book, “I was reeling from the near collapse of the company I had spent fifteen years building and was terrified of another huge public failure.”

The approach in a nutshell: Distil your throughline, own your vulnerability

The strength of the book is its realism when it comes to the difficulties of creating an excellent presentation and its focus on actionable advice. From appropriate dress to calming your nerves, the bulk of the book brims with useful tips. Spend time on distilling the “throughline” of your talk into 15 words, own your vulnerability and express it onstage. Emphasize parable and metaphor in your storytelling.

Avoid bombarding people with information, don‘t put bullet points on slides and read them off.  Avoid airy expressions of gratitude when you start and finish, focus on the big questions and assertions that stoke curiosity. His exhortations to revise, rehearse, and rethink your story and the emphasis on practice and rehearsal are to the point.

The book can also be read as a helpful writing guide or a primer for effective communication in general.  It’s disappointing that the closing chapters once again devolve into overenthusiastic cheerleading about TED‘s world-changing powers. He does at least achieve what in presenting lingo is sometimes called the „loop“, i.e. coming back to the opener in closing.

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