Chris Anderson: The best speakers give audiences a reason to want to hear them out

The best speakers avoid jargon, and use familiar metaphors to help listeners wrap their heads around tricky concepts , says Chris Anderson


Chris Anderson.
Chris Anderson.

For a leader, public speaking is the key to unlocking empathy, sharing knowledge and promoting a shared dream. But let’s face it, speaking in front of a crowd is not exactly a cakewalk. In his book, TED Talks—The Official TED Guide To Public Speaking, Chris Anderson, the curator of the talks, offers advice on how to give a successful speech. TED is a non-profit devoted to ideas worth spreading. Edited excerpts:

How can one overcome the fear of speaking in front of a crowd?

We all care enormously how others think of us. So having hundreds of pairs of eyes turned on you is terrifying. Maybe you’ll mess up and everyone will think you’re ridiculous. I think that’s where the real fear comes from.

And that terror is there for a reason—it’s really your ancient fight-or-flight shot of adrenalin. Use it as your motivation. It will make it easier for you to really commit to practising your talk as many times as it takes. In doing that, your confidence will rise.

And once you’re on stage, find some “friends” in the audience—look for faces that seem sympathetic and talk to them, moving your gaze from one to the next.

Mess up? Audiences embrace speakers who are nervous. By saying “Oops, a little nervous here,” you’ll have your listeners rooting for you even more.

You say it is good to admit to nervousness. Can this strategy work for every situation, even during a job interview?

I’d argue that it’s better to show genuine vulnerability—a move that takes guts and shows confidence—than to project false self-assurance. People usually see right through the latter, which can undermine whatever you’re trying to say.

Is there any formula for a great speech? 

No, but there are principles. The best speakers give audiences a reason to want to hear them out. They do this first by establishing a human connection that wins their trust—for example, by telling a humorous anecdote, or just making friendly eye contact. Then, as they deliver the rest of the talk, they use words and concepts regular people already know. The best speakers avoid jargon, and use familiar metaphors to help listeners wrap their heads around tricky concepts (“The way to think of this is as if…”).

TED Talks—The Official TED Guide To Public Speaking: By Chris Anderson, Headline, 269 pages, Rs599.
TED Talks—The Official TED Guide To Public Speaking: By Chris Anderson, Headline, 269 pages, Rs599.

But the single most important thing great speakers have in common is this: They have something truly worth saying.

And the good news is, the skills to be an effective speaker are not natural talents enjoyed by just a few. They are coachable.  

Photographs, infographics, animation—all are believed to dial up a talk’s appeal and also considered important in an office environment. To what extent is that true? 

All of these, as you say, can dial up both the explanatory power of a talk and its aesthetic appeal. But before you invest time in visuals, ask yourself whether you actually need any of it. A third of TED’s most viewed talks don’t use any visuals at all! But here’s when it makes the most sense to use imagery:

■To show something that’s hard to describe.

■To explain something new.

■To delight audiences with moments of visual indulgence that may not even need any explanation

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