Live from TEDWomen

12 pieces of advice for giving talks that have impact

Courtney E. Martin hosts a special session called "The 19th Minute," and gives valuable insight on how to give a talk that has real impact. Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED

Courtney E. Martin hosts a session called “The 19th Minute,” and shared valuable insight on how to give a talk that has real impact. Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED

Sharing an idea isn’t like snapping your fingers — things don’t just instantly change. But as more people hear an idea over time, it can trickle into people’s thinking — and shifts, both subtle and extreme, can happen as a result. In a TEDWomen session called “The 19th Minute,” host Courtney E. Martin invited several guests to talk about what happened after they gave their 18-minute TED Talk — what changed, as well as what didn’t.

Deborah Rhodes spoke about the momentum her TEDWomen talk has built for using Molecular Breast Imaging rather than traditional mammography to screen for breast cancer under certain conditions. She still has a long way to go, she says, because, “mammography is very entrenched—culturally and medically.” Krista Donaldson talked about how her TEDWomen 2013 talk about a low-cost prosthetic knee led to more than 200 requests from 48 countries — and how the translation of her talk into more than 20 languages helped create that global impact.

After this, Martin shared some tips that she’s used as both a speaker and a coach. We thought they were too good not to pass on to you.

  1. Be unapologetically you. Martin warns speakers not to try to give the proverbial TED Talk. “The worst talks in the world are where someone is trying to give that talk they’ve seen before,” says Martin. “It’s fine to study your favorite TED Talks, but you don’t want to replicate them. Don’t try to be inspirational. Try to be you.”
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  2. Don’t do it all. Do one kickass thing. Martin looks at having a time limit as “a huge gift.” When she spoke at the first TEDWomen, she was given nine minutes to share her take on feminism. “It was the most important writing exercise I have ever done,” she says. “Knowing I had nine minutes to say what mattered most to me, it made me get absolutely clear on what I actually wanted to say.”
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  3. Story is queen. Instead of simply passing on information, Martin suggests thinking about how to reveal it through stories. “Stories are how we process information,” she says. “They’re how we get excited about things.”
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  4. Get sensual. When telling stories, it’s tempting to go abstract to allow them to apply to all those watching. But Martin urges speakers in the opposite direction. “Be highly specific and sensory. Give the smell, the taste, the feelings, the textures,” she says. “What’s so interesting is that people transpose their own experience onto that.”
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  5. Mind the power of threes. Three is the archetypical number for a reason, and Martin suggests thinking in trios to build arguments. “If you are trying to do too much, think about: are there three things that are most important?” she says.
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  6. Jargon is death. “That’s a little strongly worded, but it’s how I feel,” says Martin. “We spend a lot of time talking to people in our fields. But when we talk to people outside of the club, jargon is distancing. It tells us, ‘This talk is not for me.’” Martin has a clever tip for how to break through the jargon wall: Write your talk as a letter to someone who you care about, but who isn’t in your field. It can help you peel back technicality in a warm way.
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  7. Surprise your audience. “Give the counterintuitive conclusion,” says Martin. “People turn off when they think they’re hearing something too familiar. Jolt them awake.”
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  8. Be the (vulnerable) hero. “People don’t want to hear about the perfect person,” says Martin. “They love the person who has discovered something on a journey.” A few examples: Jill Bolte Taylor sharing her experience of having a stroke. Aimee Mullins revealing her feelings on the word ‘disabled.’ Martin urges speakers to reveal their flaws, wounds and even failures.
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  9. Do something scary before your talk. “Get that nervous energy out before you’re on stage,” says Martin. For her, that meant giving her talk as if it were the real thing in front of a writers group where she knew different members would be highly critical. “By the time I got to the stage, I wasn’t nearly as afraid.”
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  10. Stumble as yourself. Martin suggests a subtle re-aligning of what it means to give a successful talk. “The goal is not to give a perfect talk — perfect is boring,” she says. “What’s inspiring is a genuine person, sharing what they’re passionate about. Walk off the stage with your authentic integrity.”
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  11. Do what makes you feel badass. In a short Q&A session, an audience member asked what to wear and how to use body language. “Wear something that makes you feel badass,” says Martin. “If it’s boots, wear boots. If it’s stilettos, wear stilettos.” As for how to move, Martin says to do what feels best to you — just do it with purpose. “If you need to pace, pace intentionally,” she says.
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  12. Be okay with being scared. In the Q&A, another audience member asked Martin how she encourages speakers to deal with their fear of public speaking. “It’s people who are the most freaked out that bring that great, raw energy,” says Martin. “The biggest fear people have about public speaking is being exposed as imperfect — they’re afraid of showing their wounds, of stumbling on lines. But those are the things that an audience relates to. As a coach, my job is to steer people toward a talk that feels bravely genuine.”