Excellent talkers are self-confident and choose one key-message

Because I am a writer and not a speaker, I like to watch TED-talks. Science communicators need to watch and analyze as many good (TED) talks as possible to become a better speaker, and to get our message across. So what have excellent TED speakers in common? I come across three characteristics.

1. Excellent TED speakers are self-confident. Watch the American sports coach Ivan Joseph (viewed more than 1 million times). He is not only extremely self-confident himself, but he also clearly explains that self-confidence is not a gift (either you have it or you don’t). It is a skill that everybody can learn. And this is his key-message: practice, practice, practice. Joseph’s talk seems spontaneous, but he himself, he tells his audience, had practiced many times. He has given presentations for friends, for students, and for colleagues. Dozens of times he had to overcome his fears. Repetition has made him self-confident. Speaking for myself: I am very self-confident when it comes to writing stories. However, I am less experienced in telling stories. So I have to continuously practice to improve my self-confidence.

2. Excellent TED speakers choose one key-message. Take the communication expert Simon Sinek’s TED talk. He presents a simple model for how leaders inspire action, starting with the question ‘Why are I am doing what I am doing?’.And that is his key-message: Organizations need to focus more on WHY they are doing what they are doing, instead of what and how they are making their product. They will then have more success. ‘People buy why you do things, not what you do’, he repeats several times in different words. His examples include Apple, Martin Luther King and the Wright brothers. (By the way, his key message is useful for researchers too. They sometimes forget the why-part of a story, which is what interest the general public most.)

3. Excellent TED speakers illustrate their key-message with appealing examples and beautiful images. In fact, the stories from the best researchers I have heard, were built up with only anecdotes and examples. Watch the renowned Italian plant physiologist Stefano Mancuso . He has the key-message: ‘Plants are much more intelligent than we have always learnt’. Accordingly, he starts with some drawings from the bible, illustrating Noah’s ark. Only animals went in the ark, plants were forgotten. He then switches to a page from Darwin’s book ‘The movement of plants’, in which Darwin had wrongly compared the plant movement with the ‘lower animals’ movement. Furthermore, also David Attenborough was wrong in telling us that the whale is the biggest creature of the world. No, the giant sequoias (a tree weighing in excess of 2000 ton) is the biggest living organisms. Did you know that a rye plant has 13,815,672 roots. Mancuso goes from example to example to illustrate his key-message. Sometimes, he takes his own research as an illustration.

Of course, there are more characteristics than these three. After the meeting on 9 July, I will report further on this theme.