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

8 July 2014. Tomorrow I will be participating in a workshop for Phd students at Wageningen UR. The theme is: How to tell a good story about your research? Three Phd students that participated in the storytelling game Famelab, including the winner Pádraic Flood, will give their winning talk and tell the attendants what they have learnt from the ‘talkers’ training they have received.

For the discussion afterwards, I have selected three characteristics of an excellent speaker. I will use three famous TED talks to illustrate these characteristics. Because we need to analyze as many good (TED) talks as we can to become an excellent speaker.

So what have excellent TED speakers in common?

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.