Ideas are the currency of the 21st century. You can have brilliant ideas—truly revolutionary ideas—but if you cannot persuade others to act, those ideas don’t matter. Today, thanks to the world-famous TED conference, independently organized TEDx community events, and new research into the science of persuasion, we’ve learned more about what inspires people than we’ve ever known. Using fMRI brain scans to look at blood flow in the brain, we can see which parts of the brain are engaged and when that engagement occurs. We now know what moves people, and we can prove it scientifically.
This post is part of a series of articles based on my new book, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds (St. Martin’s Press).
In March the annual TED conference (Technology/Entertainment/Design) celebrates its 30th anniversary. The event brings together the world’s leaders, thinkers, and innovators to deliver 18-minutes or less TED “talks.” The presentations are informative, educational, and inspiring. They are also wildly addictive. TED talks have been viewed online more than one billion times. TED videos are viewed at the rate of two million times per day. TEDx events are organized eight times a day and have been held in 145 countries. Like it or not, your next presentation is being compared to TED. Business leaders, entrepreneurs, pastors and spiritual leaders are being asked by their audiences, investors, and congregations to be more “TED-like.”
After analyzing more than 500 TED presentations (more than 150 hours) and speaking directly to successful TED speakers and leading neuroscientists in the field of communication and persuasion, I’ve discovered that the most popular TED presentations share three basic principles, or what I call “unbreakable laws.” In my upcoming posts I will explain each of these laws in much further detail along with examples, video links, and interviews. Broadly speaking, ideas that spread are emotional, novel, and memorable.
Emotion: Ideas that spread touch our hearts.
In order for persuasion to occur, you must touch a person’s heart before reaching their head. The most popular TED speakers connect with audiences on a deeply emotional level primarily because they’re storytellers. In my analysis, stories made up 65 to 72 percent of the most successful TED presentations. The best storytellers also use humor, exude commanding body language, and incorporate animated verbal delivery. Above all, they are passionate about their topic; passionate to the point of obsession.
Dr. Larry Smith, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, gave a popular TEDx talk titled, Why You Will Fail To Have a Great Career. He said the formula for success is simple—follow your passion and you’ll have a great career; don’t follow it and you won’t. Smith’s presentation, which is has been viewed more than two million times, is notable for the fact that he doesn’t use any slides. He commands the attention of his audience through the passionate delivery he brings to the topic.
Scientists have discovered that passion—like the enthusiasm that Dr. Smith exudes on stage—is, indeed, contagious. Researchers call it “mood contagion.” In one series of studies leaders who were more “positive” in their communication (passionate, enthusiastic, and optimistic) were perceived to be more effective and, as a result, more likely to persuade their audiences to take a desired action.
You stand a much greater chance of persuading and inspiring your listeners if you express your passionate and meaningful connection to your topic.
Novelty: Ideas that spread teach us something new
YouTube trends manager Kevin Allocca told a TEDx audience that in a world where two days of videos get uploaded every minute, “only that which is truly unique and unexpected can stand out.” Science backs up Allocca’s observation. According to Dr. A. K. Pradeep, “Our brains are trained to look for something brilliant and new, something that stands out, something that looks delicious.”
Ideas stick when they are packaged as new, surprising, and unexpected—something ‘delicious.’ I recently wrote this article about Bill Gates’ TED talk where he released mosquitoes during a presentation on the topic of malaria in third world countries. It was completely unexpected. When the brain detects something unexpected or surprising, it immediately says, “Oh, here’s something new. I’d better pay attention.” The chemical dopamine is released which acts as your brain’s natural “save button.” Dopamine is so important to retention and learning that when it’s present we tend to remember an experience or a message. When it’s absent, nothing seems to stick.
Novelty is the single most effective way to capture a person’s attention.
Memorable: Ideas that spread are easy to recall.
Lackluster content will leave your audience bored, but a memorable presentation is one your audience is much more likely to share long after your presentation is over.
The best TED speakers make their presentations memorable by doing the following:
-Use pictures instead of text on their slides whenever possible (picture superiority).
-Rely on the rule of three to deliver their content (three stories, three parts, etc.)
-Focus on one key theme, the “one thing” they want the audience to know.
Above all, TED talks are memorable because no speaker is allowed to talk for more than 18 minutes on the TED stage. It doesn’t matter if your name is Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Bono, or Tony Robbins who joked that he found the 18-minute rule extra challenging because his shortest seminar was 50 hours. TED curator Chris Anderson said it best, “Eighteen minutes is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.”
The 18-minute rule works because the brain is an energy hog. The average adult human brain only weighs about three pounds, but it consumes an inordinate amount of glucose, oxygen, and blood flow. As the brain takes in new information and is forced to process it, millions of neurons are firing at once, burning energy and leading to fatigue and exhaustion. The act of listening can be as equally draining as thinking hard about a subject.
I can already hear the pushback—How can I possibly be expected to say everything I need to say in 18 minutes? A lot can happen in 18 minutes. John F. Kennedy inspired a nation to look to the stars in 15 minutes. In a 15-minute TED talk, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg inspired millions of women to “lean in.” It took Dr. Martin Luther King a bit longer to share his dream of racial equality—he did it in 17 minutes. If these leaders can inspire their audiences in 18 minutes or less, it’s plenty of time for you to pitch your idea!
You may never be invited to speak at TED, but if you want to succeed in business you’d better be able to deliver a TED-worthy presentation. TED represents a bold, fresh, contemporary, and persuasive style that will help you win over any audience.
Carmine Gallo is a popular keynote speaker, internationally recognized communication coach, and author of the new book, Talk Like TED: The 9-Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. Learn more at talkliketed.com