When you see the big red dot on a stage flanked by block T-E-D letters, you know the next 15 minutes of your life will be well spent. You buzz with an anticipation unique to TED – a potent combination of the unknown, the possibility of discomfort, and the promise of hearing something new.

Ask any “thought leader” and they’ll tell you a TED talk is on their bucket list. TED has become the gold standard for influential public speaking. And while there are no shortage of speakers, TED maintains the highest standards. It proves, time and again, that there is indeed such a thing as a “new” idea, and that new ideas are worth spreading.

To democratize its institutional expertise gained over three decades of training thousands of non-professional speakers, TED partnered with Marriott Bonvoy Moments to provide an elite speaker coaching immersion for Bonvoy members, led by TED’s director of speaker coaching, Briar Goldberg. 

I joined a dozen professionals with varying degrees of public speaking experience at TED headquarters in Manhattan to absorb the secrets typically reserved for invite-only speakers.

What I learned applies not only to public speaking – but to life.

1. It’s Not About You

*MIND BLOWN* Go ahead and tattoo that to the back of your eyelids. I’ll wait.

The secret to being an effective public speaker is also the essence of being a good human – understanding it’s not about you. 

TED Talks are built with one priority in mind – the audience who will leave discussing ideas they’ve heard – and this is where it stands apart from most any other public speaking forum. 

It’s natural to build an entire presentation around what you – the speaker – think and why. There’s not anything wrong with that. But that approach is incredibly short sighted and limits your potential for high impact.

TED, on the other hand, inspires its speakers to assess the audience first and foremost. Every speaker should know:

  • Who are they? 
  • What is their familiarity to the subject matter? 
  • What do they want to hear? 
  • What do they need to hear? 
  • Why do they need to hear it? 
  • How do they need to hear it?
  • What should they do with the information?

The TED preparation method is emotionally intelligent in that is designed to influence through radical empathy. Contrary to popular belief, empathy is analytical, not emotional. And radical empathy seeks to understand why not what.

Key Takeaway: You will achieve higher impact and adoption of your insights by building the narrative around the needs of your audience and not around what you want to say.

2. Get Out Of Your Own Way

What I know to be true from my own work in speaker coaching: It has little to do with “What do I do with my hands?” (Though that’s still important.) It has everything to do with your ability to influence and persuade your audience through a thoughtfully delivered narrative.

Your emotional intelligence is the foundation of your ability to influence. And self awareness is the foundation of your emotional intelligence. To create your most influential presentation, you need to get out of your own way, and you can’t do that – or achieve influence – if you’re not aware of your own roadblocks.

I created a self awareness assessment for use with all of my clients, but I primarily use it in speaker coaching and leadership development:

Ask yourself – 

  • What am I feeling about this opportunity? 
  • About this subject matter? Why? 
  • What does it physically feel like to me? 
  • How is my physicality perceived by others? 
  • How does that perception affect my ability to influence? 
  • Is it inspiring my audience – or distracting them? 
  • Does it inspire confidence in my audience, or diminish my credibility?

Once you can articulate your personal state of being and how it affects others, it is much easier to identify where and how to improve your presence.

The TED approach to speaker coaching elevates a speaker’s natural state of being, it does not seek to transform speakers into manufactured robots. It covers expected best practices, like making eye contact around the room, and “flagging” something to be remembered through inflection or gestures. Then it goes a step further by taking a holistic view of the speaker’s natural use of the space and stage blocks to their physicality.

Key Takeaway: Know yourself, then design your presentation or conversation around how you already exist in the world, rather than becoming a false and forced version of yourself.

3. Practice Makes Perfect

If there’s anything to be learned from a TED speaker coaching course, it’s that TED speakers are polished stones. 

Anyone who’s spent time in the vicinity of a rock tumbler knows the process of polishing rocks is…unpleasant. It’s loud and grating. If the rocks could feel, it would probably be painful. And it takes a long time.

I made the assumption that TED speakers begin the process with an advantage over the rest of us, that they are predominantly academics or business leaders who’ve been public speaking for years.

The truth is that all of them – regardless of their experiences in public speaking – are generally hot messes from the very beginning. 

They’re clunky, dusty, rocks that spend upwards of 50 hours in the rock tumbler of preparation and practice. They write and rewrite their scripts. They stumble into new insights. They stage block their movements like a Shakespearean monologue. And they sometimes find their least favorite part is the section that resonates most with their audience. 

The preparation process is essentially social conditioning, beginning with the self awareness and audience assessment, moving through scripting and blocking and countless rehearsals, all to ensure the most impactful outcome.

There are no accidents – happy or otherwise – on the TED stage.

Key Takeaway: Stay open to the possibility of change and leave room for magic.

The most important and perhaps game-changing thing I learned is simple: For those of us who are comfortable speaking to the public, but who aren’t driven by ego of thought or vanity, we can hot-wire our way to charisma by focusing on the audience – and not ourselves.

I hope, dear reader, you see yourself in this narrative. Because this is really all about you.