Teach Me Something New
Everything I’m going to present to you was not in my textbooks when I went to school.
—TITANIC EXPLORER ROBERT BALLARD, TED 2008
DEEP-SEA EXPLORER ROBERT BALLARD TOOK a TED audience on a 17-minute trip to explore the 72 percent of the planet that’s under the ocean because, as he said, “It’s really naïve to think that the Easter Bunny put all the resources on the continents.”1. Ballard loves the rush of exploration, especially pursuing mysteries that push human limits. He also loves challenges and told me that he enjoyed TED because he was going up against the best in storytelling.
Ballard is one of the bravest explorers of our time. In 1985, about 1,000 miles east of Boston, Ballard, a naval intelligence officer at the time, discovered the wreck of RMS Titanic two and a half miles below the surface of the Atlantic. The Titanic discovery is Ballard’s most famous expedition, but he’s conducted more than 120 undersea explorations to learn something new about the substance that makes up most of our world. Ballard told me that his mission in any presentation—TED or in the classroom—is to inform, educate, and inspire. “When you walk into a classroom you have two jobs: one is to teach and the other is to recruit everyone in that classroom to join the pursuit of truth,”2 Ballard says.
In his presentation, he challenged the audience with this question: Why are we ignoring the oceans? Ballard said that NASA’s budget for one year would fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) budget for 1,600 years—just one of many intriguing insights, facts, and observations Ballard revealed. Among others:
Everything we’re going to talk about represents a one-tenth of one percent glimpse, because that’s all we’ve seen.
Fifty percent of the United States of America lies beneath the sea.
The greatest mountain range on Earth lies under the ocean.
Most of our planet is in eternal darkness.
We discovered a profusion of life in a world that it should not exist in.
It (the deep sea) contains more history than all the museums on land combined.
Near the conclusion of his presentation, Ballard showed a photograph of a young girl, jaw dropped, with a wide-eyed expression of awe. “This is what we want,” Ballard said. “This is a young lady, not watching a football game, not watching a basketball game. Watching exploration live from thousands of miles away, and it’s just dawning on her what she’s seeing. And when you get a jaw-drop, you can inform. You can put so much information into that mind, it’s in full receiving mode.” Ballard received a standing ovation. His 2008 TED presentation intrigues, informs, and inspires because it makes people look at the world differently—not from above, but from below.
Secret #4: Teach Me Something New
Reveal information that’s completely new to your audience, packaged differently, or offers a fresh and novel way to solve an old problem.
Why it works: The human brain loves novelty. An unfamiliar, unusual, or unexpected element in a presentation intrigues the audience, jolts them out of their preconceived notions, and quickly gives them a new way of looking at the world.
JAMES CAMERON’S “INSATIABLE” SENSE OF CURIOSITY
If it hadn’t been for Ballard’s discovery of the Titanic, one of the most successful films of all time may never have been made. “Curiosity is the most important thing you own,”3 Cameron told a TED audience in February 2010. “Imagination is a force that can actually manifest a reality.”
Cameron revealed things his audience didn’t expect from the director of such blockbusters as Terminator, Titanic, and Avatar. He talked a little about moviemaking and a lot about creativity, exploration, innovation, and leadership.
Exploring the oceans ignited Cameron’s imagination from the age of 15, when he became certified as a diver. He explained that when he made Titanic, he pitched it to the studios as “Romeo and Juliet on a ship.” Cameron, however, had an ulterior motive:
What I wanted to do was I wanted to dive to the real wreck of Titanic. And that’s why I made the movie. And that’s the truth. Now, the studio didn’t know that. But I convinced them. I said, “We’re going to dive to the wreck. We’re going to film it for real. We’ll be using it in the opening of the film. It will be really important. It will be a great marketing hook.” And I talked them into funding an expedition. Sounds crazy. But this goes back to that theme about your imagination creating a reality. Because we actually created a reality where six months later, I find myself in a Russian submersible two and a half miles down in the north Atlantic, looking at the real Titanic through a view port. Not a movie, not HD—for real.4
I’m a fan of Cameron’s movies, especially Titanic. Yes, I still shed a tear when Rose throws the Hope Diamond overboard and the theme song starts to play. I’m a sucker for those movies. Although I know a lot about the plot of the movie, Cameron taught me something new wrapped in an interesting anecdote that carried a profound lesson for anyone seeking to explore the full range of his or her potential. By doing so, he inspired his audience and gave them a reason to listen to the rest of his presentation. The director “hooked” his audience, just as he did the film studio.
People are natural explorers. Like Cameron, most of us have an insatiable desire to seek, to learn, to discover. As it turns out, it’s the way we’re wired.
According to some surveys, people fear public speaking more than dying. I asked Robert Ballard what made him more anxious, diving 2.5 miles under the ocean in a tiny, claustrophobic submersible or giving an 18-minute presentation. He said nearly dying several times in the deep sea was much worse! Keep that in mind the next time you get nervous in front of an audience. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, you’d rather be the person giving the eulogy instead of the one in the casket.
LEARNING IS A BUZZ
Musician Peter Gabriel attended a TED conference in 2006 and told a filmmaker, “Exposure to new ideas and interesting ideas was the main buzz for me.” He wasn’t kidding. Learning is addictive because it’s joyful. It’s also necessary for human evolution.
When you introduce a new or novel way of solving an old problem, you are tapping into millions of years of adaptation. If primitive man hadn’t been curious, we would have been extinct a long time ago. According to John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, 99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are extinct today. The human brain adapted to its harsh environments, allowing it to survive. “There are two ways to beat the cruelty of the environment: You can become stronger or you can become smarter. We chose the latter,”5 Medina says.
Medina says we are natural explorers who have an unquenchable need to know and to learn. “Babies are born with a deep desire to understand the world around them and an incessant curiosity that compels them to aggressively explore it. This need for exploration is so powerfully stitched into their experience that some scientists describe it as a drive, just as hunger and thirst and sex are drives.”6 According to Medina, we don’t outgrow our “thirst for knowledge” as we grow into adulthood.
Speakers like Ballard and Cameron quench our thirst with a glass of knowledge from the depths of the sea. Your audience craves knowledge, even if they have only a mild interest in the topic. As long as you relate your topic to the audience by teaching them something new they can use in their daily lives, you’ll hook them, too.
In my communication work with Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of computer microprocessors, I challenge them to connect their technology to our daily lives. For example, Intel introduced a technology called “Turbo Boost” that, by definition, “enables the processor to run above its base operating frequency via dynamic control of the CPU’s clock rate.” Got it? The previous definition probably means nothing to you and, most likely, would not inspire you to run out to buy a new laptop or computer with an Intel chip inside. What if I said, “Intel’s exclusive Turbo Boost technology makes note of what you’re doing on your computer (playing games, watching videos) and adjusts the performance to give you a boost when you need it and to scale it back when you don’t, which extends the battery life of your notebook.” The second description teaches you something new by demonstrating how the product improves your life, and that’s why it worked. Every time an Intel spokesperson used the latter description—connecting the technology to our daily lives—he or she was quoted in the press. Rarely, if ever, did a reporter or blogger use the technical definition.
YOUR BRAIN’S NATURAL “SAVE BUTTON”
Martha Burns is an adjunct professor at Northwestern who believes neuroscience is helping educators to become better teachers. Her insights also explain why we get a buzz out of learning. Learning something new activates the same reward areas of the brain as do drugs and gambling. “A big part of the answer to why some of your students hold onto the information you teach and others do not has to do with a little chemical in the brain that has to be present for a child (or an adult) to retain information. That chemical is called ‘dopamine.’”7
Dopamine is a powerful chemical. A new relationship can trigger a dose of it (and it subsides after a while, which is why counselors recommend finding ways to keep the spice alive after several years of marriage). Advancing to the next level of a video game can trigger dopamine, as can hearing the clanging of coins in a slot machine, or even a hit of cocaine.
Drugs and gambling are artificial triggers and lead to serious consequences. Isn’t there a less-harmful means of achieving that mental high? There sure is. According to Burns, dopamine is also released when people learn something new and exciting—a much healthier way to feel good! “For many of your students and many of us as adults, learning about new things is an adventure and very rewarding, and dopamine levels increase in the brain to help us retain that new information,”8 Burns writes. “I like to refer to dopamine as the ‘save button’ in the brain. When dopamine is present during an event or experience, we remember it; when it is absent, nothing seems to stick.”
The next logical question is, “How do I increase dopamine?” According to Burns, the answer is remarkably simple and straightforward: make the information new and exciting. For example, Burns says the best teachers are always thinking of new ways of delivering information. “That is why you love it when your school has new text book adoptions—the novelty allows you to teach the information in a new way—which generates enthusiasm on your part and the students … Increase novelty in a classroom and you increase the dopamine levels of your students … Dopamine can be addictive—our goal as teachers is to get our students addicted to learning.”9
Dopamine is addictive. Now I know why I’m on a high when I hear stirring words of inspiration or encouragement. For several years I accompanied my brother and several friends to a full day of lectures in the town of Bakersfield, California. The Bakersfield Business Conference was held once a year. The tickets were expensive, the trip was long, but the speakers made every dollar and every minute well worth it.
The Bakersfield conference was held in TED fashion with each speaker allowed no more than 20 minutes. The speakers came from the fields of politics, business, and the arts. Some were famous (e.g., Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Wynn, Wayne Gretzky) and others were less familiar. But they were all chosen for their ability to teach the audience something new and novel—fresh ways of looking at old problems. As I made the long, five-hour drive home at the end of each conference, I felt like I could take on the world. I was addicted to learning something new. Learning is one addiction I don’t mind admitting to. In fact, I celebrate it.
A STATISTICIAN RESHAPES YOUR WORLDVIEW
Hans Rosling is a rock star among TEDsters. His presentation at TED 2006 stole the show and made him an online “viral” sensation. Rosling’s 18-minute video has been viewed more than five million times. Musician Peter Gabriel calls it one of his favorites—the most “surprising,” TED talk. Actor Ben Affleck agrees, saying, “Hans is the most creative and entertaining statistician on earth!” Former CEO of AOL/Time Warner Steve Case likes it, too, ranking it in his top three most “unforgettable” talks. When TED asked Bill Gates to curate his favorite talks, he said there were too many to pick. His clear favorite, however, was Rosling’s. Rosling succeeds because, as the title of his presentation suggests, he delivers statistics that “reshape your worldview.” He delivers information in ways that nobody has ever seen before.
Rosling is a professor of health in Stockholm, Sweden, where he tracks global health and poverty trends. In the hands of most researchers, such data would be, well, boring. Rosling uses software that he codeveloped to bring statistics to life—Gapminder. According to Gapminder’s own site, the software “unveils the beauty of statistics by turning boring numbers into enjoyable animations that make sense of the world.”
Three minutes into Rosling’s presentation, he brings up a visual slide with what appears to be a chart showing random clusters of bubbles—some are small, others much larger than the rest. Rosling explains that when he asked his students to define the “western world” and the “third world,” they answered, “The western world has longer life span and small families. The third world is shorter life and larger families.”10 Rosling theatrically debunked the myth.
On the X-axis of the chart, Rosling put fertility rates (the number of children per woman with data on every country going back to 1962). On the Y-axis he displayed life expectancy at birth (30 years on the bottom of the axis, 70 at the top). In 1962, there was a very clear cluster of large bubbles near the top left, larger industrialized countries with smaller families and higher life expectancy. The bottom right had a fair number of large bubbles as well, representing developing countries with larger families and shorter lives.
4.1: Hans Rosling, cofounder and chairman of the Gapminder foundation, presenting Trendalyzer data. Courtesy of Stefan Nilsson.
What happened next was astonishing, novel, and fun to watch. Rosling put the animation in motion to show the dynamic changes to the world from 1962 to 2003, the last year in which data were available. As the bubbles shifted and bounced rapidly around the screen, Rosling narrated the changes like a sportscaster calling a hockey game:
Here we go. Can you see there? It’s China there, moving against better health there, improving there. All the green Latin American countries are moving towards smaller families. Your yellow ones here are the Arabic countries, and they get larger families, but they—no, longer life, but not larger families. The Africans are the green down here. They still remain here. This is India. Indonesia’s moving on pretty fast. (Laughter) And in the ’80s here, you have Bangladesh still among the African countries there. But now, Bangladesh—it’s a miracle that happens in the ’80s: the imams start to promote family planning. They move up into that corner. And in ’90s, we have the terrible HIV epidemic that takes down the life expectancy of the African countries and all the rest of them move up into the corner, where we have long lives and small family, and we have a completely new world.11
Rosling had revealed a completely new world and a completely new way of looking at global population trends. His audience was laughing, cheering, and, ultimately, intrigued.
In 2012 TIME magazine named Rosling one of the most influential people in the world, thanks, in large part, to the explosive popularity of his TED lecture, which has spread online for millions to see. According to TIME, Rosling is “a man who is in the vanguard of a critically important activity: advancing the public understanding of science.”12
Most scientists deliver statistics with mind-numbingly dull presentations. Rosling is one of the first scientists delivering complex statistics that I’ve actually wanted to watch over and over for any length of time, let alone 18 minutes. The best ideas will fail to inspire an audience if they’re not packaged effectively. Don’t ever let anyone get away with calling public speaking a “soft skill.” Had Rosling failed to package his content in a fresh way, his hard data would have been worthless.
Sometimes the data you present might not be earthshaking or entirely unfamiliar to the audience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t deliver it in a fresh way. I was preparing executives at SanDisk for their annual investor day (SanDisk is the world’s leading maker of flash memory, the storage required for your digital camera, MP3 player, iPad or tablet, and increasingly in your notebook computers). Investors are among the toughest audience. They want to hear numbers (preferably positive ones), technical information, and growth strategies. They also watch a ton of presentations, the majority of which are dry, confusing, and boring.
In this particular presentation, one senior vice president wanted to start with some data that wasn’t entirely new to the roomful of analysts (the growing sales of high-capacity storage cards). In this case he didn’t have to deliver entirely new data as much as he had to present it in a refreshing way. Analysts expect dry charts, so this executive decided to go personal and inject some emotion into his talk. He explained that he’s a digital-photography enthusiast and has a collection of 80,000 digital photos at home, nearly all of them captured on SanDisk cards. He showed pictures of his high-school-age girls playing sports and explained how he wouldn’t trust those memories to anything but SanDisk cards. He also enjoys taking panoramic landscape photographs and displayed several of the photos he’s taken. He told the analysts that panoramic photos require 10 times more storage capacity than a traditional photo, “10 times more opportunity for SanDisk.” By their very nature, financial presentations must include charts, graphs, and tables, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t present the information in a way that jars your audience out of their preconceived notions of how the material will be presented.
The executive I just featured used very personal stories to bring the data alive and connected the stories back to the theme of his presentation. Each of the eight people who spoke that day structured their presentations in the same way—either revealing something entirely new that the investors didn’t know or familiar information repackaged in an unfamiliar way. When asked to rate the quality of the presentations on a five-point scale from “poor” to “excellent,” nearly 100 percent of the respondents said the presentations were “very good” or “excellent,” making the event among the best corporate update the investors had seen all year.
AN INTROVERT STEPS OUT OF HER SHELL
Introvert Susan Cain stepped out of her shell to teach millions of TED viewers something new about the power of solitude. TED celebrates the world’s top minds who give the presentation of their lives, yet TED speaker Susan Cain argues there’s “zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”13 With that one statement, Cain forced many in the audience that day to question their perception that outgoing, social, and talkative people have a corner on ideas. “Some of our transformative leaders in history have been introverts,” Cain said.
In a society that encourages brainstorming, group dynamics, “crowd-sourcing,” and other collaborative systems, Cain makes a persuasive argument that solitude is a crucial ingredient for creativity to flourish. “The more freedom that we give introverts to be themselves, the more likely that they are to come up with their own unique solutions to these problems.”
Cain’s book, Quiet, became a bestseller and her TED talk has been viewed more than four million times. “Introverts, the world needs you and it needs the things you carry. So I wish you the best of all possible journeys and the courage to speak softly.”
Cain is a successful public speaker because she forces us to look at the world differently. In my journalism career and later, as an executive communication coach, I lost count of how many times I heard, “My topic is boring,” or, “What I do is not that interesting,” or, “They don’t pay attention to my presentation because they’ve heard it before.” Maybe your audience has heard some of the information before, but they don’t know what you know and they might have seen a version of the data or information that just didn’t click. You’ll grab their attention if you can teach them just one thing they didn’t know before.
Steve Case pioneered the modern Internet when he cofounded AOL. He’s a very smart guy. He’s also very wealthy, ranking 258 on the Forbes list of richest people in America. When asked for his favorite TED talks, Case said Cain’s presentation was “unforgettable” and on his personal top-10 list. As chairman and CEO of the investment firm Revolution, Case is open to fresh insights that will help him make better investment decisions. “Revolution invests in people and ideas that change the world. It takes talent and passion, not just capital, to build great companies.”14 And Cain gave Case a new way of looking at the world.
You might be delivering a presentation to a wealthy venture capitalist or someone whom you perceive to be smarter than you in a particular field. Make no mistake—the smarter they are, the wealthier they are, the more likely they are to be persuaded if you give them a new lens through which to see the world.
I recall speaking to one of the early Google investors at the famous investment firm Sequoia Capital. He told me that when the Google guys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, walked into the office they offered a one-sentence pitch that changed this investor’s perspective. “Google provides access to the world’s information in one click.” The preceding sentence could very well be the most lucrative 10 words in corporate history. Google was not the world’s first search engine, but it was a better system because it ranked sites based on relevance and not just on search terms. Investors had seen a number of entrepreneurs pitch their search technologies and at least one was exploring a similar strategy, but the “Google guys” pitched their company more effectively and won the early funding that helped launch the brand.
EXPLORE OUTSIDE YOUR FIELD
You’ll become a more interesting person if you’re interested in learning and sharing ideas from fields that are much different from your own. Great innovators connect ideas from different fields. When I wrote The Apple Experience about the Apple Retail Store, I learned that Apple executives visited the Ritz-Carlton to learn more about customer service. In turn, many other brands outside of technology have studied Apple to improve their own customer experience. Great innovators apply ideas from fields other than their own.
I knew an executive with a large public relations company who won a major account with a redevelopment agency tasked with the project of securing federal dollars to help New Orleans recover after Hurricane Katrina. I worked in a different division for the same PR firm. As a former vice president of media training for this firm, I sat through plenty of new-business meetings where the group discusses how to pitch a prospect. Usually these meetings are set in the most uncreative environments imaginable—gray, drab conference rooms, darkened so that everyone can see the dry PowerPoint slides. This one executive, however, knew better than to confine his pitch team to a conference room for two days and hope for creative ideas to emerge. Instead, he and his team toured the Lower Ninth Ward, the hardest-hit area of New Orleans after the hurricane.
The executive’s team was so moved by the poverty and suffering they saw, they decided it was best to ditch the PowerPoint and speak from their hearts. Each member of the team spoke with no slides and no notes. Instead, they spoke about what they had seen and why they wanted to play a role in the rebuilding effort. It was almost as if they entered the pitch with mud still on their feet. This team did get the account and, later, one of the decision-makers said they had won the account by the time they had left the room.
Only through seeing your own world through a fresh lens will you be able to give your audience a new way of looking at their world.
BOMBARD THE BRAIN WITH NEW EXPERIENCES. Building novel concepts into your presentation does require some creativity and a new way of looking at the world. One technique to jump-start your creativity is to embrace new experiences. The brain takes shortcuts. Its mission, after all, is to conserve energy. Neuroscientists have found that only through bombarding the brain with new experiences do we force our minds to look at the world through a new lens. That means you need to get out of the office once in while. Experience new events, people, and places. Most important, incorporate those new experiences into your presentations.
SUCCESSFUL PRESENTATIONS REVEAL IDEAS YOU’D NEVER CONSIDERED
When Fast Company asked famed interviewer Charlie Rose his opinion on what makes a great conversation, he said, “They take you on a ride, on a journey. They grab you, and you hear the sense of rhythm, and it goes and builds. Ultimately, it may even take you to ideas you’d never considered, to places that allow you to reinvent yourself or your business.”15 Great conversations or presentations take you to ideas you’d never considered.
Today’s social-media climate is a cacophony of ideas, mostly ones that are clichéd, hackneyed, trite, and overused. How many times have you heard an athlete or a CEO say, “There is no I in team.” How many times have you heard a consultant suggest, “Great leaders listen.” How many times have you heard marriage counselors recommend better communication as the secret to a long and happy marriage? There’s truth to all these observations, but when you’ve heard admonitions packaged and delivered the same way time and time again, they lose their punch. They lose their ability to get you to think differently. They lose their ability to inspire. When the marriage counselor John Gray wrote Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, it made you think. It was intriguing. It contained some old information and some new, packaged in a way that made the content fresh and novel. It also saved a lot of marriages, but it wouldn’t have stood a chance if it hadn’t been remarkable.
ARE YOU REMARKABLE?
Seth Godin is a popular blogger and marketer who has made a career out of delivering smart ideas differently. He told the TED audience in February 2003 that in a society with too many choices and too little time, our natural inclination is to ignore most of it.
My parable here is you’re driving down the road and you see a cow, and you keep driving because you’ve seen cows before. Cows are invisible. Cows are boring. Who’s going to stop and pull over and say—oh, look, a cow. Nobody. But if the cow was purple, you’d notice it for a while. I mean, if all cows were purple you’d get bored with those, too. The thing that’s going to decide what gets talked about, what gets done, what gets changed, what gets purchased, what gets built, is: is it remarkable? And “remarkable” is a really cool word because we think it just means neat, but it also means—worth making a remark about.16
Seth Godin went on to publish a book titled Purple Cow in the same year as his TED talk. Godin’s point—one that he has mastered himself—is that delivering the same tired information in the same boring way as everyone else will fail to get you noticed. You’ll have a brown cow instead of a purple one. Put a little different spin on your content, give it a “hook” as we call it in journalism, and your listeners will be far more receptive to your message.
The brain is just “a lazy piece of meat,” according to neuroscientist Gregory Berns. In order to force the brain to see things differently, you must find new and novel ways to help the brain perceive information differently. “The brain must be provided with something that it has never before processed to force it out of predictable perceptions.”17
This thirst for knowledge, the craving to force the brain out of “predictable perceptions,” is why Edi Rama captivated a TEDx audience with his solution to curb corruption and reduce crime in his native Albania. For about a decade, Rama was the mayor of Tirana, the capital of the tiny country.
Tirana was once considered one of the most corrupt cities in the world. It was the city of mud, garbage, derelict buildings, and gray … lots and lots of gray. It was a depressing and demoralizing place. In 2000, Rama implemented a series of reforms that included demolishing old buildings and, most noticeably, painting the outside of Tirana’s buildings in bright colors. He treated the exterior of the city’s buildings as his canvas and, as he’d been a painter before he became a politician, he knew a little about art. “Within weeks of being elected to City Hall in 2000, Rama began hiring painters to coat Tirana’s gray, drab façades with dazzling colors, reminiscent of Marseilles or Mexico City. Today parts of Tirana, a city of about 650,000 people, resemble a Mondrian painting, the blues, yellows and pinks a shattering break from Albania’s 45-year grim isolation under a communist dictatorship.”18
As gray gave way to color, crime dropped and parks sprang up. People felt safer and had more pride in their city. Rama walked down a newly colored street one day and came across a shopkeeper tearing down the old shutters from his window and putting up a glass façade.
“Why did you throw away the shutters?” I asked him.
“Well, because the street is safer now,” he answered.
“Safer? Why? They have posted more policemen here?”
“Come on, man! What policemen? You can see it for yourself. There are colors, streetlights, new pavement with no potholes, trees. So it’s beautiful; it’s safe.”
Rama’s passion for art, along with his natural curiosity, allowed him to solve a problem most people thought could never be solved. Rama did exactly what Gregory Berns recommends—he perceived the information differently.
Audiences of any type, speaking any language, love to hear about new and novel ways to solve problems. After all, we’re wired for it!
Some speakers take a defeatist attitude. They don’t think they have anything new to teach people. Sure they do. We all do. We all have unique stories to tell. You might not have the same experiences as the speakers in this chapter, but you have stories just as interesting and valuable in your journey of discovery. Pay attention to the stories of your life. If they teach you something new and valuable, there’s a good chance other people will want to hear about it.
Sex Sells, Even at TED
TEDsters have a ravenous appetite for knowledge in a variety of categories. Sex is no exception. Some speakers have raised intriguing answers—or at the least promise of an answer—to intimate topics.
In February 2009, science journalist Mary Roach revealed “The 10 Things You Didn’t Know about Orgasm” and received more than three million views.
Helen Fisher attracted 2.5 million views with her presentation “Why We Love, Why We Cheat.” At TEDMED in April 2012, Diane Kelly revealed what people don’t know about the male sex organ. Jenny McCarthy talked about what we don’t know about marriage, and Amy Lockwood educated a TED audience on what we don’t know about distributing condoms to reduce HIV in Africa. It seems as though when it comes to sex, people are more curious about what they don’t know than they are about what they know for sure.
TED GIVES YOUR BRAIN A CONSTANT WORKOUT
Dr. James Flynn, political-studies professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, believes the world’s population is getting smarter, and not just a little smarter, but much, much smarter. His theory is so widely accepted in academic circles, it’s been named the “Flynn Effect.” Flynn himself describes it this way: “If you compare people today of eighteen years of age with people who were eighteen years old ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, the present eighteen-year-olds will get much higher scores on IQ tests.”19
Flynn discovered that IQ scores rose for each generation, not just in a few places but in all countries in which IQ data were available. Discussions of the Flynn Effect don’t necessarily focus on the finding but on the reasons behind it. The most logical and accepted answer seems to be greater access to education. People in most countries are spending more time learning, in formal educational settings and online, through sites like TED.com. According to an article in The New York Times, “Flynn argues that IQ is rising because in industrialized societies we give our brains a constant mental workout that builds up what we might call our brain sinews.”20
TED’s success may rely partly on our growing IQs and the fact that people crave a mental workout. TED.com videos have been viewed more than one billion times. That’s an extraordinary number of views if you consider the fact that the 18-minute videos are, essentially, presentations. Think about most of the business presentations you see—are they inspiring? Interesting? Intriguing? It’s not likely. The speakers simply haven’t learned to Talk Like TED. They haven’t learned that the brain loves novelty or how to deliver it.
“What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination.”
—Sir Ken Robinson, TED 2006
THE TWITTER-FRIENDLY HEADLINE
In July 2009, the bestselling author of Drive, Dan Pink, unraveled the puzzle of motivation in a TED presentation that has been viewed over five million times. When I asked Pink to describe his talk, he did it in one sentence: “The set of motivators we rely on doesn’t work nearly as well as we think.” The preceding sentence is comprised of 74 characters, easily conforming to the restrictions of a Twitter post, which has a maximum character count of 140.
If you can’t explain your big idea in 140 characters or less, keep working on your message. The discipline brings clarity to your presentation and helps your audience recall the one big idea you’re trying to teach them.
Before he became an author and a public speaker, Pink spent his career as a speechwriter, thinking about words and crafting words for political leaders. “Before a presentation I ask myself, ‘What’s the one thing I want people to take away?’ After someone listens to your presentation the real test is when they leave and someone asks, ‘What did that person talk about?’ I want to be good enough that they have a clear answer to that question.”21 The answer, says Pink, is not an accumulation of little things, but the one big idea. “Executives and experts tend to get lost in the weeds and aren’t always able to see things with a beginner’s mind and from the audience’s perspective.”
It’s not as easy to get lost in the weeds in 140 characters.
The first step to giving a TED-worthy presentation is to ask yourself, What is the one thing I want my audience to know? Make sure it easily fits within a Twitter post, what I call a “Twitter-friendly headline.”
Remarkably, after reviewing the topics of every one of the more than 1,500 publicly available TED presentations on TED.com, I couldn’t find one—not one—that was over 140 characters. And one of the longest titles, “Three predictions on the future of Iran, and the math to back it up” (67 characters), contains a rhetorical element that makes it easy to remember—the rule of three (see chapter 7).
Here are some sample topics from the most-viewed presentations on TED.com. Notice how each promises to teach you something new.
“Schools Kill Creativity” (Sir Ken Robinson)
“How Great Leaders Inspire Action” (Simon Sinek)
“Your Elusive, Creative Genius” (Elizabeth Gilbert)
“The Surprising Science of Happiness” (Dan Gilbert)
“The Power of Introverts” (Susan Cain)
“8 Secrets of Success” (Richard St. John)
“How to Live Before You Die” (Steve Jobs)
The Twitter headline works for two reasons: (1) it’s a great discipline, forcing you to identify and clarify the one key message you want your audience to remember and (2) it makes it easier for your audience to process the content.
Cognitive research has demonstrated that our brains need to see the big picture before details. John Medina once explained it to me this way: “Carmine, when primitive man ran into a tiger, he did not ask, ‘How many teeth does the tiger have?’ He asked, ‘Will it eat me?’”22 Your audience needs to see the big picture before learning the details. If you can’t explain your product or idea in 140 characters, keep working at it until you can.
“Remarkable ideas come from every area of knowledge,”23 according to TED curator Chris Anderson. “Every so often it makes sense to emerge from the deep trenches we spend our working lives digging, to step out and see the big picture and how the trenches interconnect. It’s very inspiring.” You might have one of these remarkable ideas, but it’s imperative that you show your audience the big picture, “how the trenches interconnect.”
CREATE A TWITTER-FRIENDLY HEADLINE. As you craft your next presentation, ask yourself, “What is the one thing I want my audience to know about my company, product, service, or idea?” Remember to make your headline specific and clear. Oftentimes my clients create what’s really a tagline instead of a headline, but it still doesn’t tell me the one thing I need to know. From a well-crafted headline I should be able to identify what the product, service, or cause is as well as what makes it different or unique. Make sure your headline fits within the 140-character limit of a Twitter post. It’s not only a good exercise; it’s essential for marketing. Twitter is such a powerful platform for marketers that it’s critical to create a ‘tweetable’ description that can be easily remembered and shared across social networks.
WE’RE EXPLORATION ADDICTS
Ben Saunders “drags heavy things around cold places,” according to his Twitter profile. He was the youngest man to ski solo to the North Pole. Saunders is an adventurer, an arctic explorer. For 10 weeks he dragged 400 pounds of food, supplies, and a computer for blogging. It wasn’t unusual for the temperature to sink to 50 degrees below zero. At times, Saunders was the only human within five million square miles.
Why did he do it? There was little to gain. No maps to be drawn, no gold or coal to source, no food to be found. Exploration fed his addiction. “I think polar expeditions are perhaps not that far removed from having a crack habit,”24 Saunders told a TED audience in London. “In my experience, there is something addictive about tasting life at the very edge of what’s humanly possible.”
Keep in mind that your audience is made up of people who are naturally wired to explore. According to Saunders, people don’t want to just watch and wonder. They want “to experience, to engage, to endeavor … that’s where the real meat of life is to be found.”
Saunders suggests that inspiration and growth come from “stepping away from what’s comfortable … In life, we all have tempests to ride and poles to walk to, and I think metaphorically speaking, at least, we could all benefit from getting outside the house a little more often, if only we could sum up the courage.”
TED.com videos allow you metaphorically to “step out of the house” and take these journeys of exploration with the world’s top minds. Open the door. Take a look outside. You’ll discover a world of magnificent presentations that will help you improve your public speaking skills and give you the tools to be a more successful person in any of your life’s roles.
Secret #4: Teach Me Something New
Reveal information that’s completely new to your audience, is packaged differently, or offers a fresh and novel way to solve an old problem.
TEDx speaker and designer Oliver Uberti once said, “Every superhero has an origin story. So do you. Don’t follow someone else’s. Create your own masterpiece.” I find that most communicators are far more creative than they give themselves credit for. When they’re encouraged to unleash their creativity and to take an innovative approach to presenting their ideas, they rise to the challenge.