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How To Use An "Anchor" In Your Talk

- Dr. Steven Hayward

This month we turn to the question of “anchors” and why they’re important to consider as you sit down and start to write your TEDx talk or keynote speech.

It’s often the case that a compelling anchor can be what separates a good from a great talk--but before we get there, what is an anchor anyway?

Even if you’ve never had the bracing experience of throwing one overboard yourself, most everyone---particularly fans of Pirates of the Caribbean--will have a pretty clear idea of what actual anchors do in real life. Sailors “drop anchor” when they want to make sure their boats don’t drift too far off course; in a similar way, we anchor our bookshelves to the wall when we don’t want them to fall down.

It’s the same idea in a talk--an anchor grounds your idea in the real world and prevents it from becoming too abstract. This is a practice math teachers and their students know well. Remember those exam questions about cars going different speeds and reaching different destinations at the same time? That’s anchoring. Since the beginning of time, middle schoolers have been way more into automobiles than algebra. Great teachers know how to anchor equations in things students actually care about.

But unlike those math problems where the specifics of the anchor don’t matter--where moving cars are interchangeable with x-wing fighters--when it comes to your talk, not all anchors are created equally. The specifics of the anchor you use in your talk matters, and most people have more than one to choose from to get their idea across.

With that in mind, here are three questions you should ask yourself as you’re weighing (pun intended) which anchor to feature in your own talk.


Is it specific?

One of the cool things about anchors is that they can be actual objects. A good example is Susan Cain’s talk “The Power of Introverts” which begins with her standing center stage with a heavy bag cradled in her arms. She starts off recalling what it was like to go to summer camp, and trying to decide what to pack. At least at first, you think that this is what the talk is about--and that the bag is going to be filled with practical essentials. We watch, wondering, and eventually find out that instead of clothes, it’s filled with books. When she finally opens it up--a full thirteen minutes into her talk--she shows us actual books by actual people. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, another by Milan Kundera. The specificity matters. People connect with concrete objects in a different way than they do abstract content. They remember them.


Can it be a metaphor?

Though Susan Cain’s books are on stage with her, there’s a deeper meaning to them--the books stand for all introverts keep inside and don’t show the rest of the world. They are, in other words, a metaphor--where one thing stands for something else. The same goes for the “Mystery Box” in JJ Abrahams's TED Talk which he tells us his grandfather purchased for him when he was a kid and which now stands for a number of things including: 1) the mystery of what pushes stories forward, 2) the mystery of character, 3) the mystery contained in the possibility of any blank page, and 4) the mystery of technology. Yes, his grandfather’s mystery box sits on the stage the whole time, and no (spoiler alert), he never opens it, but it’s an anchor that means so much more than it seemed to at the start. It’s a metaphor--a thing that stands for itself and for a lot more.


Does it make you go “WOW!”?

This is an extension of the previous point about metaphor, but it’s so important that it deserves a number of its own. A lot of anchors are metaphors, but it’s only certain anchor/metaphors that make you sit up and take notice, say “wow!”, and then, immediately afterwards, share it with as many people as possible. An amazing example of this is Simon Sinek’’s 2009 “Golden Circle” TED Talk. Sinek anchors his talk in his famous “Golden Circle” which, as many of you reading this will already know, has “Why” at its center, “how” in the middle, and “what” at the least important outer perimeter.

Once you “find your why,” he tells us, you have a recipe for success--which is the opposite to the “what” on which mediocre businesses are focused. It’s an amazing illustration of how the value and belief driven system of the best companies and innovators proves to be most effective. But as soon as he makes this point, right when you start to think you know what he’s going to say next, Sinek connects his “golden circle” to the functioning of the actual human brain! The “why” in the middle of the circle, it turns out, corresponds to the brain’s limbic system, the primitive reptilian part of the mind that is ruled by emotion and that makes most all of our decisions. WOW! It’s not something you see coming. Now that’s an anchor worth holding on to!

Whatever your anchor is, the crucial thing is that it belongs to you, that it’s specific, can work as a metaphor, and that it connects in a meaningful way to your idea and your message. Find your anchor and let it change and expand your talk in amazing and surprising ways--cast it overboard, then step back and watch the magic happen.

If you're ready to develop your signature or TEDx talk, or find the anchor that will make the world go “WOW!” schedule a brainstorming call with us here.


- Dr. Steven Hayward is our head writer, an English Professor at Colorado College, TEDx Speaker, bestselling author, renowned filmmaker and has a great head of hair. 


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