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How To Use Research In Your TEDx Talk

 Dr. Steven Hayward

Among the many puzzles you have to solve on your TEDx journey, one that comes up sooner or later (usually it’s sooner and later) is the question of how and when to use research, and, more particularly, how to best convey quantitative information without losing the audience or putting them to sleep.

There’s an old, probably fictional story about a particularly bad sales pitch which failed miserably. The feedback went something like this: “We don’t remember how you started, we fell asleep in the middle, and by the end our only question was when can we leave.” What exactly was said is lost forever, but it’s our assumption that it involved a lot of research, too many numbers, and in all the wrong places.

Don’t be that person. And to help with that, here’s three things to keep in mind when thinking about how to incorporate facts and figures and research more generally into your talk.


1. “Know when to hold them.”

This is a line from an old Kenny Rogers tune called “The Gambler” which is arguably the preeminent example of the “how to” song (not a long list). In the song an aged gambler dispenses a list of best practices for anyone, whether you’re gambling or not that begins with the immortal piece of wisdom, you gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them. Stats and studies in TEDx talks follow a similar rule. They should be placed strategically, which is to say at the start of your talk as a startling fact to open up a problem or in the middle of your talk to build the issue or problem you’re addressing. Avoid them at the end--the focus needs to be on you, and the solution you’re proposing. 


2. “Only Connect”

This is a game show in the UK which takes its name from a suggestion made by a character in an old novel by EM Forester who encourages the reader to make a connection between the head and the heart. That’s as true today when applied to TEDx talks as it was way back then in the murky past when people read books. Your stats have to not just be clear and backed up by research but also framed in such a way that they move us to think or reflect. If you’ve not watched Hans Rosling’s talk “The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen” in which he debunks myths about the so-called developing world, now’s the time. As you’re putting stats into your talk, apply the WWHD rule--”What Would Hans Do.”


3. Make it Relevant

Ensure that every piece of data or study is directly relevant to your core message. A great example is Amy Cuddy’s talk “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are” in which she incorporates the findings of her “power pose” study which, among other things, looked at the question of how your body impacts not just your brain but your whole sense of who you are, and what you will and will not do. A key finding was around risk tolerance, where they found that when subjects were in a high-power pose condition, 86% were willing to gamble; in a low-power pose condition, that figure fell to 60 percent. As Dr Cuddy puts it: “that’s a whopping significant difference.” Note that in the talk she uses a lot of visual aids, but note also that she doesn’t really need them. You can listen to the talk and not see any of it, and the central takeaways, the power of the research, its relevance to all of us, are quickly and powerfully understood. 

Incorporating statistics and studies in your TEDx talk requires a balance. Make sure your data is not just presented, but woven into the gift that you want to give your audience, by which I mean the literal takeaway that they are going to be talking about as they share your talk with others not just because it made them think but because it includes info that connects to them in an immediate and emotional way.

If you're ready to land and deliver your TEDx talk or write and develop your signature keynote speech, schedule a call with us here.


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


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