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Tell it like TED: Storytelling Tips for Spreading Your Idea

- Dr. Steven Hayward & Cesar Cervantes

It’s no secret that the most powerful TED talks are built around a compelling story. There are a number of reasons for this--a personal story builds credibility and establishes a connection with the audience--but it’s also because stories are a powerful way of presenting and organizing content in their own right. 

It’s through stories that we have our earliest experiences of ideas worth spreading. Fairy tales, for example, are built around a moral, which is another word for a solid and clearly defined takeaway that translates into a call to action. The three little pigs' discovery that bricks are a superior building material than straw is an idea worth spreading, as is Little Red Riding Hood's conclusion that she should avoid putting too much confidence in wolves disguised as grandmothers. 

But not all stories are created equal. The difference between a story that’s beautifully crafted and delivered and one that’s just okay is huge. The good news is that there are a few very simple steps you can take to make the story at the heart of your TED talk sparkle. Here’s a few things to keep in mind as you craft your own story:

  1. What’s the way in?

    When it comes to TED talk stories, there’s a tendency to focus on the ending--what it means, what we learned from the experience, and how it connects to our idea. All of that is essential, but it’s just as important to give some thought to how we start our stories because that’s where we grab our audience and draw them in. First impressions matter a lot in life, but when it comes to telling stories they’re crucial. Try to kick off your story with someone doing or wanting something, or going somewhere--anything that gives it motion right from the start. Note: this is not the same as telling your audience that the story is important. Make it important by starting it in such a way that it makes your audience wonder what is going to happen next.    
  2. Bring the vivid.

    This is something that we can forget when we sit down and try to write out our story and it suddenly seems as if our high school English teacher is looking over our shoulder telling us to edit out details that do not directly connect our topic. This can lead us to leave out precisely the kind of concrete detail that audiences connect to most powerfully--and which builds our credibility. A great example of this is Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk “Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce” which begins with a portrait of food consultant and psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz. Gladwell tells his audience that Moskowitz is short, wears glasses, loves the opera, and has a parrot--none of which has anything to do with what he’s talking about or the singular insight that he has into the paradox of the way that less choice leads to more happiness. Still, Gladwell starts with the seemingly irrelevant but vivid detail--it builds his credibility in a crucial and subtle way.     
  3. Sound like yourself.

    This might seem obvious--you are yourself, after all. Who else are you going to sound like? It’s actually not that easy, particularly when you sit down to put together a TED talk and find that all the other TED talks that you’ve seen rush into your head, along with whatever advice you may have gotten along the way about effective public speaking. The result is that you can end up sounding like a generic mixtape in which it’s hard to hear your own voice. Avoid that. The truth is that what audiences want most is an authentic connection with another person and not a boilerplate. Resist the temptation to remove from your story the quirk that makes it sound specifically like you.

Whatever your own story is, the important thing to keep in mind is that stories are crafted, and that it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time you tell it. It’s going to change, and improve, the more you tell it, and the more people you tell it to. The story at the center of your TED talk is uniquely yours, the place you connect with the audience powerfully and draw them into the idea you have to share. It’s worth taking the time to think about how to tell it right! 

If you're ready to develop your idea (and story) for the TEDx stage or for your keynote speech, schedule a brainstorming call with us here. 


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


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