How Janna Levin Told Her Moth Story

In case you are not familiar with The Moth, it is a not-for-profit devoted to ‘true stories told live.’  The stories are short, intimate, and funny.  Most Moth storytellers, including Janna Levin, draw from one (or several) moments of profound personal transformation; more often than not, these moments were catalyzed by foolishness, futility, character flaws, or failure. While polished in plot, setting, and character development, the best Moth stories retain raw, honest sincerity and offer an uplifting moral.

In this post, I’ll deconstruct Janna Levin’s Life on a Mobius Strip, the lead-off story in The Moth’s new book.  I recommend you enjoy the video below and then read my analysis.


Tip #1: Develop a richly plotted story

Plot, setting, and dialog-rich character are the key elements that add texture to a story.  Let’s examine how Janna developed the first element, plot.  As shown in the table below, notice that Janna impressively wove dual-plots that converged in the end.

Boiled down, the essence of plot is the topsy-turvy journey characters must undergo is search of the answer to a profound question.  The types of questions that work best do not have an obvious or even a single answer; in fact, depending on the path taken, diametrically opposed answers may be equally viable.  Despite that challenge, storytellers (usually) share their answer to the question at the end in the form of a revelation that allows the protagonist to achieve her goals and live happily ever after.

Sometimes characters know the question the storyteller is exploring, and sometimes they do not.  In Plot A, Janna as protagonist knows the question and frames it early on as, “The hazard for a scientist working on something so esoteric is the possibility that it just might not be true or it might not be answerable.”  She is asking: Is it worth dedicating your professional life to fundamental scientific research when it is unlikely that your effort will amount to anything? In Plot B, in contrast, Janna as protagonist does not know the question: Do we get to choose who we love?

Quite cleverly, these two plots share a common theme summarized by the overarching question: Are our lives determined by fate or free will? At the end of her story, Janna discovers the answer in the symbolism of her anatomically unusual son - Love, like the universe, is unpredictable, improbable, circular, and worthwhile.

Plot A Plot B
Once upon a time and every day… (1) I was working at Berkeley as an astrophysicist obsessed with an esoteric, probably unanswerable topic (2) I met Warren, an uneducated obsessive compulsive musician, in a coffee shop in San Francisco
Until one day… (4) My fellowship ended and I accepted a job in Cambridge, England (3) Warren moved in with me
And because of that… (5) I shifted to the exciting topic of Black Holes and got to hang out with Nobel laureates (6) Warren worked as a dishwasher and focused on his music
Until finally… (8) I wrote a book about the universe and the unraveling of an obsessive compulsive mind (7) Our relationship ended explosively
And after that… (9) I returned to San Francisco… (10a) … and saw Warren working in the coffee shop
(10b) We married a year later
(10c) We had a son whose internal organs (harmlessly) are reversed
And the moral of the story is… (11) Love, like the universe, is unpredictable, improbable, circular, and worthwhile


Tip #2: Get laughs early and often

Compelling personal stories, including if not especially traumatic ones, need generous helpings of humor.  I find that humor can typically be classified in three buckets: superiority (ex: laughing at people with bad judgement, particularly those in positions of authority); surprise (ex: absurd overstatement or understatement); and emotional release as a salve to embarrassment, discomfort, or fear (ex: gallows and scatological humor).

Janna used all three types early and often.  She got her first laugh with superiority humor a mere nine seconds into her story with the following: “Einstein famously said, ‘Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.’ Then he added, ‘And I’m not so sure about the universe.” Though it may be painfully obvious, this is superiority humor because implies that people are infinitely stupid.  Since Einstein’s and Janna’s audiences were in on the joke, they get to feel superior to the rest of the world.

(Note: I advise speakers to avoid quoting famous people, especially at the opening or closing of a speech.  Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.  The main exception is when the speaker either knows the famous person or heard the quote first-hand.  Janna reveals another exception which is when the quote perfectly sets up the fundamental theme of the story and ties to a major story element – in this case, Janna is an astrophysicist studying whether or not the universe is infinite.)

Janna’s second laugh relied on surprise humor in the form of understatement as follows: “Warren came charging past me the first day I saw him and pinned me with his blue eyes and said, ‘You’re the astrophysicist.’  (pause) Which I knew.

She employed release humor a bit later on when she recounted living in low-cost accommodations upon arriving in England, “… we spend a few weeks in a coin-operated bed-sit in Brighton. If you ran out of pound coins, your electricity went off and the lights went out. We often ran out of pound coins, and towards the end we were so despondent we would just sit in the dark.”

By the end of her 16 minute 20 second story, Janna garnered 31 laughs – a rate of 1.9 laughs per minute. While shy of the stand-up comedy standard of four to six laughs-per-minute, the rate is both impressive and typical of entertaining personal stories. If the laughter density is too low, below 1 laugh-per minute, a story becomes heavy and dull; if the laughter density is too high, above 4 laughs per minute, a story loses meaning and becomes just a pleasant, in-the-moment experience.

 Tip #3: Be vulnerable

Over the course of the story, the audience learns that Janna holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from MIT, did post-doctoral work at Berkeley, hobnobbed with Stephen Hawking and Nobel laureates at Cambridge, wrote and published a book that “came out of me fully formed,” and has a healthy, happy family.  If Janna had led with all of this, or even any of this, the audience would have immediately disconnected from her.  However, she paired vulnerabilities with each of her bona fides – foolishness, frustration, futility, and failure always preceded good fortune:

  • The futile pursuit of fundamental science precedes Janna’s disclosure of being an MIT-trained astrophysicist.
  • The frustration of living in squalor precedes Janna’s opportunity to work at Cambridge with Stephen Hawking.
  • The failure of her relationship precedes Janna’s book deal.
  • The foolishness of falling in love with the wrong kind of man precedes Janna’s happy family life.


The Bottom Line

While I have touched on the most powerful insights that I drew from Janna’s story, there is much more richness to explore in character and setting development as well as in Janna’s engagingly raw verbal and non-verbal delivery.  Please listen to her story and share what struck you as valuable in the comments section below.

Actionable Tips From Dave Paradi’s 2013 Annoying PowerPoint Survey

With so many opinions expressed about public speaking (something I too am guilty of),  I was excited to see Dave Paradi’s fact-based survey exploring the most annoying behaviors of presenters.

With Dave’s permission, I have taken the annoyances he found and transformed them into actionable tips:


I. Content

- Have a clear, primary purpose (to inform, persuade, inspire, or entertain)

- Have a single message framed from the audience’s perspective as: To (what) so that (why/outcome/benefit). This will help eliminate information overload and ‘data dump.’

- Apply a narrative flow that supports your purpose & message

- Customize your content (at least to a degree) for your specific audience


II. Delivery

- Instead of reading text from slides, use them as a launching and landing point

- Limit the amount of time you spend facing the screen

- Rehearse to figure out what slides belong in your presentation. Delete or Appendix the rest.  Never skip slides.

- “Mute” your slide by going to black (hit the “b” key) when you want to focus your audience’s attention on you

- Use pauses to eliminate filler words

- Plan where you will stand and where you will move to (avoid standing projector’s line-of-sight)


III. Design

- Make sure text is large enough to be read easily by people seated in the back of the room

- Proofread your slides to eliminate typos

- Use short bursts of text (or bullets), not full sentences

- Use the simplest diagram possible to support/prove the message of a slide. (Tables are rarely the best choice.)

- Use a harmonious color palette and apply intentional use of contrast

- Avoid clip-art and random images that just dress-up a slide

- Use video sparingly and only when contextually relevant (and well tested in the environment/room you present in)

- Builds are fine but avoid decorative animation


IV. Odds & Ends

- Ask yourself if the topic warrants a presentation or could be handled more efficiently with an email or a conversation

- Recognize that design software can be used to create presentations or documents.  Create one or the other depending on where and how you will use it.


Try it Out!

Dave Paradi also has a couple great, free self-assessments.  Check them out at:

Best Practices for Effective PowerPoint Presentations Assessment

PowerPoint Skills Inventory

How Dan Pallotta Delivered His TED Talk

Dan Pallotta is a humanitarian, author, speaker, social entrepreneur, and activist involved with countless charities.  His focus is primarily on heath and human services causes.  His TED2013 talk already has nearly 3 million views.  In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his talk so popular.


Tip 1: Share an idea worth spreading

The most powerful TED Talks generally have a single idea worth spreading.  Having more than one tends to water down the message. However, Dan’s talk proves the exception to the rule by combining two intrinsically linked ideas where one is at the macro/societal level and the other is at the personal level.

a. (Macro/Societal) To scale charitable giving from 2% of GDP to 3% of GDP, focusing the resulting $150 billion increase on health & human services charities so that we can have real change

b. (Personal): To judge charities on the scale of their dreams, their progress, and their resources so that the not-for-profit sector can play a massive role on behalf of people in most desperate need


Tip 2: Build the narrative by raising and answering a series of questions

In How to Deliver a TED Talk, I outlined three structures for highly-effective presentations. One is the classical hero’s journey structure. The second is the inductive logic group which consists of an introduction, a series of supporting points that could be re-ordered without much loss of clarity, and a conclusion.  Dan went with the third approach which I call a logic chain.  A good way to spot a logic chain is that the speaker builds his or her narrative by raising and answering a series of questions that grow progressively more nuanced and profound.


Element Premise Proof
Ice Breaker (1) I’m here to talk about social innovation and social entrepreneurship.  (2) I have triplets and am gay which is the most socially innovative thing I have done.
Introduction (3) What we have been taught about the NFP sector is undermining the causes we love.  (none)
Part 1 (4) Does the NFP sector have a role to play in changing the world with the emergence of FP social business? (5) FP sector is having a positive impact. But, NFP establishes a markets for laughter, compassion, and love (ex. Center for the Developmentally Disabled) that creates a world that works for everyone.
Part 2 (6) But why is the NFP sector struggling to affect change in cancer, homelessness, poverty? (7) The NFP rulebook is broken in 5 ways:
a.Incentive compensation viewed as parasitic, so top MBAs stay away
b.Paid advertising viewed as wasteful overhead
c.Risk-taking is punished by reputation destruction
d.NFPs face expectation of instant (time) return-on-investment.
e. NFPs have no access to capital markets so few NFPs have achieved scale
Part 3 (8) Why do we impose these restrictions on NFP sector? (9) Charity was way for Puritans to do penance at 5 cents on the dollar for their profit-seeking behavior. In 400 years, nothing has intervened to change this.
Part 4 (10) How does this ideology get policed today? (11) “This ideology gets policed by the question, ‘What percentage of my donation goes to the cause versus overhead?’” We confuse morality with frugality.
Conclusion (12a) To scale charitable giving from 2% of GDP to 3% of GDP, focusing the  resulting $150 billion increase on health & human services charities so that  we can drive real change
(12b)  To assess charities on the scale of their dreams, their progress, and their resources so that the NFP sector can play a massive role on behalf of those most desperately in need

(Note: NFP = Not-For-Profit; FP=For-Profit)


Tip 3:  Expose your passion and your emotion

Every speaker has a persona. The more their on-stage persona matches their off-stage persona, the more powerful the talk.  For the majority of his talk, Dan’s (genuine) tone is a thoughtful and concerned humanitarian.  At 14:45, his tone intensifies (genuinely) to outraged activist when he says, “On one day, all 350 of our great employees lost their jobs (pause to compose himself) because they were labeled as overhead.”

At 17:20, he makes one more (genuine) tone shift to hopeful visionary when he says, “The next time you are looking at a charity, don’t ask about the rate of their overhead. Ask about the scale of their dreams, their Apple, Google, Amazon scale dreams, how they measure their progress toward those dreams, and what resources they need to make them come true regardless of what the overhead is…”


Tip 4: Stay contextually relevant at all time

Dan’s talk is extremely powerful, but I have one tiny nit to pick.  Everything inside a talk should be contextually relevant to the idea worth spreading.  I am not a big fan of Ice-breakers at the beginning of talks.  They can work when they bridge the content of previous speakers to a new theme as Ken Robinson did in the beginning of his TED Talk.

At the beginning of his talk, Dan built rapport with his audience by introducing the audience to a photo of his children; but, in hindsight, his personal life did not have strong contextual relevance to the rest of his material.  Additionally, at the end of his talk, Dan used a video to ‘call-back’ his lovely children who said,  ”That would be a real social innovation.”  To me, this ending felt formulaic and took away from the momentum he built.  While his kids are cute and touching, I did not feel they belonged in this talk – they might have been an effective addition if he were talking mainly about children’s charities.

Again, this was a small nit and other viewers could easily argue that his icebreaker and video clip ending were clever and emotionally effective.  Either way, his powerful talk earned him a standing ovation and, more importantly, will drive critical change in charitable giving.

Zen and the Art of Public Speaking

Though I spend most of my time reading books about public speaking and leadership, every so often I consume five books on a topic far outside of what I have exposed myself to in the past.  While I do this mostly for intellectual enjoyment, I often find concepts and techniques to apply to public speaking.  Over the years, I used this approach to explore screenplay writing, fiction, and comedy, three genres that are gold mines for speakers.

Inspired by the fact that Steve Jobs left “The Autobiography of a Yogi” as a final gift to mourners at his funeral, I recently decided to read up on Eastern religion – particularly Buddhism.  While I have gained no more than a rudimentary, ‘arm-chair’ understanding, the core concepts of mindfulness and compassion that comprise enlightenment reminded me of the journey toward public speaking mastery.

To explore this analogy, I’ll use Noel Burch’s ‘Conscious Competence” learning model:

Stage I – Unconscious incompetence: This stage is best described as obliviousness.  A public speaker in this stage would stand up without fear, deliver a terrible presentation, and then sit back down again without awareness of how poor their speech went.  While I have not encountered many people in this stage, I imagine there are two sub-types: (a) those deluded about their ability (b) those who could care less about public speaking.

Stage II – Conscious incompetence:  In this stage, an individual knows public speaking is a critical part of sharing ideas worth spreading (i.e. they know “WHY”), but they have not yet learned “HOW” to be an effective communicator.  From what I can tell, this is where most people are. This is also the stage where natural speaking anxiety causes fear.

Stage III – Conscious competence: I like to refer to individuals in this stage as “expert speakers.”  They know the why and the how of public speaking.  They know, for example, to speak loud and slow to be authoritative or to make deliberate eye-contact for 3 seconds in a random pattern.

Stage IV – Unconscious competence: Here is where Buddhism comes back into the picture.  Individuals in this stage are “enlightened speakers;” they are “experts who speak” rather than “expert speakers.”  In my own experience, this is actually a state rather than a stage since, like enlightenment, it happens in the delightful situations where you are both fully mindful and compassionate. It is a state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as Flow.  To be mindful in the public speaking context is to be one with your content, free of expectations of what may or may not result from your speech.  To be compassionate in the public speaking context is to speak purely in the service of your audience and without self-judgement.

The fascinating thing to me about being in the Stage IV, enlightened speaking state is that you do not get there by learning. You get there by unlearning.  Watch a very young child speak; they inspire with great passion and no fear.  Enlightened speaking is inside all of us; we simply have share ideas we are passionate about with people we care about and without regard for what came before or what will come after.

How Jason Fried Delivered His TED Talk

Jason Fried, founder of 37signals (known for its BaseCamp project management solution), has a reputation for provocatively challenging the norms of the knowledge workplace. In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his talk so popular.


Tip 1: Share an idea worth spreading

Jason’s idea worth spreading is to encourage managers to stop interrupting knowledge workers so that creative employees have long stretches of time to do great work.


Tip 2: Use the problem-solution narrative structure

In How to Deliver a TED Talk, I explore three equally effective ways to organize a persuasive presentation:

  1. Tell a story
  2. Make an argument with premise-proof logic groups (inductive reasoning)
  3. Make an argument with premise-proof logic chains (deductive reasoning)

Jason’s problem-solution narrative, summarized in the table below, uses the logic chain approach.  In a logic chain, each premise triggers a question that must be answered by the next premise in the chain.  Jason began with a direct statement of the problem – people cannot seem to get work done at work.  A skeptical listener might ask, “Is that problem really true?” Jason replied, yes, just notice how you and your colleagues shift creative work to different places or times of day. His reply triggers the question, “Why are people shifting when and where they work?” Jason’s responded that employees shift work in order to carve out long stretches of interruption-free time.  The next logical question is, “Is there a way to make the workplace productive again?” Jason replied, yes, with three specific solutions.


Element Premise Proof
Introduction (1) People cannot seem to get great work done in centralized offices filled with stuff (2) (none)
Part 1 (3) People go somewhere or sometime else to get work done (4a) Places
(4b) Vehicles
(4c) Early morning/late night/weekends
Part 2 (5a) People don’t have  a work day, they have work moments
(5b) People (esp. creatives) need long stretches of time without involuntary interruptions
(6a) Work, like sleep, is ineffective when interrupted
(6b) Voluntary distractions, like Facebook, are just modern ‘smoke-breaks’
(6c) Managers are the source of involuntary distractions via check-ins and meetings
Part 3 (7) 3 remedies can make office work productive again (8a) No talk Thursday PM
(8b) Switch from active to passive communication (ex: email)
(8c) Cancel your next meeting and notice that nothing bad happens
Conclusion (9) I hope these ideas inspire managers to leave employees alone to do great work (10) (none)


Tip 3: Be authentic

Jason is a person who cares about unleashing creativity at work.  He started a company and wrote several books to express his passion for productivity.  He was clearly in that zone as well when he delivered his TED Talk.  When speakers present on topics they deeply care about, they do not need to think about the mechanics of verbal and non-verbal delivery.  Jason’s passion appeared naturally in his facial expressions and his vocal variety.  Though his movement on stage was at times a little distracting, it matched the power of his conviction and expressed raw authenticity.


Tip 4: Speak without slides

Jason was wise to avoid slides in his TED Talk. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that TED Talks are partly defined by great slide design, many of the most popular TED speakers used no slides during their talks.  Slides always create an attention barrier between speaker and audience.  Conceptual talks like Jason’s are far more persuasive without slides.

So, when should a speaker use slides?  Slides are effective when they document an experience first-hand (see Bunker Roy’s TED Talk) or reveal data (see Hans Rosling’s TED Talk) in a way that would take too many words to explain. In those instances, the benefit outweighs the cost.


Final Thoughts

To discover more of Jason’s unconventional advice for succeeding at work, check out his best-selling book, ReWork.

How to Manage Your Fear of Public Speaking

(This is a guest post by Stanford University professor Matt Abrahams, author of Speaking Up Without Freaking Out)

Speaking in front of others can be terrifying. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked, “At a funeral, people would rather be in the casket than deliver the eulogy.” The fear of presenting in front of others is real and can limit your career growth.

With practice anxious speakers can become more confident and compelling. The goal is not to overcome your fear, but to manage it. Managed speaking anxiety is beneficial in several ways: It encourages you to prepare, helps you focus, provides you with energy, and expresses authenticity.

In what follows, I present five anxiety management techniques that you can employ in the five minutes prior to your presentation. To help you remember these techniques, I have ordered them using the acronym B.R.A.V.E.

Tip 1: Breathe

Take time to breathe slowly and deeply. “Belly breathing,” filling your lower abdomen by inhaling slowly, calms nerves by reducing your heart rate. Try out 7-7-7 breathing where you breathe in for seven seconds through your nose, hold your breath for seven seconds, and then exhale for seven seconds through your mouth. By focusing on counting, you quiet your mental chatter. Also, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth keeps your vocal chords moist.

Tip 2: Recite your core message

Many people fear that they will forget their material in the middle of their speech. To bolster your confidence, repeat your central message several times just before you speak. You should be able to express your central message in a punchy sentence of three to twelve words. If you do lose your train of thought, restating your central point should help you get back on track; plus your audience will appreciate the reminder.

Tip 3: Acknowledge your jitters

The physical, emotional, and mental reactions you experience prior to speaking are natural. Avoid giving these responses special significance. In fact, you can greet these reactions by saying: “Here are those natural feelings of anxiety again. They give me the energy I need to share my message.” This empowering acknowledgment will soothe your anxiety.

Tip 4: Vocally warm up

Anxiety wreaks havoc on your voice by tightening your muscles, including your vocal chords and your diaphragm. Relax by vocally warming. Just as an athlete would not begin without stretching, you should not begin speaking without preparing your voice. Start by drinking warm water or decaffeinated tea. Next, say your core message aloud. Finally, repeat tongue twisters such as “I slit a sheet. A sheet I slit. And, on that slitted sheet, I sit.” Just like counting your breath, such vocal warm-ups get you out of your head.

Tip 5: Expect success

Speakers often worry more about making mistakes in their delivery than they do about the impact their speech will have on their audience. When have an idea worth spreading, you will feel empowered and relaxed. The more relaxed you are, the more likely you are to give a good presentation. You are using self-fulfilling prophecy to obtain a positive outcome.

Try it out!

By being B.R.A.V.E. in the five minutes before you take the stage, you will manage your speaking anxiety and in the process feel confident, calm, and competent in speaking up without freaking out!


Matt Abrahams is a passionate, collaborative and innovative educator and coach who teaches Strategic Communication and Presentation Skills at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and De Anza College. He is also co-founder of Bold Echo Communication Solutions, an industry- leading communication consulting practice. Matt recently published Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, a book written to help the millions of people who suffer from presentation anxiety. To learn more, visit or

How Heather Hansen O’Neill Delivered Her TEDx Talk

(This is a guest post by Heather Hansen O’Neill who spoke at TEDxUpperEastSide in August 2013)

Recently I was invited to speak at TEDxUpperEastSide. New York City baby! I eagerly accepted. Then later that night the realization hit…THIS BETTER BE GOOD.  It does not matter where you have spoken, how many times, or how big the audience. If you get asked to deliver a TED or TEDx talk, you take it seriously.

Some speakers have an amazing story of having accomplished something extraordinary such as Croix Sather who broke the world record in the Badwater Solo Self-Contained Crossing ultra-marathon. Other speakers have a talent or skill that viewers are on the edge of their seat to learn such at Sid Efromovich. But when your idea worth spreading is drawn from the intangible field of motivation, the conviction that the world is sitting at home anxiously awaiting your message is not as strong.

As you begin writing your TED or TEDx speech–ignore the doubt and enjoy the process! I hope my process encourages you to take the leap as well.

Tip 1: Enjoy the Journey

The creative process is excruciating; revel in the delicious pain. I wrote a beautiful speech. Two days later, I ripped it up. Then I wrote another. Ripped it up. Then another. Shredded to pieces. Came up with the masterpiece. I presented it for a local Toastmasters Group. During the evaluations the consensus was unanimous that I should change the theme to…. the one in the original speech I had written and destroyed.

Tip 2: Ask for Help

Since I needed help, I reached out to friends in my public speaking network who graciously offered their feedback and encouragement. One of them brought a video camera to one of my rehearsals. I found it invaluable to see and hear the difference between what I thought I presented and how I actually came across.

All of this practice, input, adaptation and additional practice leads me to recall a great quote by the famous dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, “Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

Tip 3: Let Go and Fly

Even up until the day of the event, I did not feel fully confident and ready. But there came a moment when I walked into the beautiful Bohemian National Hall in NYC and felt the positive energy of the audience. Then, I took a conscious breath and let go. There comes a point in every process after you have prepared as best you can when you must let go of your attachment to the outcome and simply be in the present moment. That moment of confidence, peace, and breath is where greatness lies if you let it. Too few people fully embrace those moments. But it is, indeed, an important part of the process.

As you navigate your TED talk, strive to reach a career goal, or encounter any life challenge, the ability you have to enjoy the journey, ask for help, and let go enough to be in the moment will help immensely. My support and encouragement to you in your process.

Heather Hansen O’Neill is an award winning speaker, TV show host, and the author of Find Your Fire and Teams on Fire. More info on Heather can be found at

NY Brand Lab Radio Interview on “How to Deliver a TED Talk”

Thanks to the amazing Mary van de Wiel for hosting me on her NY Brand Lab Radio podcast.

Listen to internet radio with NY Brand Lab Radio on BlogTalkRadio

Killer Presentation Tips for TED Talks from Chris Anderson’s HBR Article

In the June 2013 issue of HBR, TED curator Chris Anderson shared an outstanding set of public speaking tips in his article entitled: How to Give a Killer Presentation.  Though I strongly encourage you to read the entire article to pick up the colorful narrative commentary, here are the tips he provided in paraphrased, condensed, and actionable form:


Content Tips

  1. Start with a novel idea worth spreading that is deeply insightful yet narrow in scope.
  2. Frame your talk as a journey of discovery or a detective story.  Start by stating a problem your audience knows or should reasonably know and then build to your unique solution.
  3. Make sure your audience can quickly grasp what your talk is about.
  4. Don’t over-explain; instead let your audience reach their own epiphany.
  5. Share stories about people not organizations.
  6. Sell your ideas from the stage, not yourself, your books, or your business.


Delivery Tips

  1. Strive to deliver your talk without notes or a teleprompter.  It typically takes dozens of rehearsals in front of a live audience to  internalize a talk.  Internalization is the stage you will reach beyond memorization with enough practice.
  2.  Use bullet points on note cards if you struggle with memorization.
  3. Speak in your natural conversational tone of voice (and not like a dramatic orator).
  4. Use simple language rather than jargon.
  5. Keep your lower body motionless and move to new locations if that comes naturally. However, do not sway from side to side or shift your weight from leg to leg.
  6. Make eye contact with 5 or 6 people randomly distributed throughout the audience.


Design Tips

  1. Keep your multimedia simple, or better yet, use none at all
  2. Design slides for your audience (not for your use as notes).  This means favoring vivid images over text bullet points.
  3. Build silence into your talk if you have stunning imagery depicting your work.
  4. Keep video clips to less than 60 seconds.
  5. Avoid including soundtracks in video clips.


Mindset Tips

  1. Start the cycle of devising, revising, and rehearsing six to nine months before you deliver your TED Talk.
  2. Embrace your nervousness as natural and healthy.  It gives you energy and makes you more authentically engaging to your audience.
  3. Calm your nervous by listening to the speakers before you, assuming powerful body language (see Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk), and breathing deeply.
  4. Seek feedback only from highly experienced presenters.

Interview: Simon Sinek’s Public Speaking Advice

I interviewed Simon Sinek on April 24th, 2013 to capture his advice on public speaking.  In case you have been living under a rock, Simon is the best-selling author of Start With Why and his TED Talk has been viewed over 12 million times on and YouTube.

After you read this, I encourage you to check out Simon’s 11 free tips and ideas on how to help you speak more effectively so you can inspire action.

(For more insight on Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, check out my blog post: How Simon Sinek Delivered His TED Talk)


How did you select your topic?

To begin with, I never talk about things I do not understand or do not care about. I am not there to sell a company. If somebody does not care about the subject that they are talking about, then they should probably give a different talk.

Ask yourself, “Why am I giving this talk?” I understand you have invented something. I understand you have a perspective on something. But, what is the reason you feel compelled to give your message to others? What is so important that people should bother giving up any of their time to listen to you?

People often have the reasonably altruistic point of view, “If they learn this, then it will increase their productivity…” However, the best TED talks are grounded in the more deeply personal mindset, “I discovered or did something that dramatically changed my life. It was so powerful that I felt compelled to share it with others.” Look at all of the twenty most viewed talks. Whether they speak about their personal experience or not, the speeches are profoundly emotional for every single one of the speakers. Watch Susan Cain’s talk, a favorite of mine, to see this in action.

My experience was the same. I hit rock bottom and I lost my passion. During the struggle that I went through to regain my passion, I made the discovery that the most successful organizations on the planet function on three levels. The problem was that I only knew two of them. I knew what I did and that I was reasonably good at it. I knew how I was different and better than my competition. But, I could not tell you why I was doing it. It was not a commercial exercise; it was an exercise to save myself. The discovery profoundly changed my life. I shared it with my friends. My friends invited me to share it with their friends. People kept inviting me to share and share and share. I kept saying, “Yes.” It was born out of something deeply, deeply personal, even though I do not tell that story in the TED talk.

How did you prepare for your TED Talk?

I am a bad person to ask how people should prepare for speeches because I do not believe that there is a universal answer to that question. Everybody prepares differently. It is like studying habits. Some people like to study in a coffee shop where it is noisy. Others like to study in a library where it is quiet. There is no right way.

The major complicating factor was that I had never given the talk in less than one to three hours. I did not believe it was possible to do it in eighteen minutes. In fact, I had never memorized it in the first place. I thought, “I don’t know. I’ve done it a million times. I’ll just come do it.” I made the decision that I would start talking at the beginning and after eighteen minutes was up I would just stop talking. I did not rehearse that exact talk.

If anything I think people need to know what their strengths are and stick to that. I try and put myself in positions that will allow for me to be successful. TEDxPugetSound was no exception. I had already been giving extended versions of this talk for a few years and I knew the content inside and out since it was based on my book (Start With Why) that was nearing publication.

What do you consider your strengths as a speaker?

I think out loud. The advantage is that when I am on a stage you are basically listening to me think about the message that I want to share. That is lucky for me, I guess, in the context of public speaking. The disadvantage is that I sometimes frustrate people by giving very long-winded answers to specific questions I do not immediately know the answer to.

How did you come up with the set of provocative questions you used to open your talk?

Funny you should ask… I had made my decision about how I would stop, but I did not know how to start. I went through this panic when I got to the event. Then I took a little walk and figured out how I would start. That introduction I gave is an introduction I had never given before.

What went through your mind as you were giving your TED Talk?

People put so much pressure on themselves to give TED and TEDx talks now. If the stars align just right, a great talk can make a career. I understand the pressure that goes with this, but people get so worried about the production that they sometimes miss what really matters. I always remind people that the video quality on my talk is pretty poor. While I was presenting, my wireless lavaliere microphone failed and someone had to give me a hand-held one. If your content is clear and well delivered, then people will overlook the production quality. Focus first and foremost with why you and the audience are there.

I have a friend who wanted to give a TED talk. He sent me a script about the trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur. He had not been invited to speak, this was just his script. I wrote back and said, “No one cares what your trials and tribulations are. Tell me why this matters in the first place.” To help him, I gave him his first sentence and added, “This is the opening line of your TED talk. If you develop the rest of this you’ll do fine. It will be great and you will get selected.” That is exactly what happened.

You have to show up to give. Every time I speak, no matter who the audience is, I never want anything from anybody. I do not want their business. I do not want their approval. I do not want them to follow me on Twitter or Facebook. I do not want them to buy a book. I do not want anything. I show up to give my thoughts, my opinions, and my perspectives. I show up to share my ideas. I hold nothing back. I answer every question I am asked completely. Showing up to give is the difference between a brilliant and authentic speaker versus someone who is not.

A speaker maybe rehearsed and polished, but if they show up to get it falls flat. I think a problem that has emerged from the TED experience is people now see it as their ticket to raise their profile, sell their book, or get more clients. However, if you show up to get, that will destroy any presentation you give. Fundamentally it affects the way you present yourself because you will make it about you instead of your audience.

No matter the size of the audience, I think of them as my closest friends. I have a mantra that I say out loud before I go on stage, “You’re here to give. You’re here to share.”

How did you feel after you finished your talk?

They say Eskimos have fifty words for snow. I pay attention to the different types of responses I get from an audience. Sometimes I get this immediate surge where people stand up and give a standing ovation. Sometimes it starts with one or two people and then it becomes a very slow standing ovation. Sometimes they never stand up but they keep clapping and clapping and clapping. Sometimes they clap for five minutes and they are done.

I’ve learned that when you hit someone over the head with an idea worth spreading they will respond with excitement. When you give them something that they are still thinking about, that they really are compelled by, the amazing thing is they will clap and clap and clap. You have exited the stage and they are still clapping. The greatest reward I get is seeing and feeling and hearing the impact.

On that day, if the memory serves me right, the audience gave me a standing ovation. The reward I got was that my audience that day received my message warmly. If your live audience receives your message warmly, then odds are pretty high that people sitting at their desk will receive your message equally as warmly.

I was relieved because I was the first to go that day. Then, I sat down to enjoy myself during the rest of the event. When the organizer said, “Simon, you’re first.” I responded, “Yes!” Otherwise I would have been freaking out and panicking for the rest of the day, especially with all those fantastic speakers. Watching brilliant speakers is intimidating. I was lucky that I did not have any of that stress.

What, if anything, did you do to help you video go viral?

I giggle when companies sell services claiming to help your video go viral. The whole concept of a virus is that it is an accident. You can try to create conditions that help a virus spread, but you cannot guarantee it. It does not work that way. I meet many speakers with delusions of going viral and marketing plans to back it up. Yet they all failed.

My TEDx video went viral for two reasons. The main reason was luck. Keep in mind when my TEDx came out in September 2009, the TEDx franchise was still relatively new. Since there were so few talks online, the opportunity that mine would be seen was higher. That was just dumb luck. The timing was good. Not my timing, the timing.

The other reason my TEDx video went viral, however, is that I did not do anything. I did not have a marketing plan. I did not have a publicist. There was no company overseas hitting “Like, Like, Like,” on social networks. If there is some magic, it is that my message fundamentally resonated. People could believe in it, share it. I have asked audiences, “How many of you have seen my TED talk?” If a large number raise their hands, then I ask, “How many of you who have your hands raised were sent the talk by someone else?” The numbers are usually around 75%.

What makes something go viral? It happens when somebody perceives your message as so interesting, powerful, and valuable that they choose to send it to somebody they love. You become a vehicle for others to help their friends, their colleagues, or the ones they care about. We give beautiful things to the people we love.

If you show up to take, there is no reason for anyone to share your message because any information you gave them was selfishly motivated. They might even use it selfishly, “This was good. I’m keeping this one.” However, if you show up to give, others will use your message in the same respect. That is fundamentally the reason why my message went viral. Others, by the grace of their generosity, were so kind to share what I had to say with people they cared about.

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