Charlie Todd currently holds the record for the largest number of views on TED.com for a speech by a comedian. In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his talk so popular.
Tip #1: Share an idea worth spreading
Charlie Todd’s idea worth spreading is: ‘To accept that there is no right or wrong way to play so that you can have more joy in your life.’
Tip #2: Be purposeful about when to reveal your ‘ah-hah’ moment
I help out a number of TED and TEDx speakers and one of them asked me yesterday: “Should I share my ah-hah insight at the beginning or at the end of my talk?” The short answer is that it depends. If you are delivering a story-driven narrative, then I recommend holding the big ‘ah-hah’ to the end to preserve the natural drama inherent in your story. Audiences are delighted by the journey of discovery and willingly defer the gratification that the moral provides.
The location of the ah-hah moment in a logic driven narrative depends on the type of argument you are making. Most TED Talks are built using inductive logic groups. In a nutshell, this means the speaker has one fundamental premise and then shares a collection of justifications that answer the audience’s most pressing question. This collection must be described by one plural noun. For example, if the question raised is ‘how?’, then the justifications are steps or methods. If the question is ‘why?’, then the justifications are reasons. With inductive logic groups, I recommend putting the big reveal at the beginning and then repeating it again at the end albeit with more emotional resonance.
In a deductive logic chain, the speaker states a law or accepted principle and then goes progressively deeper until reaching a big ‘ah-hah’ at the end. An example of this type of argument is the ‘chain of whys’ – think of a conversation that alternates between a parent making a statement and a child asking ‘why?’. (Also, see how Simon Sinek’s delivered his TED Talk). With this type of argument, the ‘ah-hah’ is automatically at the end.
Charlie Todd’s narrative was an inductive logic group in which his idea worth spreading was supported by five methods that answered ‘how?’. However, he did not reveal his big insight until the end. The benefit of this approach is that it builds dramatic tension. The downside is that the audience is left to ponder what the point is until the end. Most of the time, the drama is not worth the confusion. In Mr. Todd’s case, it worked for two special reasons. One is that his talk was more entertaining then it was educational. When you are being entertained, there does not have to be a point. Second, at 11.7 minutes, his talk was shorter than the typical 18 minute TED Talk.
Tip #3: Alternate between logic and proof
Charlie’s talk, like most great TED Talks, alternates between logic and proof. First he shared a story vignette (the proof), then he shared the so-what (the logic). He repeated this process five times for his five ‘hows.’ Here is how his talk was structured: (the numbers indicate the order of his talk)
|Introduction||(none)||(1) Started Improv Everywhere 10 years ago when he moved to NYC and did not have a stage for acting & comedy|
|Part 1||(3) By causing a scene in a public place that is a positive experience for others that gives them a great story to tell||(2)"No Pants Subway Ride" video|
|Part 2||(5) By choosing locations that naturally attract an audience||(4) "Look Up More" video|
|Part 3||(6) By taking advantage of assets already in the environment||(5) "Best Buy Prank" video|
|Part 4||(8) By making the project site specific||(7) "53rd Street Escalator" video|
|Part 5||(10) By occasionally choosing to use leisure time in an unusual way||(9) 6 examples supported by slides|
|Conclusion||(12) As adults there is no right or wrong way to play||(11) As children we don't question play|
Tip #4: Do not cram too much into your talk
The greatest risk that speakers face in building TED talks is not having too little content, it is having too much. When you edit your talk, the first question to ask is whether a given part of your speech either adds to your logic or to your proof. In the case of Charlie Todd’s TED Talk, all five parts of the body of his speech pass this screen. The next question to ask is whether you absolutely positively need each part, especially when the number of parts exceeds the magical number of three.
Each of the first four part of Charlie Todd’s speech was nicely parallel in structure. In general, it is good idea to keep the type of proof that you are using consistent. Each part had a “how” supported by a video example that Mr. Todd narrated. However, his fifth part contained a blur of six examples supported by slides rather than videos. Since the treatment was so different, this part of the speech felt tacked on and rushed. It was as if Mr. Todd was cramming in the portfolio of his life’s work. The work is brilliant, but his Part 5 took away from the power of his talk. He could have dropped the extra examples and moved the leisure time logic either up into his introduction or down into his conclusion.
Tip #5: Add non-verbal humor to your collection of speaking skills
As you would expect from a comedian, Charlie Todd’s talk drew a stunning number of laughs – 42 in under 12 minutes. At 3.6 laughs-per-minute, this is just below the range 4 to 6 laughs-per-minute range of professional stand-up comedy. It is also well above the typical 1 to 2 laughs-per-minute that most TED talks elicit. How did he do it?
Most speakers riff to crank up the laugh count. Riffing is the practice of getting one laugh and then elaborating several more times on the same theme with escalating absurdity. This is a mostly verbal skill though skilled comedians can get the same effect with physical comedy.
Using video examples, Charlie Todd employed situation comedy. Take his first video. He only had to say the words “no pants subway ride” to draw his first laugh. From that point on, he mostly played straight-man narrator as absurd events unfolding on screen drew the laughs – a woman trying to read a book on a subway car as seven men wearing coats and boxer shorts entered the train at seven consecutive stops.
Tip #6: Set up multimedia clips as stories
Since they take attention away from the speaker, visuals of any kind should only be used if they document an experience in a way that words cannot explain. Charlie Todd made the right choice in showing video clips of his work since it was the best way for the audience to relive his experience. More impressively, he treated each of his four video clips as a mini-story. For example, here is the “No Pants Subway Ride” story:
- Act I (ordinary world to inciting incident): A woman is reading a book on a subway car. There are two men sitting across from her having a conversation. As the subway pulls into its first stop, the woman picks her head up and notices a man who just boarded wearing a coat and scarf, but wearing only yellow polka-dot boxer shorts from the waist down.
- Act II (inciting incident to climax): Six more men at six additional subway stops enter the train the same way without communicating with each other. Ultimately, a second woman boards the train holding a Duffel bag and offers pants for sale for $1.
- Act III (climax to new ordinary world): The men put on their pants, leave the train, and go off in different directions.
Though there was background noise, Mr. Todd’s videos were a pure visual experience. With shorter clips, perhaps 30 seconds or less, it is best for the speaker to simply watch silently as the audience watches. For longer clips, it is wise to narrate – preferably without starting and stopping the video – as Charlie did.
Tip #7: Show videos of decreasing duration
Using even one video in a presentation can be distracting for an audience. Having four can be ten times more distracting so it should be done with extreme caution. Charlie Todd handled this nicely by showing videos with (mostly) decreasing duration starting with his longest at 180 seconds, followed by 65 seconds, then 77 seconds, and finally 50 seconds. Using progressively shorter videos provides the audience with a satisfying feeling that the talk is accelerating.
Embedding videos in a presentation imposes a large degree of technical risk. If you choose to do so, then make sure there is no other way for your audience to relive your story. Additionally, make sure to fully test the video and the audio on the actual system prior to the performance since you will get different results on different computers with different A/V systems.