Business guru Simon Sinek became a TED super-star by combining a simple yet compelling message – “start with why” – with an artful narrative. In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his TED Talk so powerful and viral.
Tip #1: Share an idea worth spreading
Simon’s idea worth spreading is: ‘To encourage leaders to start with why (then share how and finally reveal what), so that they can inspire others.”
Tip #2: Hook your audience immediately
Simon hooked his audience immediately in two ways. The first is that he started with a series of compelling questions that left the audience hungry for an answer:
How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example: Why is Apple so innovative? … Then why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? … Why him? And why is it that the Wright brothers were able to figure out controlled, powered man flight when there were certainly other teams who were better qualified, better funded … and they didn’t achieve powered man flight, and the Wright brothers beat them to it?
As I discussed in a previous post (3 Best Ways To Start Your Speech), Simon opened with not one, but an entire series of thought-provoking questions. Importantly, he made sure that all of these questions had the exact same answer. And, moreover, the answer to these questions was his central idea.
Simon also hooked his audience by teasing them with the delights of secret knowledge:
About three and a half years ago I made a discovery. And this discovery profoundly changed my view on how I thought the world worked, and it even profoundly changed the way in which I operate in it. As it turns out, there’s a pattern. As it turns out, all the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world — whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers — they all think, act and communicate the exact same way. And it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it, and it’s probably the world’s simplest idea.
It is important to note that in addition to hooking his audience, Simon’s introduction established the 3-part architecture of his speech. They audience knew they would hear about Apple Computer, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King Jr. and then they would be done.
Many speakers use the heavy handed approach of ‘telling them what you are going to tell them.’ Had Simon fallen into this trap, he would have said “Today, I am going to tell you about Apple, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King. First, let’s talk about Apple…” Boring! By hiding his plan inside his questions, Simon took a far more graceful approach that other speakers would be wise to learn from.
Tip #3: Weave a compelling narrative
Above all else, the aspect that makes Mr. Sinek’s speech so powerful is the way he built his logic-driven narrative. Mr. Sinek used a ‘chain of whys’ (credit to Andrew Chiu for sharing this insight with me.) Here is his narrative broken down:
- Introduction: All great leaders and great organizations communicate from the inside out; they start with why, then share how, and finally reveal what.
- Part 1: (Why is it important to communicate that way?) Because people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Therefore, you should strive to do business with people who believe what you believe.
- Part 2: (Why should you do business with those kinds of people?) Because some of the people who believe what you believe will work for you with their blood, sweat, and tears.
- Part 3: (Why do you need those kinds of people working for you?) Because people who believe what you believe will attract enough like-minded people to get you to the tipping point of the diffusion of innovation that leads to mass market acceptance.
- Conclusion: (What does that matter?) Because it is not about the leader, it is about the people. Leaders who start with why have the ability to inspire because the people who follow do so on their own behalf.
Simon fleshed out this logic driven narrative with supporting proof that quite cleverly used negative/positive contrasting pairs. Speaking expert Craig Valentine refers to this concept as ‘push-pull‘ using a stuck-in-the-mud metaphor (again, credit to Andrew Chiu for pointing this out and for the link). First, you push the audience out of their comfort zone by motivating them with the fear of the consequences that will result from failing to heed your advice. Then, you pull them to act on your advice by motivating them with the benefits they will realize. Here is Mr. Sinek’s supporting proof including his push-pull examples:
- Introduction: Series of questions introducing Apple Computer, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King. (No push-pull here).
- Part 1: The push-pull is ‘anti-Apple’ that starts with what versus Apple that starts with why. Simon also argues that the inside out communication approach he calls the ‘Golden Circle’ is supported by brain biology and function.
- Part 2: The push-pull is Samuel Pierpont Langley versus the Wright Brothers.
- Part 3: The push-pull is Tivo versus Martin Luther King Jr.
- Conclusion: The push is that today’s politicians have power and 12-point plans filled with ‘whats’, but they do not inspire. The pull is his concluding logic – again that leaders who start with why have the ability to inspire because the people who follow do so on their own behalf.
Tip #4: Translate your message into viral catchphrases
Simon is a master at revealing and then repeating viral catchphrases. The best catch phrases are short (typically less then 10 words), action driven, and rhythmic He uses two in particular: (1) “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” (2) “[sell to, hire, and attract] people who believe what you believe”. He uses the first phrase seven times and the second phrase, with its various verbs, six times.
It is noteworthy that Simon shares his most powerful catchphrase, the one that has come to define him, “Start With Why” only once and in his very last sentence:
And it is those who start with why that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.
I have to imagine that if Simon had realized the phrase would become so viral, he would have used it six or seven times too.
Tip #5: Match your delivery to your message
Throughout his speech, Simon has an earnestness of both verbal and non-verbal delivery that matched his passion for transforming the way that leaders communicate. His voice, a blend of British and South African accents, is crisp with clear annunciation. He punctuates his sentences with dramatic pauses for one beat at commas and two beats at periods. He extends those pauses a bit longer after conveying important points.
Mr. Sinek’s non-verbal delivery also reflected controlled passion for his subject. In particular he often leaned his head slightly sideways – a body language signal that tests for understanding. Additionally, he leaned his torso forward on numerous occasions, often in concert with pauses, to underscore key points.
Simon’s serious delivery was also reflected in his limited use of humor – he elicited only 3 laughs in 18 minutes and his first laugh did not come until eleven minutes and eighteen seconds into his speech. Though he delivered an amazing speech, I think it would have been more powerful if he had increased the laugh count to one per minute by riffing during opportune moments.
Tip #6: Stay ‘in the zone’ by letting distractions wash over you
Many lesser speakers get distracted by technical hiccups or by external disturbances. In Simon’s case, he was holding a wireless microphone for a good portion of his speech. All of sudden, an event organizer walked up to him and handed him a wired microphone. Through this interruption he held his line of reasoning, never missing a beat. (Though it does not appear to be the case, it is possible that the video was edited in post-production to make everything seem smooth.)
Besides the technical issues, Simon was facing a significant amount of background noise. In fact, if you listen closely enough, then you will hear a loud airplane passing by just has he starts talking about the Wright Brothers. He certainly could have gotten a big laugh out of this by calling attention to this elephant in the room, but he made a good call to maintain his tone. (However, speakers should call attention to very large distractions in order to release audience tension and then move on.)
Tip #7: Try drawing as a substitute for using slides
I have a strong opinion that slides are overused in TED Talks. There are two good times to use slides. The first is when the slides are photographic documentation of people, places, or things that are challenging to visualize or that have more emotional power when shown than when imagined. The slides in Bunker Roy’s TED Talk are a good example of this. The second good time to use slides is for the visualization of complex concepts and data – and again, only in circumstances where imagination does not do justice (see Hans Rosling’s TED talk for an example of this).
Simon wisely did not use slides. Instead, he drew out his ‘why->how->what’ concept that he calls The Golden Circle. It probably would have been sufficient for him to stop with that, but he also drew out the diffusion of innovation curve (also known as the technology adoption curve).
If I could pick one minor nit, it is that Simon held is pen throughout the duration of his talk. Like any prop left exposed for too long, the pen can become distracting. It is a particular issue since audiences subconsciously expect a speaker holding a pen to be about to write or draw something even if the speaker is done with doodling.
In addition to his core idea, a large part of the power of Simon’s talk is grounded in how he constructed a deductive logic ‘chain of whys.’ For contrast, check out how Rory Sutherland delivered his TED talk using inductive logic groups.