“TED Tuesday” is our recurring series on public speaking, specifically breaking down TED talks. This week, we examine Rory Sutherland in 2009 discussing “Life Lessons from an Ad Man.” The talk is rated in the top 20 (#11) in terms of engagement metrics.
From the beginning, Sutherland has one thing going for him that many talks do not: a quick start. He speaks faster than the mean, and launches his talk with a reference to “TEDevil”, the supposed Cain to TED’s Abel that an advertising executive like himself would speak at. The joke works, in large part because of his nervy energy and British accent. But, beyond that, the joke works in the context of his talk in a classic counter-intuitive way: it first lets folks know that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and is willing to be loose from the start. However, after another riff involving Kim Jong Il, Sutherland then builds on that by presenting a thoughtful hypothesis:
…if you want to live in a world in the future where there are fewer material goods, you basically have two choices. You can either live in a world which is poorer, which people in general don’t like. Or you can live in a world where actually intangible value constitutes a greater part of overall value…
He then goes to an example slide, about a train route. So, to review, at the one-minute mark, Sutherland has:
- Come out of the gate at quick speaking pace, but loose in presentation.
- Opened with a successful joke.
- Followed it up with a serious, thoughtful premise related to something everyone has (perception).
- Gone to a specific example, to support his main point.
There’s no real secret to effective speaking. These four ingredients are a winning recipe. You engage any audience through authenticity, expertise, and a premise they care about.
3:00 – 6:48
Sutherland goes on a winding narrative that is a little hard to follow in the moment, but contains a number of older historical examples/stories that are intertwined with each other, from the Scots to the Spaniards to the Italians and so on. While it’s a challenge to follow, as it feels like a grab bag of stories thrown together a bit, the examples he chooses are vivid and in 4 minutes time, doesn’t spend too much time on any one example.
Sutherland’s hands are out, gesturing with the accent points of his speech and his body language is open and comfortable. Having to hold the clicker in his right hand means his left works a bit harder, but the discrepancy isn’t too pronounced.
At the 12-minute mark, Sutherland notably slows the pace a bit, or at least adds more breaks. This is an essential technique. My friend Jill Foster has blogged on the importance of silence in public speaking. While Sutherland isn’t going silent here, he is hedging in that direction with more pronounced breaks in between spoken parts. This technique can add tension or just give the audience a breather. Here, it’s more a case of the later. Then, it leads into showing video.
Sutherland makes arguably his best choice towards the end, to peel off and show two videos, both of which are paced much slower than his talk. Almost like a transition from Act 2 to Act 3, the videos counterbalance Sutherland’s lightening speaking style with a more laconic tone. He re-enters with a punchline, garnering an applause break.
He wraps up with two quotations, but does commit the cardinal sin of simply reading them, he expands upon them with his own commentary.
Not everything is sterling silver, here. Readers of this blog know that I’m a stickler for word choice, especially when a passive word is re-used to the point of emptiness. Words like “basically” and “sort of”, which only weigh down sentences and weaken emphasis on key points. Throughout the course of a 16-minute talk, Sutherland uses the word “actually” 37 TIMES. Here are some examples:
What Ataturk realized actually is two very fundamental things. Which is that, actually, first one, all value is actually relative. All value is perceived value.
And I actually went to the Marginal Revolution blog by Tyler Cowen. I don’t know if anybody knows it. Someone was actually suggesting that you can take this concept further, and actually produce placebo education. The point is that education doesn’t actually work by teaching you things.
On the TED website, you can read the transcript. I challenge you to find one single utterance of the word “actually” that is anything more than completely non-essential. Language is important in public speaking and while Sutherland’s looseness is an asset here, his talk would have more punch without 37 uses of a zero-sum word.
- Do not waste the audience’s time. Getting started quickly or, with a bang, lets everyone know you’re in charge and capable of handling their attention.
- Not everyone can keep up a breakneck speaking pace, but starting quickly and slowing down (settling in) is better than starting slowly and accelerating. -Changing pace is important heightening technique.
- Humor is hard to do. And that’s why, if you can do it, you are in the upper echelon of effective speakers. You can tell the difference between polite laughter, i.e. laughing that happens because the rhythm of the speaker suggests humor, and real laughter at real, insightful humor.
- Using empty words such as “actually” and “basically” amount to little more than tics. Through observing your own talks, identify them and work to divorce them from your talk.
- Showing a video or using visual aids broadens your talk exponentially. Just you and your voice is all you need, but using more can net you more.