How TED’s “Bite-Sized Content” Presentations Transformed the Future of Speaking


The TED Talk has become a phenomenon in the speaking world. Its concept of offering bite-sized content has changed the way that we show stories. Let’s look at what you can learn from some of TED’s best storytellers (and why they’re really storyshowers)

If you’re a speaker, there’s no chance that you’ve missed out on the TED Talk phenomenon. You may even have dreams of holding a TED Talk of your own.

TED started out in 1984 with founder Richard Saul Wurman’s grand idea. He wanted to create an event that brought together the related fields of design, technology, and entertainment.

The very first conference highlighted some of the most important ideas in those industries at that time. Attendees saw an e-book in action and got their first taste of the compact disc. They even saw some early 3D graphics courtesy of LucasFilm.

And it failed.

The event lost money and it wasn’t until 1990 that they tried again.

Finally, the world was ready. TED rapidly expanded to include speeches from the leading minds in a wide array of industries. It became a nonprofit and evolved from an invite-only event to one that welcomed everybody.

But it wasn’t until 2006 that TED started posting selected TED Talks online.

And that’s when the phenomenon really took off.

The online TED Talks highlighted the best storytellers from the TED conferences. But they showed us so much more.

They showed us that the best storytellers are NOT tellers at all - they’re storyshowers!

That’s because TED Talks have a limited amount of time to present ideas.

They’re filler-killers.

TED speakers can’t afford to fluff up their speeches. They have to elicit the maximum emotional response possible in a short time window.


The Problem with Fluff

So, what is fluff?

Fluff is any part of a speech that does nothing to emotionally engage the audience. You’ll know you’ve fluffed out a speech from the audience reaction. If all eyes aren’t on you anymore, you’ve not engaged the people you’re speaking to.

Fluffy speeches take too long to get to the heart of the matter. They’re full of padding that doesn’t serve the story.

All you’re showing people is that you don’t have enough ideas to fill up your time slot.

In the modern speaking industry, the winning speakers are those who can show the most in the least amount of time. They’re the people who grab audiences by their emotions and take them on a journey that doesn’t stop for a second.

Marketing techniques are already evolving to this end.

Today, it’s all about stories. Marketing has become shorter, snappier, and catchable. It’s all about grabbing the audience’s attention and not letting go.

We’re at a turning point for speaking. The next three years will transform how we show stories for the next 30 years.

And you can argue that it all started with TED.

TED understands the power of a concise and emotional story. That’s why you won’t see many TED Talks that veer into hour-long territory. The people on stage have something to show you and they have to do it in a limited amount of time.

After all, TED Talks appeal to people online as much as the live audience. Too much fluff means losing the millions of online viewers whom the speaker may be able to influence.

TED also doesn’t make exceptions. Even powerful speakers like Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey stick to 15 minute speech segments with TED.

Getting rid of the fluff applies to every industry. Speakers, authors, and thought leaders alike need to adapt to this change.

“How?” is the question now.

Here are three tips from some of TED’s most viral speakers and why they’re really storyshowers:


Bryan Stevenson – Wrap Your Big Idea in Stories

An attorney by trade, Bryan Stevenson knows how to get the response he’s looking for from his audience.

But he came to his TED Talk with a huge idea. He wanted to tell the audience about a nonprofit he’d founded called The Equal Justice Initiative. The nonprofit aims to help those in marginalised communities gain access to better legal counsel. It also wants to tackle injustice in the justice system.

Those are some pretty lofty ideals. But Stevenson only had 15 minutes to get his idea out there.

He couldn’t afford to go into a rambling speech that told people about the initiative. He needed to show them the stories that had brought him to this point.

Stevenson used his 15 minutes to talk about the key stories in his life. He told the audience about a meeting with Rosa Parks that taught him about persistence. He related a story about meeting a grandmother who helped him to understand identity.

Finally, he spoke about a chance meeting in a courtroom that demonstrated the importance of hope in the face of adversity.

Persistence, identity, and hope.

With those three short stories, Stevenson showed the ideas that formed the foundation of his organisation.

Stevenson’s speech drew TED Talk’s longest sustained standing ovation. More importantly, it achieved its goal. $1 million poured into The Equal Justice Initiative’s coffers in the immediate aftermath.

Stevenson used the power of emotion to show stories that engaged his audience. Every second of his 15 minutes served a purpose and achieved so much more than a dry presentation.


Amy Cuddy – Use Your Body to Your Advantage

Amy Cuddy is a bestselling author and social psychologist who teaches at Harvard. Her main areas of study are the subjects of leadership and power, particularly in terms of how body language conveys power.

Cuddy’s TED Talk focuses on body language. More specifically, it focuses on using body language to your advantage in all situations.

She brings up an interesting example to prove her point. Cuddy discusses a study in which people had to observe silent 30-second clips of doctors talking to their patients. They then predicted whether the doctor would get sued based solely on the “niceness” of their body language.

With that, she makes the point that people judge your body language long before the first word leaves your mouth.

She goes on to talk about how body language also influences how we feel and act. The concept of power is a key talking point.

But what can that teach you about keeping your speeches short?

It’s all about how you present yourself on stage. If you’re hunched up and guarded, you’re not going to emotionally connect right away. But coming out with your arms raised and all guns blazing isn’t always the answer either. You could dissuade an audience from paying attention before you even get started.

And that means you’re going to have to dedicate even more time to showing your story.

Cuddy’s TED Talk highlights the interesting dynamics that body language creates and how you can use it to elicit emotional responses. A slight tweak in how you carry yourself can influence somebody just as much as 10 minutes of talking. A quick smile here or a hand gesture there can convey an emotion.

Your body language also influences your own emotions. Use it wisely to help you connect quickly so you can get into the meat of your story.


Chris Anderson – Show Vulnerability

The author of TED Talks, Chris Anderson is a TED Talk curator who’s viewed over 500 speakers.

And he points to one factor as being the key to a vital TED Talk – vulnerability.

Anderson says that the most effective speakers can convey a sense of vulnerability to their audience. In doing so, they emotionally connect far quicker than those who try to mask their emotions.

As he puts it: “One of the best ways to disarm an audience is to first reveal your own vulnerability.”

“Vulnerability is something to be treasured, not hidden from,” he says.

Vulnerability, when used correctly, shows your authenticity to the audience. It tells them that what you’re showing them resonates emotionally with you. And that means it’s more likely to resonate with them as well.

However, Anderson points out that there’s a fine line between being vulnerable and oversharing. Your audience doesn’t want to see you spend the entire speech dwelling on a “woe is me” story. Anything that you share has to serve the story that you’re showing people.

It needs to have a point if it’s to catch an audience’s attention quickly.

Get it right and you can launch into your key talking points within minutes.


The Final Word

TED Talks offer a blueprint for how to show your story quickly. The most effective talks engage emotions and deliver important messages. They influence people into taking action, all in the space of 15-20 minutes.

This is storyshowing at its finest.

The TED Talk format is the future of the speaking industry. Over the next three years, we’ll move away from long conferences that never seem to end. Speakers will evolve to show stories in short, sharp bursts.

The speakers we’ve mentioned above offer some hints on how to do it:

  • Wrap your big ideas in emotional stories.
  • Use your body language to elicit the desired emotional responses.
  • Show vulnerability…to a point.

But there’s so much more to learn. Speakers Institute can help you to show your story in as small an amount of time as possible. We encourage you to do the following:

You can fit even the largest ideas into a short frame of time. You just need to know the techniques that help you to show your story.

Samuel Cawthorn