Ted Commandments VIII, IX, & X: Be Entertaining


There’s only one thing worse than being a bore, and that’s being a bore who goes on endlessly.

We’ve all sat through that presentation, at least once. The audience is drooling and snoring, or gazing off into the distance, or checking their e-mail on their cell phones. All the while, the speaker is droning on and on with no regard to the coma he is inducing in his audience, and no attention being paid to the minutes ticking off everybody’s life.

The last three TED Commandments are an edict against being That Guy.

Commandment The Eighth: Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.

Laughter is a tonic. It makes everybody feel better to laugh. It helps release tension and pressure. Laughter can be a speaker’s best friend.

Is the room stiff and awkward? Make a joke about it. The laughter will serve as a pressure-valve on the room, and things will become more comfortable for everybody.

Is your audience disengaged, or bored? Making a joke can bring a dead audience back to life.

Do you have a point you really want to hammer home? Humor can emotionally prepare an audience for a greater emotional experience.

Laughter and humor helps generate precisely the sort of emotional connection that a good speaker should have with the audience. It puts the audience at ease, and makes it possible for the speaker to build a relationship with them. It helps keep the audience’s attention (after all, we all like to laugh, and we don’t want to miss the joke!). Laughter and humor also help us open up to sharing new ideas, and having powerful emotional experiences—the best dramas are often those that give us an opportunity to laugh, before they make us cry.

There are very few presentations, meetings, or speeches where laughter is not appropriate. However, it is important that you keep your humor appropriate to the situation. Don’t make blue jokes in an executive status conference, for example. That won’t go over well. Tailoring your jokes to match the situation is critical to having them be successful.

What if you aren’t funny? Don’t worry. Humor is a skill that you can learn. Watch good stand up comedians at work, and pay attention to their delivery. Expand your vocabulary so that you can play with words. Read up on comedy and comic writing. If necessary, borrow funny stories from others until you can develop some of your own.

But ya gotta make ‘em laugh.

Commandment the Ninth: Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.

I was at an event the other day with a panel full of remarkable intellectuals, activists, and community organizers. It was stirring, and inspiring. With the exception of the lead-off speaker.

Now this lady holds a PhD. She had some incredibly smart things to say, and a really interesting perspective on the topic. Her content was great.

Unfortunately, she was not.

Her message was almost lost entirely, because she stood at the rostrum and read directly from her speech. It sounded like a high-school book report being read aloud to the class. She was followed by 5 speakers who spoke from the heart, with fire and passion. The closing speaker was Dr. Cornel West, from Princeton. A man who is able to get his audience to rise to their feet multiple times during a speech. After so many wonderful speeches, the first speaker, and her excellent message, were completely lost.

Reading your speech is the cardinal sin of public speaking. With your eyes on your notes—or, more commonly, on your over-long PowerPoint bullet points—you manage to successfully avoid making any connection whatsoever with the people in your audience. Your message is lost in the drone.

If you have a speech written word-for-word, memorize it. Better still, get comfortable speaking somewhat extemporaneously from an outline. Familiarity with your content is a key piece of making sure your performance stands out, and helps you to adapt when you need to. Sometimes a speech needs to be word-for-word. Sometimes you’ll have a teleprompter available. There’s an art to speaking from a teleprompter, and reading the speech you have prepared. But it’s an art that most speakers will never have much use for.

Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee

Finally, be brief. Don’t go on beyond your allotted time. It is inconsiderate of other speakers, and inconsiderate of your audience. Don’t steal time from others, so that you don’t have your time stolen. Respecting others’ time is important. People are watching the clock, and if they’re noticing that you’re running over time, they’ll be thinking about that rather than about your message.

So say your piece, and be done with it.

This wraps up our series on the TED Commandments. Following these commandments will help you become a more interesting, more engaging, and more powerful speaker.

Questions? Ideas? Leave ‘em in the comments!