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Five unignorable ways to start your TED Talk (make those 8 seconds count)


Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Is the mike on? Can you hear me? Can you hear me in the back?”

Alas, this is the way that so many speeches begin. Awkward and cringe-y, and missing a massive opportunity.

This opportunity is actually minuscule in terms of time: only eight seconds.

Eight seconds is not only the amount of time a bull rider must stay on the bull.

Eight seconds is the amount of time a speaker has to capture the audience.

IMHO, the success of your talk depends upon grabbing your listeners’ by the lapels and holding on (for dear life).

In fact, when coaching speakers I emphasize the importance of the HOOK more than anything else, so without further adieu…

Five unignorable ways to START a TEDx Talk:

1. Start with a story:

The best speakers are skilled storytellers, and the good news is that story-telling comes naturally to most of us. Stories were our earliest forms of communication — both as individuals and as a species. In fact, up to 65% of our daily communication is storytelling.

In her captivating TED Talk, The danger of a single story, Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie not only begins with a story but by introducing herself as a storyteller.

Spin a yarn, (especially a narrative centered around a strong character), and you will have the attention and delight of your audience as though they were sitting cross-legged around a campfire.

2. Start with interaction:

Your audience will arrive for your talk in a range of different dispositions. They may even already have their phone in hand, scrolling begun. A sure-fire way to shake off this distraction is by inviting them to take action.

Something as simple as “raise your hand if…” or “turn to the person beside you and…” is often enough to infuse energy and focus into a crowd.

A subtle but brilliant example of this is Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk about Body Language from 2012.

“So I want to start by offering you a free no-tech life hack, and all it requires of you is this: that you change your posture for two minutes.

By simply redirecting focus to our posture, Cuddy creates an interaction and rivets our attention.

3. Start with humor:

Some of the most popular TED talks of all time begin with laughter. Even the most serious or stuffy subjects can come to life via charisma and a smile. And once the audience is laughing, they are captivated.

Laughter is also a marvelous mode for building trust. Surprisingly, laughter and trust are intertwined at both a primitive and genetic level. Oxytocin, released during laughter, is also known as ‘the bonding molecule’. Simply put, you don’t laugh with people you don’t trust.

In her TEDx Talk, The Power of Vulnerability Brené Brown builds immediate rapport with the audience through the use of layers of light humor. The audience audibly laughs THREE times in the first 45 seconds!

Warning: Use humor with caution. Test and test again… because hearing crickets from your audience is a risk you do not want to take…

4. Start with a bold statement or a provocative question:

Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk, The Game That Can Give you 10 Extra Years of Life begins:

"I am going to try to increase the lifespan of everyone in this room by 7 and a half minutes."

…and you can hear a pin drop.

Sound like an improbable claim? A boastful lie? Whatever it is, McGonigal’s statement hits a level of surprise that invites genuine curiosity, (if at least for the sake of placating doubts).

Pro tip: If you use this tactic, don’t be afraid to be extra bold — consider it as your ‘idea statement’ turned up to eleven.

5. Start with Silence:

Because Silence…

...commands attention.

Remember back in primary school, when teachers would use the technique of ‘harnessing attention without saying a word’, (ie: standing still and silent at the front of the chalkboard)? There is a reason this resonates: when someone demonstrates the ability to be still and command a room, we notice.

Brief, intentional silence exudes confidence, is unique, and when done with intention, brims with energy.

Amanda Palmer begins her TED Talk, The Art of Asking, in silence, with a deep breath and standing as a human statue. Major theatrical flex.

Final advice? Experiment with a variety of beginnings. When preparing for your TED Talk, push yourself out of your comfort zone and get creative. Tell stories to your mirror, see if your dog finds you humorous. Even test out your boldest beginnings.

Whatever beginning you choose, think about the value of those eight seconds, and use them to surprise, delight, and be unignorable.

Happy speaking.


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