The 5 Habits of Most Popular TED Talks Speakers According to Science

We’ve all seen speakers who rock the stage. You know, those conference speakers who command great attention and have cult-like following wherever they go. Not only do they have great content, they also have powerful presence and habits that make them super successful. While every conference speaker has his or her own style, we cannot deny that there are certain ‘hacks’ that you can do to make your speech even more memorable and compelling.

At Content Capital, we work with conference companies to create great content that attracts delegates, but once the delegates are there and the conference is under way, it is now the speakers’ job to keep things interesting. Will your speech be one of the many that is easily forgotten or one that stands out and earns you rave reviews from conference organizers scrambling to invite you for another speaking gig?

Vanessa Van Edwards is an interpersonal intelligence expert and lead investigator at her human behavior research lab, the Science of People. She designs original research experiments to crack the code of human behaviour and her unique work has been featured on NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the Today Show and USA Today.

In this video, she talked about the 5 secrets of a successful TED Talk based on a study they conducted looking at hundreds of hours of TED Talks video and employing the help of 760 volunteers. Our editors at Content Capital transcribed it to effectively capture these ideas and give you a more meaningful content experience. The thoughts presented here are truly fascinating.

Below is the transcribed version done up in an article format.

#1. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

First, it’s not what you say. It’s how you say it. When we asked volunteers to rate TED speakers on their charisma, intelligence and credibility, we found that their ratings were exactly the same whether the participant had watched the videos with sound or on mute. In other words, people decide if they like a TED Talk based on a speaker’s body language more than their actual words.

This is crazy! Most speakers spend their energy on what they say. Very rarely, do we think about how we want to say something.

Bottom line: Focus on your non-verbal just as much as your verbal.

#2. Jazz hands rock

The more hand gestures, the more successful the talk. There is a direct correlation between the number of views on a TED talk and the number of hand gestures. The bottom TED Talkers use an average of 272 hand gestures, while the top TED Talks use an average of 465 hand gestures. That’s almost double!

By the way, Temple Grandin, Simon Sinek and Jane McGonigal topped the hand gesture charts with over 600 hand gestures in just 18 minutes.

Bottom line: Even though it might be surprising, to be a good speaker, let your hands do the talking.

There was a direct correlation between the number of views on a TED talk and the number of hand gestures. The bottom TED Talkers use an average of 272 hand gestures, while the top TED Talks use an average of 465 hand gestures. That's almost double!

Vanessa Van Edwards


#3. Scripts kill your charisma

We had evaluators rate TED speakers on vocal variety or the amount of fluctuation in their voice tone, volume and pitch. Again, the relationship was clear: the more vocal variety a speaker had, the more views they had. In other words, speakers who told stories, ad-libbed and even yelled at the audience like Jamie Oliver, captivated the audience’s imagination and attention.

Bottom line: Memorized lines and scripts kill your memorability.

#4. Smiling makes you look smarter

Even though we think of smart people as serious thinkers, our research found the longer a TED speaker smiled, the higher their intelligence ratings were. Those who smiled for at least 14 seconds were rated as higher in intelligence than those who smiled for less. Even when TED Talkers were speaking about a serious topic like Sheryl Sandberg’s talk on women leaders, smiling still helped their ratings.

Bottom line: No matter how serious your topic, find something to smile about.

#5. You have 7 seconds

When we asked some participants to rate just the first 7 seconds of a TED Talk, we found their ratings matched the participants who watched the entire talk for 18 minutes. This hints at a mind-boggling conclusion: people make their first impression and decision about the entire talk in the first 7 seconds of the video.

Bottom line: Make a grand entrance!

Make an impact in your daily life

Watch the first 7 seconds of Brené Brown’s talk – smiles, hand gestures and tons of emotionality and vocal variety. You see the exact same thing with Simon Sinek’s talk. In the first 7 seconds, he’s gesturing, he’s smiling and he’s making tons of vocal emphasis.

Whether you’re going to deliver the next top TED Talk or you just want to make an impact in your daily life, take these five cues and make them your own.


IMAGE CREDIT: TED Conference / Fortune Live Media