Speaking tips from TED Talks, Bill Clinton

By Ann Newman

Whether you’re an accountant, a dentist, a therapist or an engineer, you’ll probably need to address an audience at some point. And attaining your career goals may depend on how you do.

What does it take to be a great speaker? Why are some speakers captivating and others deadly? It turns out there are quantifiable elements that can help you improve your speaking and presentation skills.

One of the greatest speakers of our time, President Bill Clinton, didn’t start out that way. He was practically booed off the stage before he honed his skills.

Take a cue from Ted Talks

You can learn many good lessons about speaking and presenting by watching the popular series, Technology, Entertainment and Design talks — aka TED Talks.

Six quick tips

Tip 1: Timing is everything

TED Talks speakers have 18 minutes to get their points across. But the sweet spot is actually 12. Exceed the 12-minute rule only if your presentation is very funny, profound or ingenious.

After Clinton gave a state-of-the-union address that lasted for almost an hour and a half, people remembered only that the speech was too long. And Clinton’s speeches fell flat more than once before he learned to the art of being either entertaining or brief.

Tip 2: Tell a story

Successful speakers often weave their messages into a story, theme or journey. You can use this device to add luster to an otherwise dull or dry topic. If your story is compelling enough, the audience will hang on to hear how it ends.

The story can be the glue that holds the presentation together.

Tip: 3 Lose the PowerPoint

Who are those slides for anyway? Do not use your slides to keep your presentation on track. If you must include them, make sure they are entertaining.

Tip 4: Pause once in a while

President Clinton eventually became an expert speaker. Today, he’s a model for what to do right. One thing he’s great at is wringing emotion out of the most common platitudes. He does this by pausing —and then saying the words between like he really means them. Here’s an example:

“We [pause looking directly at the audience] have to [pause, underscores the words by looking sterner] learn [self-assured longer pause] to live together [said softly and then nothing].”

I hold back the tears every time. Fortunately, pausing is much easier to do than trying to be funny. You just have to practice a little.

Tip 5. Use words like a prop

Certain keywords seem to draw attention, while other words can have the opposite effect. Top five words to include:

  • You
  • Happiness
  • Brain
  • French
  • Coffee

Five to avoid:

  • So
  • Oxygen
  • Aircraft
  • Project
  • Implement

Tip 6. Dress like a president

TED Talks data seems to say that the jeans and T-shirt look belongs to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, not you and me. The rest of us, TED recommends, should get dressed up, put glasses on and wear our hair longer than average.

Grab some inspiration for your next speech by watching some TED Talks. Pay attention to dress, gestures and eye contact. And check out President Clinton’s talk about rebuilding Rwanda to see if you can spot his technique.

About the Author: Power More