Want to win your next dinner party (or boardroom) argument? Follow this 6-step TED Talk structure
After ghostwriting over 20 TED Talks, Kate Follington knows a thing or two (or six) about the art of persuasion. Here’s her guide to changing minds and influencing people in 18 minutes or less.
Dashing across an inner-city Melbourne street on Halloween in 2009, in a blur of fog, rain and waving car lights, Dr Jeanette Pritchard became one of the roughly 50 people a year who fail to heed the warnings about the dangers of Melbourne’s trams at night, and sustain significant injuries as a result.
After being hit, Dr Pritchard was rushed to hospital, where her fractured neck and skull were held together with a medieval-looking brace. Metal skewers pierced her temples for stability. To eat, she sipped blended foods for months.
As is often the case with life and death experiences, Dr Pritchard’s accident and the subsequent year-long recovery became a sliding doors moment that would guide the medical researcher toward a previously unimagined career, one sparked directly by the collision.
As she recovered, a thought kept on recurring: if seeing the tram on that rainy night was difficult for a sighted person like her, how staggeringly common must accidents be for the visually impaired—people who live with blindness permanently and navigate unpredictable urban environments every day.
After a full recovery, Dr Pritchard applied to help manage Monash University’s research into bionic eye technology. It was in this capacity that I met her six years later, in my role as a ghostwriter and speaker coach for TEDx speakers. The university had put her forward to talk about the bionic eye’s potential as a safety device, and I was engaged to help her hone her story for TEDx St Kilda.
Over the course of several months, we worked closely together to craft a talk that was not only informative but engaging—a story that would resonate with the audience emotionally as well as logically. As she took to the stage in March 2015, Dr Pritchard’s talk started, as this article does, with that tram story. While TEDx talks can take many forms, beginning a presentation with a human anecdote is one of the most popular ways to grab the audience’s attention before diving into the problem, and then the solution the speaker is offering.
I ghost-wrote and consulted on over 20 TEDx Talks just like Dr Pritchard’s, and I emerged from the experience not just with a greater appreciation for the effectiveness of these tools to grab and hold people’s attention, but also the ways in which they can be applied beyond the TEDx stage, to any setting where persuasion is in order: from delivering a boardroom presentation, winning over a difficult stakeholder, or emerging victorious from your next dinner party argument.
Below are six steps to building a persuasive argument, borrowed from my preferred TEDx structure, that can help you harness the power of narrative, no matter what the setting.
Step 1: Get intimate early with an opening story
I could have started this article with lots of hard data about the persuasive power of storytelling, or the neuroscience behind the ‘stickiness’ of stories, but experience tells me that hitting people with a wall of facts and dry science at the start virtually guarantees you won’t read any further than the first paragraph.
The goal here is to foster emotional connection as early as possible; creating vivid scenes in the mind of the audience and taking them directly to a moment that they can imagine themselves experiencing.
While harrowing, Dr Pritchard’s tram story is one of my favourite opening gambits, for its pure power and impact. But opening stories can also be gentler, and just as effective. Another speaker I worked with discovered the endangered Port Phillip Burranan Dolphin. So we took the audience on an evocative virtual scuba diving trip below the surface of Port Phillip Bay. This approach piqued their interest to learn more about the dolphins, and provided images they could build on while absorbing the more complex ideas that followed.
Step 2: Introduce the problem and teach me more
Your opening anecdote should act as a lead-in to frame the bigger problem you want to solve. Dr Pritchard’s anecdote provided a relatable window into the everyday dangers of low vision. Anyone who has been to Melbourne would probably have an experience of gingerly crossing roads at night as massive trams rattled past.
Once you’ve told your story, then it’s time to detail the problem and put it into context with logic and facts. But it’s important to wield this information in a way that creates a common point of understanding with your audience. Just like the kick-off anecdote, the data you provide should be relatable. For example, if you’re highlighting the problem of humans numbing their pain receptors by over-medicating, tell the audience how much Panadol we consume today compared to 30 years ago. If racism is systematically entrenched in our media industry, prove it by directly comparing current demographic data with the lack of racial diversity in today’s crop of TV characters.
Step 3: Signpost your solution with a memorable phrase
After deftly outlining the problem, it’s time to hit the listener with your solution. In Jeanette Pritchard’s case it was her university’s efforts to develop a direct-to-brain bionic eye system that allows blind people to see.
If you’re presenting in a more formal setting, such as a conference or high-stakes meeting, it can be helpful to frame the solution (and hold your listeners’ attention) by using a memorable phrase that sticks in their minds. We call this signposting. In Dr Pritchard’s talk, she asks and answers a key question by evoking a pop-culture icon. “What is the nature of the vision we can produce? It’s not going to be [Six Million Dollar Man character] Steve Austin-style x-ray vision.”
Former St Kilda Football Club CEO Matt Finnis did this really well in his TEDx talk when he used clever wordplay to highlight the systemic cultural shift his club needed to go through to win back LGBTIQA+ footy fans after years of the group being on the outer. “Whether it’s with pride or for pride, this intangible sentiment is now a major part of our club,” he said.
Signposting like this doesn’t just emphasise your solution—it encourages the audience to repeat your messaging to others after they hear you speak.
Step 4: Call out your credibility
While we are often reluctant to big-note ourselves, it’s important to reassure whoever you’re talking to that you’re delivering this information from an informed position, so they trust your solution.
As you progress through the stages of your argument, find a gentle entry point to your expertise in the subject matter. This can include life experience as well as ‘book learning’. For example, if you’ve worked in retail your whole life, you’ll have a persuasive opinion on who buys the car or the bike in the family, so don’t hold back on your lived experience just because it’s not backed up with an MBA.
Brene Brown, whose TED Talk on the importance of vulnerability in persuasive leadership has attracted 61 million views on YouTube, does this well. Instead of just presenting her ideas as gospel, she always finds a moment to remind us that in her role as a researcher into shame, courage and vulnerability, she’s talked to thousands of people about life and suffering, so she’s coming from a place of knowledge.
Step 5: Use examples to explain both the problem and the solution
It might seem like an obvious point, but it’s surprising how often people forget to use examples in prosecuting an argument. People find it difficult to picture what you're talking about without them—this is true whether you’re discussing complex ideas or simple ones.
I always advise clients to give their audiences a solid real-world example each time they present a new idea or point. Neuroscientist Sheree Cairney, whose TED Talk has been viewed 150,000 times, wanted to explain the impact that different worldviews can have on health outcomes. To do this, she used the example of an Indigenous man from Arnhem Land who had been told to fast prior to taking medication. Because English was his second language, the man assumed he was supposed to either run fast or eat fast.
Step 6: Leave them with (reasonable) hope
English poet Alfred Tennyson described hope better than most when he said that it “smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’.” Hope rarely shouts, Tennyson says, because the future is uncertain. For this reason, it’s important to be confident, but not audacious, when presenting your solution to a challenge. Offer instead gentle hope that things will improve.
After Dr Pritchard explained the benefits that a bionic eye could bring to millions of people, she ended not on a note of hyperbolic enthusiasm, but of cautious optimism. “This isn’t something that can be achieved overnight,” she told the audience. “Bionic eye devices have been in development for well over 50 years. We’re getting there. But we’ll never have a one-size-fits-all outcome.”
A slightly dour note to finish on, perhaps. But then, after a beat, she (figuratively) whispers into her audience’s ear. “And that’s okay. Because with every development that occurs… we get one step closer to bringing a solution to millions of people around the world.” By ending on a note of contingent positivity, the audience is inspired that change is possible, but it’s not a fait accompli. Change requires action. And if you tell your story well, action is exactly what your audience will be inspired to take.