Lessons in Storytelling That I learnt from TED Conference Speakers

Lessons in Storytelling From TED Conference Speakers by Mukesh Gupta


Story telling has been one of the most memorable and influential ways to spread ideas. The TED conference is so popular because the speakers in the conference are mostly good at telling stories – stories that they are passionate about and that passion spills over to the audience and we are able to connect. Also, note that the duration of these talks are not very long.

So, I wanted to learn if there are any story telling secrets that i can learn from the TED speakers. Also, I thought that it would be interesting to figure out if there are any common threads that we see in a lot of other speakers do but is missing at these TED conferences.

Here is a list of things that I have learned watching TED speakers tell compelling stories:

Keep it Short and Simple: 

The TED format makes it extremely difficult for anyone to tell a long story. The speakers are forced to keep their stories short. Telling a compelling story is not easy. It takes a lot of time, practice and learning to be able to do so. Try telling a story that is longer than 5 mins and you will know the difficulty of keeping the audience glued to your story, specially when we are speaking live or presenting over the web. So, it’s better to keep our stories short, crisp and to-the-point.

No Preamble:

I have hardly seen any TED speaker tell their audience that they are about to tell a story. They just start with a story. As human’s we are wired to know when someone is about to tell us a story. We do not have to tell the audience that we are about to tell a story. There is no preamble, just directly start with the story.

Its Personal:

Most compelling stories are personal. When telling a personal story, we instinctively access our emotions and it shows. This enables the audience to emotionally engage with the speakers as well. The second best kind of story to tell is about something that we are extremely passionate about. This passion needs to be evident in every aspect of the story. It ensures that you are able to connect to the audience.

What do you want the audience to do:

Telling stories for the sake of telling stories is a different art form. However, most of us have something that we want to do with the audience. We want them to think about something in a way that we think about or we want the audience to take action or we want the audience to spread our ideas or something else. We want them to do something. We need to be extremely clear about what is it that we expect the audience to do after hearing the story.

Practice Does Make it Perfect:

Anyone who gets invited to the TED Conference as a speaker has already done something unique, interesting or has a unique perspective, which led to their being invited to present. What makes it very compelling is that the TED team ensures that the speakers do practice their talks multiple times. The team even gives feedback on what aspect of the talk needs more work. This practice is what makes the speakers at the TED conference sizzle. If we want to tell compelling stories, we need to practice at least a few times, if not much more.


In conclusion, the ability to deliver compelling talks, like the one’s we see on the stage of TED conferences is a skill that we can all do well to learn – irrespective of the profession we are part of. If you look at these learnings that I have from watching countless TED talks are all pointing to one basic thing – they are simple basic skills, honed to perfection through practice.



Seven Secrets of Highly Effective Storytelling

If there is one skill that would help you to connect with your peers, customers, partners, spouse and kids equally and set you up for success, it is the ability to tell a story well.

The most effective way to influence people is through powerful stories.

The wonderful thing about this is that it is a skill that all of us can acquire with practice.

I stumbled upon a video where J.D. Schramm walks us through seven secrets to effective storytelling. You can watch the entire video below.

And if you are short on time, let me summarize the seven secrets that he talks about:

Almost all stories are made of three basic components:

  • Situation: The stories talk about a current state or a situation.
  • Conflict: Then there is a conflict that is introduced in the situation
  • Resolution: The rest of the story is about the resolution of that conflict.

Once we are aware of this basic tenet of story telling, the seven secrets of story telling success as shared by JD are as below:

  1. Parachute in… Don’t preamble: It is always better to dive straight into the story and not delve for a long time trying to setup context. Listeners (even kids) are smart and can figure out the context once you dive into your story. That is what humans as a race do. So, give your listeners some credit (and some work , so that they can engage with you and your story) and dive straight into your story.
  2. Choose your first words carefully: The first words that you use in telling a story set the context and tone of the story. Choose them wisely. They should capture the interest of your audience (a bit of this a little later).
  3. Secret of seduction (My adaptation): Seductresses know that in order to pique interest in them, they need to reveal just enough to pique curiosity. Similarly, it is always best to share just enough details in the story and let your audience figure out the rest of it in their individual heads. This way you are making the story personalized for each one of your listeners. Also, if you give people some information, it is natural tendency of the human mind to want to complete that information. So, you will have an engaged audience.
  4. One person, one thought: This is a way for you to create eye-contact with your entire audience. This is a simple practice where you connect with one person or a section of the audience, with one thought.
  5. The LongFellow principle (My adaptation): Ask yourself if there is a way that you can tell what you want to tell, by using analogies or concepts that your audience is already familiar with, so that you can convey your message but without having to flush out all details. That is what poets do.
  6. The Power of Silence: Silence is a key component of any communication. Silence can increase anticipation and suspense. If used well, silence is the best way to engage your audience.
  7. Know your AIM: This is probably the most important homework that every story teller needs to do. This is based on the “Key elements of effective communications” laid down by Russell & Munter
    1. Audience: You should know who your audience is, what do they expect and what works for that audience (culture)
    2. Intent: What is your intent or objective in telling the story.
    3. Message: The actual story itself (channel, structure)
  8. Practice: The best way to get good at this is by practice, lots of it. Create opportunities to tell stories – to your kids, employees, customers and anyone else who could listen.

We don’t remember charts and graphs, we might remember pictures but we do remember stories told well.

Any substantial change that has happened in our history has happened because someone, somewhere told an exceptional story.

So, what’s your story?

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