7 or 8 things every content marketer can learn from TED Talks

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Doug Kessler

26. 06. 2017 | 7 min read

7 or 8 things every content marketer can learn from TED Talks

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Due to a traumatic early experience (high school graduation speech—please never ask), I’ve always been a reluctant public speaker.

That was fine for most of my career because no one ever asked me to speak in public. People had asked me to stop speaking but never invited me to start.

When I did start to get invitations to speak (when the occasional misguided organizer hit the bottom of whatever barrel they were scraping), I approached it as a writer would.

More specifically, I approached it as a bad writer would.

My first mistake was to think it was about me. I’d been invited to speak to this audience so someone must think I was what my second grade teacher called a ‘clever clogs’ (and my father called a ‘wise ass’.)

The wonder of me.

Clearly, my job was to prove them right (the organizer, not my father). To show the audience what a brilliant person they’d snagged to grace their program.

(Not at all coincidentally, this fatal assumption was the exact same one that caused the high-school graduation trauma you promised you wouldn’t bring up.)

It didn’t help that I was invariably intimidated by the caliber of my fellow speakers and felt I had to somehow conjure up the illusion that I belonged in their company.

The result of this home-baked combination of narcissism and Imposter Syndrome won’t surprise you:

Boy did I suck.

And when you suck as a public speaker, it’s not your garden-variety sucking.

It’s not like murdering ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on a Sears-bought guitar in your bedroom, alone.

It’s not like writing a short story ‘in the style of Nabokov’ when you’re sixteen years old and possess exactly 0% of the talent, experience or intelligence of the real Nabokov. (I’m still blushing from that one.)

When you suck at public speaking, you suck in public.

And, on most stages, there are very, very few good places to hide. (In my experience, most lecterns offer woefully inadequate cover).

It’s a show.

Another fatal assumption I made as a beginning public speaker was that any talk is 99% about the content and 1% about the performance.

If my stuff was interesting enough, I thought, I could rattle through it like the mumbling introvert I happen to actually be and people would leap to their feet, astonished, demanding an encore (what an encore of a talk about ‘The Power of Metaphor in Modern Marketing’ would look like was a problem for another day — a day that, you won’t be surprised to hear, never arrived and, you’ll be thrilled to hear, never, ever will)*.

What do you think, is it time to unveil the point of this narcissistic stroll down memory lane?

The point is that the fatal assumptions I’d made about public speaking are eerily similar to the biggest mistakes most content marketers make: that you need to show people how good you are; that you have to disguise the fact that you have no right to demand the attention of this audience; and that the content of your content is far more important than the presentation of it.

The “It’s not about you, it’s about them” point has been made a zillion times by every third speaker at every content marketing event. The one about not being worthy is covered (obliquely) in our smash hit slideshare, The Other C-Word, which is about the power of confidence in content marketing.

This post is about the third in my collection of fatal assumptions. Because here’s what I had to learn the hard way, in front of hundreds of patently unimpressed people: public speaking is first a performance.

Whether you’re writing a blog post over breakfast (snap), creating an ebook on supply chain management (woo-hoo!) or developing an infographic with embedded podcast (duuuuuude), you’re creating a performance.

And, if you don’t pay attention to the performance, your talk has less chance of delivering an idea to an audience than a sixteen-year-old kid from Connecticut has of writing a masterpiece that any New Yorker critic would ever call ‘Nabokovian!’. (Exclamation point mine. Also the New Yorker bit. Hey: it’s my fantasy).

Every piece of content is a performance.
If it succeeds as a performance it has a shot at being an idea-delivery medium.

But if you fail at the first challenge, you are guaranteed to fail at the second (the thing that might move an audience an angstrom closer to a cash register).

Let’s steal from the best public speakers

So if content marketing is just like public speaking but in different media, maybe we can learn to be better content marketers by stealing the things that make people better public speakers.

The good news: there’s a hell of a lot of advice out there about how to be a better public speaker (I’ve consumed most of it, often on the eve of a talk, in too-little-too-late mode).

The not-so-good news: a lot of it is shit—built on the absurd premise that we all have an inner Tony Robbins just waiting to burst out of our chests, all teeth & charisma.

But there’s a lot of very good stuff too. (My friend-and-also-friend’s-wife Tamsen Webster has built a thriving business on her mastery of the art and science of public speaking. Go buy her for your team.)

And, of course, the best of the best is on display for all, for free, as TED Talks, the never-ending series of short, startling talks on a variety of T-, E- and D-related issues.

TED Talks are what content should be.

If you want to make your content marketing better, you should crawl all over every TED Talk and figure out what makes them tick.

Remember the good and not-so-good news above?

Well, here’s some great news: someone has already done that for you. His name is Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, and he’s written a really good book called, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. (The sub-title is to differentiate it from the pale imitators who use the TED name in their titles — accept no imitation).

Even if you never plan to speak in public (probably a good call), I urge you to read this book. And try this: every time Anderson says the words ‘your talk’ pretend he’s saying ‘your content’.

How to do a great piece of content by pretending it’s a TED Talk

There’s so much good advice in this book for anyone producing content – about the performance side and the content itself.

Here are some choice nuggets:

Four talk styles to avoid:

  • The Sales Pitch – “The speaker’s job is to give to the audience, not take from them.”
  • The Ramble – “If 800 people are planning to devote 15 minutes of their day to your words, you really can’t just wing it.”
  • The Org Bore – “An organization is fascinating to those who work for it – and deeply boring to almost everyone else.”
  • The Inspiration Performance – “Here’s the thing about inspiration: It has to be earned.”

If we remove all content marketing that falls into one of these categories, we’re left with… Whiteboard Fridays by Moz.

The throughline – “Think of the throughline as a strong cord or rope, onto which you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building,” says the TED head.

Great content knows what it’s about and sticks to that.

Get personal – “People are naturally cautious about opening up their minds to complete strangers. You need to find a way to overcome that caution. And the way to do that is to make visible the human being cowering inside you.”

Why are content marketers so scared of stepping out from behind their logos?

Start strong – “If you waste the opening minute of your talk, you’re going to lose a significant portion of your audience before they even realize there’s an interesting bit. And that makes the difference between your talk going viral or dying a tragic death.” (Then Anderson gives four ways to start strong — all of them relevant to content marketers.)

We’re huge believers in strong openings for all content. You have a few seconds to signal, “This is important. This is relevant to you. And this will be good.”

End with power – “If the ending isn’t memorable, the talk itself may not be.” (Then he gives seven ways to end with power.)

Yeah, what he said. I hate content pieces that just… fizzle… out.

Voice and Presence – “Give your words the life they deserve.”

In content marketing, tone of voice is just as important as it is in public speaking. Maybe more so, because – at least in text-based content – it’s all you have. Speakers have gesture and movement and facial expression. All we have is tone of voice. And, well-wielded, it can multiply your impact.

Innovate with formats – “Your audience has five senses.”

Amen. We’re big believers in keeping formats fresh. So much so that we invented a new one ourselves. Check out The New Media Message: Why Innovation Stories Deserve Innovative Formats, by our own Harry and his merry band of designer-dev-project-wonks (mainly Nick, Dan, Chris and Rudy).

So get your TED on

So that’s my throughline: as a content marketer, every time you put something out there, you’re putting on a performance.

Make yours powerful and memorable.

Get personal.

Start strong.

End big.

And stop hiding behind that goddamn lectern.

* Sometimes my sentences even appall me


Photo source: TED, I imagine


Published in:

  • B2B Content Marketing

  • b2b-marketing

  • content-marketing

  • TED Talks

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  1. Laura

    Silver Maverick

    September 20th, 2017

    So first, despite the pile of stuff I wanted to whiz through in the next hour, I felt compelled to feedback. Why? Coz I like your style – the cut back, simple text only e-mail that popped up this morning in my mail. Great copy – that was enough to inspire me to link to this content feature. Engaged? – yes. Enjoyed the feature? – yes – love how you make your comparisons. Strong. Intelligent. Honest. Thought provoking. Thanks for getting me thinking about my content. Content for a website I need to create for my new jewellery business. Cheers *raises coffee cup.

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 20th, 2017

      Well, Laura, you just made my day.
      I can tell already Silver Maverick will be a sparkling success.
      Report back!

  2. Lydia Cockerham


    September 20th, 2017

    I know exactly how it feels to want to be a 16-year-old Nabokov. Now I’m far more realistic – I just want to be a 20-something Stephen King. Great post, Doug.

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 20th, 2017

      Thanks, Linda.
      I’ve settled for a middle-aged Darrin Stephens.

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