Chris Anderson, head of TED, the organization that promotes short, inspiring talks dedicated to world-changing ideas, will visit Town Hall Seattle May 13. One speaking tip: “Don’t pitch your product or your game.”

Share story

Lit Life

I hate public speaking almost as much as I hate flying. I know several accomplished people who loathe talking to an audience, some to the point that they refuse to speak in public at all.

And yet … I love books, and generally the audiences I speak to do, too. So when an advance copy of Chris Anderson’s “TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking”(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 269 pp., $28) came across my desk, I grabbed it like a life preserver.

Anderson is the head of TED, the organization that promotes short, inspiring talks dedicated to world-changing, illuminating ideas. He will visit Seattle on May 13 to give a public talk at Town Hall Seattle about, yes, public speaking. I called him and had an insightful conversation about how to talk in public without losing your mind (or your lunch):

Author appearance

Chris Anderson

The author of “TED Talks” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 13, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 and available at and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.

Q. I have smart, talented friends and colleagues who say they avoid public speaking at all costs. Why is that?

A. It’s mysterious. I believe it’s because we are social creatures and reputation really matters. There is a realization that the stakes are really high. You are owning a lot of people’s time, and the possibility of humiliation is real.

Humiliation can be a matter of life and death. You can get excluded from the village and out you go.

On the other hand, the upside is huge as well. The feeling of fear and the feeling of excitement are not that far apart.

Q. What do you have the hardest time with when it comes to public speaking?

A. I’m certainly not a natural public speaker. I try too hard to get the right words and I hesitate. I’m not a natural physical presence on the stage.

As far as the book is concerned, I’ve tried to turn that into a virtue. Anyone can learn enough to give an effective talk, a talk that has some value … If you have something worth sharing, it’s really possible to unpack it beautifully and share it with an audience.

Q. You make the point that Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was about 17 minutes, which is about the length of a typical TED talk. What is it about that time that makes it optimal?

A. It’s about the time you can concentrate without getting exhausted. The brain is a muscle, and when it keeps doing a certain kind of thinking, it gets tired after a bit. Longer than that, it starts to get tedious … There’s no hard and fast rule, but if it starts looking longer than 18 minutes, look out.

Q. You make an important distinction between sharing and pitching, trying to give the audience a gift versus trying to sell it something. What’s the difference?

A. It’s easy to think, I’ve got the audience trapped in the seat, I can say whatever I want … (but) what it takes is for the audience to feel like they got something from it.

Don’t pitch your product or your game … nobody will pass that along. No one wants to listen to someone forcing their agenda. If you reframe your talk, the single thing you’re going to do is offer the audience a wonderful gift … if they get a sense that that is what is happening, they are alive to it. People will pass it on, they will talk about it.

Q. In the book, you write about Al Gore’s role in the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” While in some ways it was a very persuasive film, it didn’t convert people who were opposed to the idea of global warming.

A. He certainly persuaded a lot of people on the center and the left. I think his words and the movie had huge consequence.

What was striking was that people viewed the talk through a political lens. When the first thing that people think is that you are a person who belongs to a different tribe, they’re not going to learn anything.

The greatest politicians find a way of putting themselves in other people’s shoes. They bridge beyond their own tribe … From that starting point, you at least have a shot … and can build from that. But as soon as (the listener labels) someone as a threat or an outsider, every barrier goes up, and you say, oh, that’s dangerous, go away. It does take a super person to break through that.

Q. You list a lot of great TED talks in this book. Please name three of your favorites, and what is exceptional about them

A. Here are three that I loved for different reasons. (note: The Tim Urban and Dalia Mogahed talks are free; Jennifer Kahn’s is available for purchase).

Tim Urban gave a (February 2016) talk on procrastination. It’s a must-watch. It’s had an amazing response.

I loved the talk by Dalia Mogahed (February 2016). She told her story of who she was, of her experience living in the U.S. through Sept. 11 and beyond. It shows you the world through Muslim eyes.

Many people think of Muslims as inscrutable, possibly dangerous, mistrusted. To hear her come out in the open and talk the way she did was both illuminating and endearing.

Jennifer Kahn is a science writer. She talked about the biomedical possibility that you can edit the genes of species … She explains this in a way that anybody in an audience can understand, and the significance of it.