Internationally bestselling author and internationally renowned speaker Simon Sinek recently had a chat with the Speaking Sherpa blog on what it takes to be a great speaker. Simon’s 2009 TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” is one of the most-viewed talks in TED history, with over 10 million views, and counting:
How did you select your topic?
To begin with, I never talk about things I do not understand or do not care about. I am not there to sell a company. If somebody does not care about the subject that they are talking about, then they should probably give a different talk.
Ask yourself, “Why am I giving this talk?” I understand you have invented something. I understand you have a perspective on something. But, what is the reason you feel compelled to give your message to others? What is so important that people should bother giving up any of their time to listen to you?
People often have the reasonably altruistic point of view, “If they learn this, then it will increase their productivity…” However, the best TED talks are grounded in the more deeply personal mindset, “I discovered or did something that dramatically changed my life. It was so powerful that I felt compelled to share it with others.” Look at all of the twenty most viewed talks. Whether they speak about their personal experience or not, the speeches are profoundly emotional for every single one of the speakers. Watch Susan Cain’s talk, a favorite of mine, to see this in action.
My experience was the same. I hit rock bottom and I lost my passion. During the struggle that I went through to regain my passion, I made the discovery that the most successful organizations on the planet function on three levels. The problem was that I only knew two of them. I knew what I did and that I was reasonably good at it. I knew how I was different and better than my competition. But, I could not tell you why I was doing it. It was not a commercial exercise; it was an exercise to save myself. The discovery profoundly changed my life. I shared it with my friends. My friends invited me to share it with their friends. People kept inviting me to share and share and share. I kept saying, “Yes.” It was born out of something deeply, deeply personal, even though I do not tell that story in the TED talk.
How did you prepare for your TED Talk?
I am a bad person to ask how people should prepare for speeches because I do not believe that there is a universal answer to that question. Everybody prepares differently. It is like studying habits. Some people like to study in a coffee shop where it is noisy. Others like to study in a library where it is quiet. There is no right way.
The major complicating factor was that I had never given the talk in less than one to three hours. I did not believe it was possible to do it in eighteen minutes. In fact, I had never memorized it in the first place. I thought, “I don’t know. I’ve done it a million times. I’ll just come do it.” I made the decision that I would start talking at the beginning and after eighteen minutes was up I would just stop talking. I did not rehearse that exact talk.
If anything I think people need to know what their strengths are and stick to that. I try and put myself in positions that will allow for me to be successful. TEDxPugetSound was no exception. I had already been giving extended versions of this talk for a few years and I knew the content inside and out since it was based on my book (Start With Why) that was nearing publication.
What do you consider as your strengths as a speaker?
I think out loud. The advantage is that when I am on a stage you are basically listening to me think about the message that I want to share. That is lucky for me, I guess, in the context of public speaking. The disadvantage is that I sometimes frustrate people by giving very long-winded answers to specific questions I do not immediately know the answer to.
How did you come up with the set of provocative questions you used to open your talk?
Funny you should ask… I had made my decision about how I would stop, but I did not know how to start. I went through this panic when I got to the event. Then I took a little walk and figured out how I would start. That introduction I gave is an introduction I had never given before.
What went through your mind as you were giving your TED Talk?
People put so much pressure on themselves to give TED and TEDx talks now. If the stars align just right, a great talk can make a career. I understand the pressure that goes with this, but people get so worried about the production that they sometimes miss what really matters. I always remind people that the video quality on my talk is pretty poor. While I was presenting, my wireless lavaliere microphone failed and someone had to give me a hand-held one. If your content is clear and well delivered, then people will overlook the production quality. Focus first and foremost with why you and the audience are there.
I have a friend who wanted to give a TED talk. He sent me a script about the trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur. He had not been invited to speak, this was just his script. I wrote back and said, “No one cares what your trials and tribulations are. Tell me why this matters in the first place.” To help him, I gave him his first sentence and added, “This is the opening line of your TED talk. If you develop the rest of this you’ll do fine. It will be great and you will get selected.” That is exactly what happened.
You have to show up to give. Every time I speak, no matter who the audience is, I never want anything from anybody. I do not want their business. I do not want their approval. I do not want them to follow me on Twitter or Facebook. I do not want them to buy a book. I do not want anything. I show up to give my thoughts, my opinions, and my perspectives. I show up to share my ideas. I hold nothing back. I answer every question I am asked completely. Showing up to give is the difference between a brilliant and authentic speaker versus someone who is not.
A speaker maybe rehearsed and polished, but if they show up to get it falls flat. I think a problem that has emerged from the TED experience is people now see it as their ticket to raise their profile, sell their book, or get more clients. However, if you show up to get, that will destroy any presentation you give. Fundamentally it affects the way you present yourself because you will make it about you instead of your audience.
No matter the size of the audience, I think of them as my closest friends. I have a mantra that I say out loud before I go on stage, “You’re here to give. You’re here to share.”
How did you feel after you finished your talk?
They say Eskimos have fifty words for snow. I pay attention to the different types of responses I get from an audience. Sometimes I get this immediate surge where people stand up and give a standing ovation. Sometimes it starts with one or two people and then it becomes a very slow standing ovation. Sometimes they never stand up but they keep clapping and clapping and clapping. Sometimes they clap for five minutes and they are done.
I’ve learned that when you hit someone over the head with an idea worth spreading they will respond with excitement. When you give them something that they are still thinking about, that they really are compelled by, the amazing thing is they will clap and clap and clap. You have exited the stage and they are still clapping. The greatest reward I get is seeing and feeling and hearing the impact.
On that day, if the memory serves me right, the audience gave me a standing ovation. The reward I got was that my audience that day received my message warmly. If your live audience receives your message warmly, then odds are pretty high that people sitting at their desk will receive your message equally as warmly.
I was relieved because I was the first to go that day. Then, I sat down to enjoy myself during the rest of the event. When the organizer said, “Simon, you’re first.” I responded, “Yes!” Otherwise I would have been freaking out and panicking for the rest of the day, especially with all those fantastic speakers. Watching brilliant speakers is intimidating. I was lucky that I did not have any of that stress.
What, if anything, did you do to help your video go viral?
I giggle when companies sell services claiming to help your video go viral. The whole concept of a virus is that it is an accident. You can try to create conditions that help a virus spread, but you cannot guarantee it. It does not work that way. I meet many speakers with delusions of going viral and marketing plans to back it up. Yet they all failed.
My TEDx video went viral for two reasons. The main reason was luck. Keep in mind when my TEDx came out in September 2009, the TEDx franchise was still relatively new. Since there were so few talks online, the opportunity that mine would be seen was higher. That was just dumb luck. The timing was good. Not my timing, the timing.
The other reason my TEDx video went viral, however, is that I did not do anything. I did not have a marketing plan. I did not have a publicist. There was no company overseas hitting “Like, Like, Like,” on social networks. If there is some magic, it is that my message fundamentally resonated. People could believe in it, share it. I have asked audiences, “How many of you have seen my TED talk?” If a large number raise their hands, then I ask, “How many of you who have your hands raised were sent the talk by someone else?” The numbers are usually around 75%.
What makes something go viral? It happens when somebody perceives your message as so interesting, powerful, and valuable that they choose to send it to somebody they love. You become a vehicle for others to help their friends, their colleagues, or the ones they care about. We give beautiful things to the people we love.
If you show up to take, there is no reason for anyone to share your message because any information you gave them was selfishly motivated. They might even use it selfishly, “This was good. I’m keeping this one.” However, if you show up to give, others will use your message in the same respect. That is fundamentally the reason why my message went viral. Others, by the grace of their generosity, were so kind to share what I had to say with people they cared about.
Watch Simon’s TED Talk here: