Aspire to give a TED talk someday? Follow these tips from the public speaking pros.

Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, PhD, admits she was petrified moments before she presented her 2011 TED talk on "What do babies think?"

"If you had measured my cortisol levels, they would have been off the chart," she says.

But that terror was reassuring, adds Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. After giving hundreds of talks and lectures, she's learned that she performs better when her adrenaline is spiked. "The secret is you have to take that anxiety and turn it into energy that you can put into the talk," she says.

Gopnik's advice is backed by research: According to a Harvard study, people who tell themselves to get excited rather than to relax seem to do better at public speaking and other anxiety-inducing activities (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, online Dec. 23).

While getting a TED talk invite or delivering a keynote address may seem far off to most graduate students, polishing your public speaking skills now is essential for the more immediate hurdles, such as presenting your research to colleagues, delivering an academic job talk for a professor position, negotiating your salary (see "Will you earn what you're worth?"), defending your dissertation or simply describing your research at a networking event.

"This is increasingly part of what academics need to be able to do — to communicate well and to communicate to the larger public," says Gopnik. "We are funded by the public, and we should be able to convey what we're doing to the public."

She and others share these tips on shedding your public speaking fears and delivering a memorable talk:

Practice over and over

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, rehearsed her TED talk on stroke — the second most-viewed talk in TED's history — 200 times before she gave it, says former CNN correspondent Carmine Gallo, author of the 2014 book "Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds." While not everyone has that much rehearsal time, Gallo advises practicing any talk at least 10 times.

It's also wise to have a friend videotape you giving your speech, says Scott Berkun, author of "Confessions of a Public Speaker" (2010). "Then have a beer and watch it," he says. "We're very good at critiquing other speakers. Simply apply those skills to yourself and then do it again."

Also, consider honing your speaking skills through a local Toastmasters group, says Gary Schmidt, 2009 international president of the group. The organization has a set system of regular practice and peer feedback on such topics as avoiding wordiness and grammatical errors, and thinking quickly on your feet. Gopnik advises taking an acting class, which helped her develop speaking confidence when she was in college. She also recommends learning the first few sentences of any talk cold. "It's a little like when you see a figure skating performance, you can see the skaters … doing the routine in their heads" beforehand, she says. "For me, if I know the first sentences perfectly well, I can keep going."

Lead with a catchy story

The best speakers grab the audience in the first moments, says Gallo. Many do that by sharing a personal narrative that illustrates what sparked their interest in their topic. Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson — who received a 15-minute standing ovation for his TED talk on inequality in the justice system — made his talk 65 percent narrative by transitioning between his main points to personal stories of what motivates him to help disadvantaged people, such as his meeting Rosa Parks. "To persuade people, you have to reach their hearts before their heads," Gallo says.

Connecting with your listeners that way can also boost audience comprehension, according to research by Princeton University psychologist Uri Hasson, PhD. Using MRI, he and colleagues have found that a listener's brain activity starts to mirror the brain activity of an effective communicator. The stronger the resemblance between the two brain responses, the higher the listener's comprehension of the material (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010).

Get a move on

Gopnik asks for a lavalier microphone when she speaks so that she can move around and keep herself — and the audience — engaged. "Don't write your talk, don't sit down when you are doing it and don't sit behind a [lectern]," she advises. She also recommends the age-old trick of finding a person in the audience to connect with.

"Usually there is someone who is nodding or smiling. Treat it as if you are talking to that person rather than this faceless mass of people," says Gopnik, who met her husband when he was the stranger she connected with in the audience during a lecture.

If you're giving a longer talk, keep the audience alert by doing something different every 10 minutes, even if it's just posing a question at the 10-minute mark, says Schmidt.

Don't repeat your PowerPoint

The information on your PowerPoint slides should complement, not reiterate, what you're saying or the audience will tune out, says Gopnik. Each slide should include only as much information as people can read easily in the time you flash it on screen, adds Gallo. All too frequently, speakers use slides with tiny, unreadable data and say, "I know you can't see this." Your best bet? Stick to large pictures and graphics, says Schmidt.

Provide a "jaw-dropping" moment

People tend to remember something that elicits a strong emotional response, says Gallo, such as shock, joy, surprise or fear. "It's why you remember exactly where you were on Sept. 11," he says. Include one moment in your presentation that everyone is going to remember, such as a compelling piece of data with a clear graphic and build your story around it. Among the best examples of such jaw-dropping moments is Bill Gates's release of mosquitoes into the ballroom during his 2009 TED talk on how malaria is spread.

Know that good speakers are made

Some of the best orators got off to rocky starts. Long before Schmidt traveled the world giving talks for Toastmasters, he was a self-conscious political science and communications student who would rather lose participation points than speak up in class. "I never spoke to a soul except when I was forced to," he recalls. "Even then [in college], it was pretty painful and pitiful."

After he graduated, he bombed several interviews, including one at his alma mater, Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. Eventually, one of his interviewers — a former professor — pulled him aside and suggested he join Toastmasters to polish his public speaking skills. He did, and six weeks later, Schmidt had a job as a speechwriter for then-U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.). He's joined by actor James Earl Jones, who had such a bad stutter as a child that he refused to talk to anyone. "Ronald Reagan, according to his autobiography, was painfully shy as a student, and he also came out of his shell thanks to acting," says Schmidt.

Show your enthusiasm

The speakers Gallo studied and interviewed for his book had one thing in common: All are "abundantly passionate" about their topics, he says. "They live and breathe the topic and express their genuine enthusiasm."

Too often, novice speakers think they need to act stiff and formal, but loosening up and sharing your excitement is a better bet. "Ask yourself before your presentation, what is it that makes my heart sing about my idea or this information I'm delivering?" Gallo says. "Don't be afraid to say, ‘I find this very exciting and let me tell you why.'"

Further resources

  • Berkun, S. (2011). Confessions of a Public Speaker. New York: O'Reilly Media.
  • Feldman, D. B., & Silvia, P. J. (2010). Public Speaking for Psychologists: A Lighthearted Guide to Research Presentations, Job Talks, and Other Opportunities to Embarrass Yourself. Washington, DC: APA.
  • Gallo, C. (2014) Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Video: TED veteran Phil Zimbardo reveals the elements of a successful TED talk at www.apa.org/news/press/video/psytalks.