Majora Carter gives an impassioned, brilliant speech in the video above, taken from TED in 2006. There’s a number of things she does very, very right from a public speaking perspective. What’s most impressive is the way she uses personal stories to illustrate larger social problems; her family’s migration story became a basis for stats and facts about redlining and economic injustice in the South Bronx, the story of her childhood neighbourhood’s tragic downfall and her brother’s death is used to contrast her experience with her largely white audience, and to point out economic inequality.
But, alas, Mrs Carter falls prey to the same problem that bedevils many TED talkers; she speaks much, much too fast. Facts and figures rush by the audience in a blur. I would guess that is because she is trying to cram a 45-minute speech into her 20-minute time allotment. She would benefit greatly from pairing her speech down and breathing at the end of each thought. A recent study found that pausing 5x in a one-minute speech makes your material more memorable. So take your time! If you are a quick talker, try using a metronome to control the rate at which you speak.
Did you know there is science behind speaking slowly? Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed the phone calls of telemarketers and found that people who paused frequently during their pitch were more persuasive than callers who spoke uninterrupted. The researchers say people typically pause about five times a minute. This speech pattern sounds more believable to listeners than when you spit out words without any breaks.
Nighat Dad’s speech above is a good example of the power of pausing. She gives a passionate, intelligent speech, with a very powerful premise. But occasionally she rushes, and when she does, her words come out in a nervous jumble, and she has trouble with syntax and grammar. Her speech is markedly better when she pauses at the end of each thought.
A good percentage of my client’s presentations deal with technology and science. There are numerous hurdles to overcome when presenting technology; how to make data interesting, how to use metaphor to make complex concepts digestible, how to use wit and humor to engage the audience, etc. But the most difficult aspect of talking science for many presenters is the manner in which they speak.
I think Pranav Mistry gives a good speech here despite having imperfect English. There are moments when his excitement gets the best of him, and he talks too quickly, but the bulk of his presentation is done at a measured pace. When he takes the time to breathe in between thoughts, and slow down, he is much more clear. These “micro-pauses” allow his brain to process what his articulators (lips, tongue, lower jaw, and soft palate) are doing and gives him a moment to think about language. Most of Mr. Mistry’s pronunciation mistakes (some w-v confusion, syllable stress mistakes, problems with phrasing) occur when he is speaking quickly. His brain doesn’t have time to think about pacing, articulation and the like.
You can imagine the left frontal lobe to be a little like a busy highway. The more congested the neural pathways are that connect the brain together, the less likely they are to transmit information. If you speak fast, you clog your frontal lobe with information, and it cannot do what it does best, produce language. So take your time!
The short answer is yes, but how you do it is very, very important. If you make your product the primary focus of your speech, or Q and A, you will bore the audience, or worse, annoy them. Nobody comes to a major conference like TED to hear a product pitch. People come to hear new ideas. You must be able to craft a dynamic, purposeful, wildly creative premise to your speech first, and then strategically weave mentions of your product into the speech as you develop your material.
Take Elon Musk’s brilliant TED Q and A. The premise of his talk is really the nature of innovation, but he manages to use his three current companies, Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City, as examples. It never really appears that he is promoting his companies, because his first loyalty is to his premise (the nature of innovation). As long as you prioritize your premise and keep it innovative, inclusive, and not sales oriented, then, ironically perhaps, it is safe to do a little selling.