When I first took over leadership of TED in late 2001, I was reeling from the near collapse of the company I had spent fifteen years building, and I was terrified of another huge public failure. I had been struggling to persuade the TED community to back my vision for TED, and I feared that it might just fizzle out. Back then, TED was an annual conference in California, owned and hosted by a charismatic architect named Richard Saul Wurman, whose larger-than-life presence infused every aspect of the conference.
About 800 people attended every year, and most of them seemed resigned to the fact that TED probably couldn’t survive once Wurman departed. The TED conference of February 2002 was the last one to be held under his leadership, and I had one chance and one chance only to persuade TED attendees that the conference would continue just fine. I had never run a conference before, however, and despite my best efforts over several months at marketing the following year’s event, only 70 people had signed up for it.
Early on the last morning of that conference, I had 15 minutes to make my case. And here’s what you need to know about me: I am not naturally a great speaker. I say umand you know far too often. I will stop halfway through a sentence, trying to find the right word to continue. I can sound overly earnest, soft-spoken, conceptual. My quirky British sense of humor is not always shared by others.
I was so nervous about this moment, and so worried that I would look awkward on the stage, that I couldn’t even bring myself to stand. Instead I rolled forward a chair from the back of the stage, sat on it, and began.
I look back at that talk now and cringe — a lot. If I were critiquing it today, there are a hundred things I would change, starting with the wrinkly white T-shirt I was wearing. And yet … I had prepared carefully what I wanted to say, and I knew there were at least some in the audience desperate for TED to survive. If I could just give those supporters a reason to get excited, perhaps they would turn things around. Because of the recent dot-com bust, many in the audience had suffered business losses as bad as my own. Maybe I could connect with them that way?
I spoke from the heart, with as much openness and conviction as I could summon. I told people I had just gone through a massive business failure. That I’d come to think of myself as a complete loser. That the only way I’d survived mentally was by immersing myself in the world of ideas. That TED had come to mean the world to me — that it was a unique place where ideas from every discipline could be shared. That I would do all in my power to preserve its best values. That, in any case, the conference had brought such intense inspiration and learning to us that we couldn’t possibly let it die … could we?
Oh, and I broke the tension with an apocryphal anecdote about France’s Madame de Gaulle and how she shocked guests at a diplomatic dinner by expressing her desire for “a penis.” In England, I said, we also had that desire, although we pronounced it happiness, and TED had brought genuine happiness my way.
To my utter amazement, at the end of the talk, Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, who was seated in the center of the audience, rose to his feet and began clapping. And the whole room stood with him. It was as if the TED community had collectively decided, in just a few seconds, that it would support this new chapter of TED after all. And in the 60-minute break that followed, some 200 people committed to buying passes for the following year’s conference, guaranteeing its success.
If that 15-minute talk had fizzed, TED would have died, four years before ever putting a talk on the Internet.
I’ll share why I think that talked ended up being effective, despite its evident awkwardness. It’s an insight that can be applied to any talk.
There were many things wrong with that talk, but it succeeded in one key aspect: It was the idea that what was truly special about TED was not just the founder I was taking over from. TED’s uniqueness lay in being a place where people from every discipline could come together and understand each other. This cross-fertilization really mattered for the world, and therefore the conference would be given nonprofit status and held in trust for public good. Its future was for all of us.
This idea changed the way the audience thought about the TED transition. It no longer mattered so much that the founder was leaving. What mattered now was that a special way of sharing knowledge should be preserved.
Your number one mission as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and rebuild it inside the minds of your listeners. The only thing that truly matters in public speaking is not confidence, stage presence or smooth talking. It’s having something worth saying.
This post has been adapted from Chris Anderson’s new book, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, on sale now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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