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  • Writer's pictureTarun Kumar

The Business of Speaking

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Some people think that there's a Successful Talk formula, gulp it down and there you go.

If you are a speaker then TED talks is considered the platform for launching your speaking journey ……

"Give a talk on a round, red rug"

"Share a childhood story"

"Divulge a personal secret"

"End with an inspiring call to action"


That's not how to think of Business of Speaking. In fact, if you overuse these devices, you're just going to come across as a clichéd or emotionally manipulative speaker.

But there is one thing that all great Talks have in common, and I would like to share that thing with you, because over the past three decades, I've had a ringside seat, listening to many hundreds of amazing speakers including on this platform, and also taking the deep dive in the Business of Speaking. I've helped many a speakers to come out as authentic, and in the bargain learned from them their secrets of what makes for a great talk because the original idea was there’s.

And even though these speakers and their topics all seem completely different, they actually do have one key common ingredient. And it's this: Your number one task as a speaker is to transfer into your listeners' minds an extraordinary gift -- a strange and beautiful object that we call an idea.

Let me show you what I mean. In India, we have inter-state buses when they halt at a bus station the most eloquent, amazing, and inspiring salesperson enters the bus for the duration of the halt. That’s where I’ve heard the best elevator pitches. In fact, in our part of the world you are considered a good salesperson if you can sell a comb or a hairbrush to a bald person. You must have been to one of the Ted talks if speaking is in your genes.

Over the course of 14 - 18 minutes, 1,200 people, or is it 2000, many of whom have never seen each other before, are finding that their brains are starting to sync with the Speakers brain and also with others in the audience. They're literally beginning to exhibit the same brain-wave patterns, resonating with each other. And I don't just mean they're feeling the same emotions. There's something even more startling happening.

If you have the ability to see deep inside the audience’s brain you would observe many of them in the audience are getting to linked to others in a way that represents a singularity of purpose. And incredibly, this exact pattern is being recreated in real-time inside the minds of everyone listening. That's right; in just a few minutes, a pattern involving millions of neurons is being teleported into 2000 minds, just by people listening to a voice and watching a face. Incredible isn’t it?

But wait -- what is Singularity of Purpose anyway? Well, you can think of it as a pattern of information that helps you understand and navigate the world. Ideas come in all shapes and sizes, from the complex and analytical to the simple and aesthetic.

Here are just a few examples for a better understanding of the concept.

Sir Ken Robinson -- creativity is key to our kids' future.

My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.

Elora Hardy -- building from bamboo is beautiful.

It is growing all around us, it's strong, it's elegant, it's earthquake-resistant.

Chimamanda Adichie -- people are more than a single identity.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.

Your mind is teeming with ideas, and not just randomly. They're carefully linked together. Collectively they form an amazingly complex structure that is your personal worldview which helps you to establish your niche. It's your brain's operating system. It's how you navigate the world. And it is built up out of millions of individual ideas enabling you to establish your own space – your singularity of purpose.

So, for example, if one little component of your worldview is the idea that puppies are adorable, then when you see this, you'll react like this. But if another component of your worldview is the idea that Lions or Tigers are dangerous, then when you see this, you'll react a little bit differently. So, it's pretty obvious why the ideas that make up your worldview are crucial. You need them to be as reliable as possible -- a guide, to the scary but wonderful real world out there.

Now, different people's worldviews can be dramatically different. For example, how does your worldview react when you see the image of a women in Hijab (the veil)

What do you think when you look at the picture? "A woman of faith," "an expert," maybe even "a sister"? Or "oppressed," "brainwashed," "a terrorist"?

Whatever your answer, there are millions of people out there who would react very differently. So that's why ideas really matter. If communicated properly, they're capable of changing, forever, how someone thinks about the world, and shaping their actions both now and well into the future. Ideas are the most powerful force shaping human potential.

So if you accept that your number one task as a speaker is to build an idea inside the minds of your audience, here are four guidelines for how you should go about that task:

One, limit your talk to just one major idea. Ideas are complex things; you need to slash back your content so that you can focus on the single idea you're most passionate about, and give yourself a chance to explain that one thing properly. You have to give context, share examples, make it vivid. So pick one idea, and make it the through-line running through your entire talk, so that everything you say links back to it in some way.

Two, give your listeners a reason to care. Before you can start building things inside the minds of your audience, you have to get their permission to welcome you in. And the main tool to achieve that? Curiosity. Stir your audience's curiosity. Use intriguing, provocative questions to identify why something doesn't make sense and needs explaining. If you can reveal a disconnection in someone's worldview, they'll feel the need to bridge that knowledge gap. And once you've sparked that desire, it will be so much easier to start building your Singularity of Purpose.

Three, build your idea, piece by piece, out of concepts that your audience already understands. You use the power of language to weave together concepts that already exist in your listeners' minds -- but not your language, their language. You start where they are. The speakers often forget that many of the terms and concepts they live with are completely unfamiliar to their audiences. Now, metaphors can play a crucial role in showing how the pieces fit together; based on an idea that the listener already understands.

For example, when this lady Jennifer Kahn wanted to explain the incredible new biotechnology called CRISPR, she said, "It's as if, for the first time, you had a word processor to edit DNA. CRISPR allows you to cut and paste genetic information really easily." Now, a vivid explanation like that delivers a satisfying aha moment as it snaps into place in our minds. It's important, therefore, to test your talk on trusted friends, and find out which parts they get confused by.

Four, here's the final tip: Make your Purpose meaningful. By that I mean, ask yourself the question: "Who does this purpose benefit?" And I need you to be honest with the answer. If the purpose only serves you or your organization, then, it's probably not worth sharing. The audience will see right through you. But if you believe that the idea has the potential to brighten up someone else's day or change someone else's perspective for the better or inspire someone to do something differently, then you have the core ingredient to a truly great talk, one that can be a gift to them and to all of us. Afterall you are in the business of speaking.

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