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Absolutely Great TED talks: Benjmin Zander


What do people remember about a train? The Engine and the Caboose! The opening and closing of your speeches have a special impact. Make them excellent every time. From the opening to the ending Ben Zander is there for the audience. He includes and inspires everyone, on purpose, and he has the audience hanging on his every word. Let’s deconstruct it together and see what we can learn. Before you read any further I recommend you watch the talk first. And, if Ben is not your style of speaker take heart! This is just one way to do it. I’ll be showing you all kinds of other styles and approaches in the coming posts and sharing the principles underlying their success. The principles will work for your style, as well.

Ben’s opening here is excellent. He harnesses the full power of story in well under 30 seconds. The way he opens has the audience fall in love with him from the get go and then he connects the opening story directly to his topic. Another way to look at it: he has begun by making an emotional connection with the audience and now whatever he says will matter to us much more and we’ll be listening in a whole new way.

He then says something profound: “Rather than go into statistics and trends and tell you all about the orchestras that are closing and the record companies that are folding I thought we’d do an experiment…” Why do I think that is so significant? Well, even if most people managed to begin with a great story and a wonderful emotional connection with the audience, most of us would then go right into the statistics and trends and immediately bore our audience right out of their skulls and into their cell phones. Notice what he does instead. He involves the audience in doing an experiment with him. Then, before actually doing the experiment he shares all kinds of important information with us and we’re listening because we know it’s relevant to the experiment in which we are about to participate! Brilliant move, Ben!

He then gives us a short music lesson and teaches us about “impulses” in music and gives us a fantastic morsel called “one buttock playing” and tells us the story of the guy who turned his company into a “one buttock company!”

Then, Ben uses the most important word in public speaking, according to Patricia Fripp: YOU! He tells you about YOU. He breaks the audience into segments around their level of love of classical music. He demonstrates his belief in the greatness of the audience by showing us that there are no tone deaf people (even husbands) and then he says that he’s going to bring everyone to love and understand classical music. When he makes that outrageous claim he points to his own face to prove that he doesn’t have a shadow of a doubt about whether it will happen, either. This is a classic case of: “You’ve got to believe it. If you don’t, they won’t.” Which I relate to mirror neurons. Ben knows that his confidence will resonate with the audience and he’s willing to be on the hook for an outrageous claim with a confident face! When people see his confident face they can’t help but internally mirror his state. They feel more confident about what’s going to happen simply because they see that he is confident. I believe that the audience is always mirroring the speaker. If you have a bad audience it’s cause they were mirroring you! If you have a great audience, well good! They were mirroring you!

He then plays the Chopin piece for the first time and then he tells us what we were thinking… “I wonder if we should go to the summer house again this year…?” And the audience erupts with laughter. This is a great route to humor. If you can correctly identify what is going on in the audience’s mind, as Ben does here, people find it quite funny. Craig Valentine, a hero of mine, says that you can’t add humor to your speech… But, you can find the humor that is already there. This is one way to do that.

Ben then also turns the conventional wisdom on it’s head with his comment: “What if the problem is not because of you, what if the problem is us?” All of a sudden, instead of being berated for not liking classical music, people who don’t like classical music become interested; this gives them a way back and a reason to reconsider. It is brilliant. They call it taking responsibility for a reason. When you take responsibility you take great power, as well.

He then explains a bit more about music theory in a fun and very accessible way. He’s serious about getting us to understand him, but it’s not significant, it’s actually fun! What if you did that with your next highly technical borefest, I mean, presentation? -WINK- What if you could do what Ben has done for classical music for your field?

He involves the audience by having them complete the musical phrase. Again, there are no tone deaf people left! Notice how much he’s paying attention to the audience and talking with the audience, and with individuals in the audience. Has he made this accessible to people? Quite. It’s very kind of him, very generous of him and makes this so much more fun and interesting for the audience. Also notice that making it easy to understand does NOT make him lose credibility! Rather, it gives him even more credibility! Please consider that if you’re in a position to overwhelm the audience with data. How good must he be to make something complex this easy to understand? It actually increases his credibility!. How good must he be to make something complex this easy to understand? It actually increases his credibility! That’s worth considering if you’re ever tempted to overwhelm your audience with data.

As his performance is coming to an end he again asks the audience a question: “Why do you think I’m clapping?” And the answer, from the child in Ireland, “because we were listening…” allows him to compliment the audience, remind them that listening is important and then move further into his story about Ireland. This is the story that convinced him that Classical Music is for everybody… Finally we’ve looped around. It’s been a fun, engaging, moving ride and we remember, “Oh yeah! That’s what we’re doing!”

And now Ben is on to the point… “How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you BE if you thought that everyone loved classical music, vs just 2 or 3%?” And then he bridges it into your life. He tells the story about when he realized that a conductor doesn’t make a sound. A conductor depends on others for all of his power. Again, notice that magic word: YOU. Notice that Ben doesn’t say “all of you,” or “how many of you.” He says things like: “Why do you?” “How would you?” “What if you?”

And then he uses another power word: WE. He asks us who are WE being? Do we have shining eyes around us? And now Ben has brought all of this emotion and inspiration and learning home for us. We get to consider who we are being? Which of the two telegrams have we been sending home, is the question we find ourselves newly pondering.

He then moves to the closing with one more story. Ben suggests that what we say really does make a difference. He then tells us an unforgettable story which is extremely short and full of impact. It fits in with the overall message and gives us a brief, concrete opportunity to consider just how we would like to be. It’s a great ending and it’s a wonderful counterpoint to the opening story.

Some of the key factors I notice in this speech are: First, notice how many stories he tells us to illustrate his points! Wow! No wonder we love this so much! It is filled with wonderful stories that all have useful points. And, he is passionate. Actually, he’s not just passionate, he is out loud about it! I work with many people who are truly passionate, but onstage you’d never know it! When you are speaking you have to let your passion, and other emotions, show! If you stuff them down the audience will, too. Remember mirror neurons? That will heavily mute the impact you can have. Ben is also 100% what I call: Over there with the Audience. His attention is not on himself, but rather on the audience and the difference he’s there to make for us. He has practiced enough that he not worrying about what he’s going to say next, he actually spends his time paying attention to the audience and really interacting with them. That’s hard to do if you’re not sure what you’re planning on saying next. And, it’s the hallmark of someone to whom people love to listen!

Finally, throughout – most notably at the end – he does something that is extremely powerful, and also extremely difficult for most (all?) humans, he allows himself to be moved! Yes, right there on the stage, in front of all those intimidating, smart, TED attendee peers of his, he allows himself to be moved by what he’s sharing. That makes it infinitely easier for the audience to allow themselves to be moved, as well.  It won’t work if it’s just a tactic, but if it’s heartfelt it can’t fail.

If you had the attention of the world for 18 minutes what would you say?

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