In our “DeconstrucTED” series, we look at some of our favorite TED and TED-style talks. We deconstruct them to demonstrate how we all can be more effective communicators in our own right.

This week, Oratium’s Eli Murphy shares why Nilofer Merchant’s 2013 TED talk is one to remember.

Q: Nilofer opens with a pretty bold statement: “What you’re doing right now, at this very moment, is killing you.” Can you talk about opening up with this kind of a statement or hook?

EM: One of the reasons I love the talk so much is because of the opening line. Because it makes me think “Wow, if something’s killing me I want to know what’s doing it, and ideally stop doing it.” But I know I’m a highly distractible person, and with talk after talk it’s easy for me to zone out. My brain is much more likely to go wandering off. That line at the very start is incredibly valuable and interesting to me.

Q: And, at the end of her talk, she ends with a joke – “I opened with my tush, so I’ll end with the bottom line.” Can you talk about the extent to which speakers should inject humor in a presentation?

EM: Do as much as you can, given your comfort level. If you try to do humor that you’re not comfortable with, the audience will know immediately and it will end badly. If there are opportunities for humor that feels natural to you, then do it – there are a number of very good reasons why humor makes almost any talk better. Humor gives the brain a break and allows it to recharge – even just a little bit – between big thoughts and big ideas.

Humor is also great for the ambiance in the room. In TED Talks, there are hundreds and potentially thousands of people in the audience – if you can get people to laugh together, it’s a bonding moment. If you laugh with a group of strangers, somehow you form a connection with them that doesn’t get formed otherwise. There’s sort of this shared sense of, “We’re all in this together!”, which increases the attention paid to what it is that the speaker is saying. People in the audience think, “Oh, you’re paying attention to this. Gosh, I should pay attention to this as well.” And so, that shared moment of bonding around humor has the added effect of shared attention on the speaker and what the speaker is saying.

Q: Then in that conclusion too – she quite literally says, “And so, I’ll end with the bottom line” – so is it better to be very deliberate like this when wrapping up a talk, or is there another approach that might better serve your audience?

EM: There are a lot of misconceptions about this, but the way she does it is the right way. Even if you have structured the talk well, your audience is still so busy processing the information that it’s difficult, in the moment, for the brain to figure out what it all means. By calling out moments (especially at the end) and saying, “What’s the point of this? I’m sharing this with all of you because you need to do X,” you help your audience answer the questions popping into their heads: “Why does this matter to me? What should I do based on this information?”

Q: The talk on the whole is short, just under three minutes – would you have liked to see this extended?

EM: Part of the reason I do like this talk is because its so digestible. She’s really able to land her punch and land it pretty effectively in three and a half minutes – that’s a success.

There is a moment two-thirds of the way through the talk where she lifts up a little bit and she says, “this is an interesting example of two things you think are in opposition, but in fact they’re not.” She’s referring to the idea of “getting work done or getting exercise,” and she’s referring to that in the context of “don’t just sit there, get off your butt.” That’s a bigger idea than “we are acting unhealthy because we sit too much.” That’s an earth-moving idea – that there are situations where people think two things are in opposition but they’re not – treaties aren’t signed, wars are fought, people are killed, etc.

Q: What do you think of her delivery?

EM: The thing about delivery is that, as long as she doesn’t do anything distracting, I don’t even notice whether her delivery was good or bad – I was wrapped up in the content of what she was saying.

One thing that isn’t great is that she doesn’t have a huge amount of variation in her tone. She has some – there are first the parts where she gives a little background, tells a story – but when she gets to something more important, she slows down a little bit and delivers the ideas with a little bit more force, but it’s only a little bit more. Given what I just said about why it’s so important that you draw the conclusion for your audience – “Why did I do that, what does this all mean?” – I guess I wanted her to land those punches even more deliberately – to really slow down and just to absolutely nail that idea of “walk the talk.”

"Blueprint" of Nilofer Merchant's TED talk
Nilofer Merchant’s TED talk, deconstructed. Click to view a larger version. (C) ORATIUM, 2015

Q: Last of all, ultimately would you say she effectively communicates her message?

EM: Absolutely, assuming her idea is that she wants us to take a walking meeting – or generally get off our butts, but specifically, if we have a work meeting that’s going to be conversational, to do it while walking – it comes through crystal clear. Our definition of effective communication is that people walk away knowing what the big ideas are. By that criteria, it was definitely effective.



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