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TLDR Book Review: “Talk Like TED”

TLDR Book Review: “Talk Like TED” - MED-TAC International Corp.

Christina Shenvi, MD PhD |

Welcome back to TLDR, where our motto is: “We read books so that you have time for Netflix.” Our premise is that most self-help, parenting, education, and life-coaching books are like chicken nuggets: 2% meat and 98% filler! This month’s book is more like cafeteria meatloaf. No matter! We’re still committed to extracting a few nutritious bits from all those ground-up gym mats. We picked through the fluff and pulled out 5 gems that are worth sharing. In his book “Talk Like TED,” Carmine Gallo promises that you too can present like a TED speaker. How do you do it? Read on.

We picked this book as part of an ongoing and deliberate practice to improve our presentation and public speaking skills. “Talk Like TED” is a short, quick read. We summarize the main points, but if you are looking to give short, inspirational talks, then it is worth reading the book in its entirety.

Main Take-Aways

  1. Data is boring, but feelings are exciting: Tell stories.
  2. If you can’t Instagram it, it’s not hip: Use pictures, not text.
  3. Cater to your audience’s squirrel-like attention span: Take frequent “soft breaks.”
  4. Gesticulate, emote, repeat: Practice.
  5. Boring talks are boring: Use humor.

Take-away 1: Tell stories

I’m sure all of you attempt to practice “evidence-based medicine” and “empirical science” that’s obsessed with “data” and “reality.” Those are all fine, but if you really want to grab your audience’s attention, you need to tell them stories. There should be a Villain, a Hero, and an Animal Sidekick. Cures for malaria are great, but wouldn’t they be better if they were part of a story about trying to order canapés at a back-alley noodle shop in Taipei? There is a subtle danger in the use of stories however, as they can sometimes be too powerful. Anti-vaxxers or proponents of homeopathic “cures” can use powerful stories to spread dangerous information that is not supported by the literature.

For us old-fashioned doctors who insist that science should focus on evidence more than narrative, story-telling can still play a useful role. Stories can motivate and frame your talk. A lecture on hyperkalemia is more memorable when it begins with the story of a patient with renal failure coding during the middle of a night and closes with their recovery. Concrete examples can help illustrate abstract principles. Colorful analogies can help make otherwise dry statements more memorable. Meaningful case-based stories can put flesh on the bare bones of fact.

Take-away 2: Use Pictures, Not Text

When we were children, America Online was still a thing and the modem made noises when we called the Internet. Back then, we still read words. But no longer! Ask any 20-something and s/he will tell you that text is sooooo gen-X. To successfully compete with Candy Crush, your presentations need pictures, and lots of them.

The average PowerPoint slide contains 40 words, but TED speakers have so few words that it can take dozens of slides to hit the 20-word mark. They plaster their screens with colorful pictures and creative animations, not boring information like dosages and drug interaction warnings. Depending on the topic, slides with primarily picture-based content might work. For example, a talk on ultrasound or on rashes will lend itself to visual-based content.

If we can’t dispense with text completely, what are our options? One possibility is spacing out your slides. Instead of cramming 8 bullet points beneath your 60-word subtitle, spread that information across 10 slides, and have each slide make only one point. Another possibility is trimming your text whenever possible. Rather than writing that “if current trends continue, the number of geriatric ED visits will likely increase by 25% over the next five years,” write “25% increase in 5 years” along with a relevant image or a graph.

Take-away 3: Take Frequent “Soft Breaks”

The ideal talk, we’re frequently reminded in this book, is 18 minutes, the precise length of a TED talk. The longer a talk runs, the greater the cognitive load on the audience. As they are forced to store more and more information, they will grow fatigued and will retain less and less of what is being said. The solution, we’re told, is to strictly adhere to a 20 minute limit.

Of course, Gallo realizes that some talks are scheduled for an hour, perhaps because administrators labor under the strange impression that it takes more than 18 minutes to explain the potential presentations of tuberculosis. In these cases, he recommends taking “soft breaks.” A “soft break” differs from a “hard break,” which involves coffee and donuts in the lobby.

A “soft break” can be anything from a funny anecdote to a recap of the talk thus far. Breaks like these give the audience time to catch their breath and consolidate information. In a long talk, a soft break should happen every 10 minutes or so. For medical talks, you could present new mini-cases every so often, take a poll of the audience, remind the audience of your main points, have the audience do an activity in small groups, or use an online polling program. These breaks help regain your audience’s attention and engagement.

Take-away 4: Practice

Gallo offers a hodge-podge of useful (and occasionally strange) speaking tips:

  • Gesticulate to emphasize points.
  • Be passionate.
  • Don’t fidget.
  • Repeat key words or phrases for rhetorical effect.
  • Don’t be afraid to use props.
  • Strike a “power pose” before your talk.
  • Keep your hands in the “power zone” (within a sphere extending from your navel and above your head).

Despite the occasional misfire, his admonitions are generally well-founded. Public speaking, he emphasizes, is a skill that needs to be practiced like any other skill. And not only the techniques of public speaking, but the content of each talk, should be practiced. Some TED presenters spend months revising their talk up until a few days before delivery, practicing it hundreds of times. While this advice seems more applicable to people planning on giving 1 lecture to 1 million people than to people giving 100 lectures to a roomful of 20 sleeping interns, it is definitely sound advice for conference talks or major presentations.

Take-away 5: Use Humor

Humor is a great tool for retaining the audience’s interest. Of course, most jokes should be left to professionals, like stand-up comedians, dads, and the Cincinnati Bengals. But you can still inject humor into your talk through amusing stories and personal anecdotes. In medical talks, humor will probably fit most naturally into the introduction, the conclusion, and soft breaks scattered throughout the presentation. If you’re having trouble thinking of something funny to say, it’s safer to play it straight. Nothing is worse than failed humor. Except maybe the Bengals.


If it wasn’t clear, we had mixed feelings about this book, at least as it applies to medical presentations. There were a few gems of sound advice, but a lot of repetition and “fluff.” No doubt it offers excellent advice for people whose primary goal is persuasion, motivation, or entertainment. But doctors and scientists have different goals in mind when we give lectures. Usually, we don’t need to inspire our audience to care for sick patients. We’re not selling anything. We’re not hoping to see #ProcalcitoninforSepsis trending on Twitter. We’re trying to convey information, to make rational arguments, and to justify our claims with evidence, and that’s okay.

The emphasis on narrative in the book was also a bit disconcerting. While Gallo did emphasize that reason needed to be one component of any presentation, he certainly didn’t treat it as if it were the main component. In our emotion-driven culture, should we really be encouraging people, even physicians and scientists, to play up stories and downplay data? We have to make sure that our stories (or cases) are accurately illustrating points that are backed up by data.

Telling a story of someone who came in with a toothache and ended up having a dissection is helpful in some ways but less helpful in others. Does the data support the idea that patients presenting with toothaches should all have a dissection workup? No, of course not. So be careful and conscientious with your story selection, as your audience will likely remember your stories more than your data. While striving to make our talks engaging, perhaps we should hold our audience to a higher standard. They may not leave our talks inspired to invest in Japanese real-estate, but if they leave with knowledge that will help them save lives, we’ve done a good job.

If there are books that you would like to see reviewed in the TLDR format, leave a comment and let us know!

Author information

Christina Shenvi, MD PhD

Associate Professor
University of North Carolina

The post TLDR Book Review: “Talk Like TED” appeared first on ALiEM.

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