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Why TED Talks Are Impossible to Resist

February 12, 2014
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/231433

The following is the second in a series, "Talk Like TED," in which communications coach/author Carmine Gallo applies tips, techniques and insights to help entrepreneurs and business professionals sell their ideas more persuasively. These ideas are inspired by the TED Conference’s most celebrated talks in its 30-year history.

TED talks are inspiring, creative, informative, entertaining, and, judging by the numbers, wildly addictive. Presentations on TED.com have been viewed more than one billion times. Viewers are watching Ted videos on the site at a rate of more than 2 million times per day.

Some presentations, such as the talk Bill Gates delivered in 2009 on the topic of malaria in third world countries, have been viewed millions of times. How did Gates garner worldwide attention for what was, essentially, an 18-minute talk and slideshow? Science has the answer and it offers a valuable lesson for your very next pitch or presentation.

Related: Want to Sell Your Ideas? Tell Engaging Stories.

Release the mosquitoes! “Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” Gates told the TED audience as he picked up a glass jar sitting on a table in front him. He opened the jar and said, “I brought some here. I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.” The audience sat in stunned silence for a moment, then laughed, applauded and cheered. They weren’t happy about the topic, of course, but they knew that Gates had given them a novel way to consider the issue.

The brain cannot ignore novelty. This concept is very well established in scientific literature. An unfamiliar, unusual or unexpected element in a presentation intrigues the audience, jolts them out of their preconceived notions, and gives them a new way of looking at the world. Gates had created what neuroscientists call an “emotionally charged event:” a shocking, impressive or surprising moment that grabs the listener’s attention and is remembered long after the presentation is over.

The emotionally charged event creates a heightened state of emotion that makes it more likely your audience will remember your message and act on it. I’m not suggesting that you release mosquitoes in your next presentation, but I am recommending that you create an “event” to elicit joy, shock, fear or surprise. Such events can be as simple as a compelling story, as I discussed in part one of this series. It can also include demonstrations, videos, props or visually engaging PowerPoint slides.

Learning is a buzz. Musician Peter Gabriel attended a TED conference in 2006 and said, “Exposure to new ideas and interesting ideas was the main buzz for me.” He wasn’t kidding. Learning is addictive, thanks to an almond-shaped gray matter in your temporal lobe -- the amygdala. The amygdala releases dopamine, which acts as your brain’s natural “save” button. It explains why we get a buzz out of learning something new.

Related: 10 Honest and Completely Helpful Tips for Hitting a Public-Speaking Homerun

Learning triggers the same reward areas of the brain as drugs and gambling. Drugs and gambling are artificial triggers, of course. A more natural way of achieving the mental high is to learn something new and exciting. Dopamine is so important to retention and learning that when it’s present, we tend to remember an experience or a message. When it’s absent, nothing seems to stick.

We are natural explorers. Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic in 1985. He received a standing ovation from a TED audience for his presentation, The astonishing hidden world of the deep ocean.

“Your mission in any presentation is to inform, educate, and inspire,” Ballard told me in an interview for Talk Like TED. "You can only inspire when you give people a new way of looking at the world in which they live.”

When you give people a new way of looking at the world in which they live, you are tapping into millions of years of adaptation. If primitive man hadn’t been curious, we would have been extinct long ago. According to John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, 99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are extinct today. The human brain adapted to its harsh environments, allowing it to survive.

“There are two ways to beat the cruelty of the environment: You can become stronger or you become smarter. We chose the latter,” Medina says. We are natural explorers who have an unquenchable need to know and to learn, he adds.

When an idea or a product is packaged or presented as new, surprising or unexpected, it’s nearly impossible to ignore. According to neuromarketing expert and engineering professor, Dr. A. K. Pradeep, “Our brains are trained to look for something brilliant and new, something that stands out, something that looks delicious.”

Give your audience something delicious to chew on.

Related: Connecting With Customers: How to Market to Their Emotions