How to Pitch the TED Way Without Having to Be a Genius

TED talks are the best sales pitches in the world. The thing is: they’re not positioned as pitches at all. They’re presented as 18 minute lectures—“Ideas Worth Spreading,” as the TED tagline goes. But make no mistake: TED speakers understand their objective is to sell their ideas to the world so those ideas will be embraced and shared and put into action.

Isn’t that the same goal of every marketer out there? We all want our business messages to not only capture the attention of an audience, but also to be shared with peers, to motivate our customers to action, and to inspire a loyal following. If there’s one thing every marketer out there can learn from TED, it’s this: the best way to sell an idea is to tell a story.

As an unapologetic TED fan-girl, the subject matter of a talk rarely matters to me; I can find a passionate presentation on a new approach to school lunches just as moving as a profound talk on the importance of death with dignity. It’s all in the way the story is told. TED speakers are master storytellers, but they create their speeches within a carefully designed framework.  A framework, I might add, that has been hugely successful: TED talk videos have gotten over 1 billion views since they were launched online in 2006.

The TED Talk Formula

Ultimately, the TED formula is a great sales pitch with storytelling at its center.  This format can be applied to creating persuasive copy for a multitude of marketing applications, including landing pages, blog posts, e-mail campaigns, and yes, marketing videos and sales presentations. Let’s take a look at the fundamental structure of a TED talk:

What’s the Big Idea?


I discovered a playlist of the 20 most-watched TED talks:

Don’t worry, you don’t have to sit through all of them right now (in fact, please don’t—not until you’ve finished reading this post!). I did all the TED binge-watching for you.

Here’s what I discovered: within 30 seconds to 2 minutes into each presentation, the speaker has uttered an essential phrase that encapsulates the message he or she wants the audience to take away. Their “Big Idea.”

I’ll make it easy for you and list the Big Idea of some of the videos and where they happened:

1.       Sir Ken Robinson, Are Schools Killing Creativity? (01:31): “Everybody has an interest in education.”


2.       Jill Bolte Taylor, Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight (00:30): “I can take my dreams, I can connect them to my reality, and I can make my dreams come true.”


3.       Pranav Mistry, The Thrilling Potential of SixthSense Technology (00:43): “We use gestures not only to interact with objects, but also to interact with each other.”


4.       David Gallo, Underwater Astonishment (01:50): “We don’t know much about this planet at all.”


5.       Pattie Maes, Unveiling Game-Changing Wearable Tech (0:19): “We can develop or evolve a sixth sense that will give us seamless access to meta-information…that will help us make the right decisions.”

Most of these sound like pretty good tag lines, don't they?

So here’s a little exercise for you: write down your Big Idea—the thing that makes your product or service worth putting into the world---in a sentence of 15 words or less. 

Here’s mine: When we stop marketing to consumers and start telling stories to people, human connections happen.

What Inspires You?

After unveiling their Big Ideas, it’s now up to the speakers to convince their audience why the ideas are worth spreading. Their first task is to get the audience emotionally engaged.

You should know by now where I’m going with this. The most effective way to create an emotional connection with an audience is to—drumroll, please…

Tell a story.

Most TED speakers share origin stories or reveal mind-blowing examples from history.

Simon Sinek’s minimalist, yet brilliant, presentation exemplifies this. First, he asks the central question of his talk: “How can we explain when others are able to achieve things that defy all the assumptions?” Then, he uses the examples of Apple, Martin Luther King, and the Wright Brothers. They were all able to achieve a unique (dare I say “mind-blowing”) level of excellence in their respective fields despite the fact that they weren’t the only ones out there doing what they did. What was their magic formula?

Sinek then reveals his theory, which is particularly relevant to this post: Apple, MLK and the Wright Brothers were all great communicators. They all identified the “whys” of what they did, and shared their motivations first, then discussed the “hows” and the “whats.” In other words, by revealing what inspires you, you will inspire others to action.

Take a moment to do some soul-searching: I’ve been inspired to tell stories ever since I was six years old and was given a Greek myths coloring book. The stories I discovered activated my imagination and shaped the way I saw the world. I want to help others communicate their personal myths because I believe stories are the medium through which humanity can find common ground.

Why does your company or brand do what it does? What inspired your company to be different from everyone else? 

What Information Do You Have?

After the Idea and the Inspiration has been shared with the audience, it’s time to present the Information: evidence to support the Big Idea. This is the part when a TED talk turns into a lecture, but it doesn’t have to feel like a lecture. The best TED speakers have a knack for humanizing even the driest of statistical numbers.

Witness Hans Rosling’s presentation of third-world life-expectancy stats: the guy manages to turn logarithmic graphs into breath-taking portraits of our planet. How? He turns the data into stories.

Rosling would never have been able to create the sense of drama about his stats were it not for the graphics he created. Even though TED talkers are at center stage, they typically rely on a well-designed series of slides to help (literally) illustrate their points.

I recently fell in love with Canva: a web-based graphic design tool that makes building infographics child’s play. See?

What statistical information and research do you have to share about your service or product to back up your Big Idea? 

What's Impeding You?

By now, TED talkers have got the audience jazzed. It’s time to create some drama by bringing some conflict to the story. They introduce the Big Problem: the one thing that’s been holding the world back from embracing the Big Idea.

In Dan Pink’s talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, his Big Idea is also his Big Problem: “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does,” he says. Throughout his presentation, he builds the audience up with a number of examples from sociological and economic research that show that incentives inhibit the performance of creative problem solving tasks.

You can’t help but get caught up in his outrage when he declares halfway through his talk: “Too many organizations are making their decisions [and] their policies about talent and people based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.” You can almost hear the audience begging “WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THIS RIGHT NOW???”

The Big Problem we face as marketers is outdated online optimization shortcuts and conventional approaches to business development. Today’s audience is adept at tuning out overt marketing messages. They’re inundated with advertising, so they’ve developed psychological ad-blockers.

Google has adamantly made it known that keyword-stuffed, low quality content will no longer attract their algorithms.  Yet businesses are still ordering low-quality keyword-based articles from content mills for pennies per word so that their websites, no matter how irrelevant, will get shoved in the faces of people looking for legitimate information.

According to Harvard Business Review, over 90% of C-level executives say they “never” respond to cold-calls or e-mail blasts. Yet tired outbound sales tactics like mindless cold-calling, spammy e-mail blasts, and throw-away snail mail campaigns still prevail.  And all of it appears to adhere to the hackneyed “list features and benefits, overcome objections, and close the deal” sales formula.

Think about the last time you bought a car: was it because you found a flyer from your local dealership on your mailbox declaring you should buy it because it goes from 0-60 in 2 seconds and its side-impact airbags will keep your family safe—and by the way, you’ll get 0% financing if you buy today?  Did it even inspire you to visit the dealership or Google more information about it?

Hmm. Something tells me no. Yet most marketing copy, no matter the product or service, sounds just like this.

So that’s my Big Problem as a copywriter and a business marketer. What’s yours? What’s the battle you and your audience must partner to fight?

What Impact Are You Making?

This is when TED talkers roll out some good news: they have a solution to this problem, and with the help of the audience, they can solve it. Remember the Big Idea? Right! Here’s where we take another look at it now that we’ve been emotionally and intellectually engaged.  

In Jamie Oliver’s impassioned talk on the national obesity epidemic, “Teach Every Child About Food,” he discusses his anti-obesity project in Huntington, WV and the impact he was able to make in the community by helping school cafeterias find locally sourced, sustainable food for $6,500 per school. He knows he’s speaking to an audience of our society’s elite tech and business experts: $6500 per school is pocket change.

He’s a master salesperson as he tells his audience, “There are angels around America doing great things…the problem is, they all want to roll out what they’re doing to the next school and the next, but there’s no cash.” At this point, you can almost hear the audience pulling out their checkbooks.

How can you and your audience work together to solve a Big Problem in your industry?

What Is Your Audience Invited To Do?

So here’s the big close: the TED speaker has shared their ideas, told their story, revealed their challenges, and imparted what they need to move past those obstacles. Now it’s time to ask for help.

The TED audience is invited to complete the journey with the speaker by taking action. In digital marketing terms, you can visualize a TED talk as a beautifully designed landing page with great copy and eye-grabbing graphics all leading the visitor to the Call-to-Action button.

In Nobel Laureat Leymah Gbowee’s case, her call to action is simple: she asks the audience to create, in their communities, opportunities for girls to achieve excellence.

“I don’t have much to ask of you,” she says. “Will you journey with me to help that girl, be it an African girl or an American girl or a Japanese girl, fulfill her wish, fulfill her dream, achieve that dream? Because all of these great innovators and inventors that we’ve talked to and seen over the last few days also are sitting in tiny corners in different parts of the world, and all they’re asking us to do is create that space to unlock the intelligence, unlock the passion, unlock all of the great things they hold within themselves.  Let’s journey together. Let’s journey together.”

TED speakers are adept at creating a sense of urgency by laying out their cases for change: the people in the TED audience are society’s great innovators and naturally want to be the first to adopt emerging technology or to claim they are on the front lines of a philanthropic cause.

Think about your target audience: what’s irresistible to them as a call to action? More information? A great bargain? Taking a risk that could pay off? The opportunity to join a community or to help others? If you need help identifying your audience’s buying motivations, you’ll want to take a look at my recent post on Rolf Jensen’s 6 Emotional Markets.

Now that I’ve laid out the elements of a great TED talk, does this inspire you apply them to creating a great landing page, e-mail campaign or your own TED-like video presentation? This guy, motivational speaker Jeremy Gutsche, not only filmed himself doing a TED-esque speech as a teaser trailer for his book, he made sure to place the ad on the TED YouTube channel. The man knows his audience: lovers of great storytelling who want to change themselves and their world for the better.

So to sum up the TED Pitch Formula, it looks like this:

1)      Idea- The core message you want your audience to agree with and buy into.

2)      Inspiration- Your origin story or source of motivation for what you do.

3)      Information- The evidence you have to prove why your idea is awesome.

4)      Impediment- The obstacles you and your audience must overcome to make this idea work.

5)      Impact- The change that can happen as a result of your idea working.

6)      Invitation- The call-to-action for your audience.

So, in the spirit of a TED talk, here’s my invitation to you: if you, like me, are tired of business-as-usual marketing and are inspired by the connections that great storytelling can bring about both in business and in life, I urge you to connect with me. I want to help change how your brand is marketed by giving it a human voice.

If you can’t hire me, no problem: let’s spread our ideas together (see what I did there?). Follow me and share this post on Twitter. The more we can preach the storytelling gospel, the more we can infuse our brand messages with the human element.

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