5 habits of highly successful speakers

A recent study of popular TED talks reveals why some speakers captivate audiences better than others. Do you possess any of these qualities?

Have you ever wondered why some TED talks gather a few thousand views on YouTube while others attract millions?

Do the talks that attract millions of views have content that is more compelling and pertinent to a wider audience? Does one speaker have more name recognition than another? Are some speakers more attractive, sexy or authoritative?

Thanks to research from the good folks at Science of People, we have insight into why some talks are more popular than others.

The researchers found five key qualities of speakers who deliver popular talks. If you want to be a hit with your next audience, adopt these habits:

1. It’s not what you say but how you say it.

Many subject matter experts won’t like hearing this, but success is more closely linked to what you do onstage than what you say. The report states:

We rate someone’s charisma, credibility and intelligence based on nonverbal signals. This is surprising—we want people to focus on our words, but this experiment is no different from previous research. Studies have found that 60 to 93 percent of our communication is nonverbal. Over and over again we find that how we say something is more important than what we say. The question then becomes, how do we say something well? Read on to find out which nonverbal signals were most important.

The proof: People liked the speakers just as much with sound as on mute!

2. The more hand gestures you make, the more successful your talk.

There was a direct correlation between a TED talk’s views and the number of hand gestures the speaker made.

Gestures are a nonverbal way to show and build trust. Studies have found that when we see a person’s hands, we have an easier time trusting him. This makes me wonder whether Italian speakers are inherently more trustworthy than, say, Irish step dancers.

3. Vocal variety increases charisma.

Every speaker who completes his Competent Toastmaster certification learns the importance of vocal variety.

The more vocal variety a TED speaker used, the more views his video had. Speakers who told stories, ad-libbed and even yelled at the audience captivated listeners’ attention. Speakers who obviously memorized their lines and read from scripts lacked memorability.

Currently, there seems to be one Republican presidential candidate who is trumping the rest in terms of ad libs, yelling and overall vocal variety.

4. Smiling makes you look smarter.

Contrary to the belief that you shouldn’t smile in a business setting or when discussing a serious topic, the researchers found that the longer a TED speaker smiled, the higher his perceived intelligence ratings were. Audiences perceived speakers who smiled often as smarter than those who smiled less.

5. First impressions count.

The researchers found that audience members form opinions about a talk in the first seven seconds.

Those seven seconds happen before the speaker even opens his mouth.

While a talk’s opening lines are important, a speaker must think about how he takes the stage, acknowledges the audience and delivers his first line. Stumbling onto the stage and mumbling “Thanks for inviting me to speak” won’t cut it.

The research measured favorability (as shown by the number of video views) on a number of other criteria. None were as important as the five listed above, but some are interesting:

  • People in casual clothing rated lower than people in business or business casual attire.
  • Women who wore business clothing got higher ratings compared to men in business clothing.
  • Speakers who wore dark colors got higher ratings than those wearing light colors.

This is a fascinating and important study. Check it out.

A version of this article originally appeared on Professionally Speaking.


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