Critique of Allan Pease’s TEDx talk on body language [Video]

Short of time? Skip to the critique itself

Have you seen Allan Pease’s great TEDx talk? It’s called:

“Body language – the power is in the palm of your hands.”

As you might feel too (if you watch it below), I found it enthralling for 2 reasons:

  • The topic’s fascinating: How you routinely use your hands has strong yet subconscious effects on your dealings with other people, and even on your own feelings.
  • Allan delivered the talk in a highly engaging way, with passion, humour, and audience involvement too.

You’ll find specific tips on how you can avoid some of its weaker aspects

In this post, you’ll find some of the talk’s best points picked out, plus specific tips on how you can avoid some of its weaker aspects in your own talks. In particular, parts of the talk’s opening and closing could have been stronger, so that’s where I’ll focus.

You might like to watch the talk here. Or, you can click the links later in the post to watch key parts of it.



In the sections below, you’ll find concrete examples from Allan’s talk, marked on a 3-point scale from “strong” to “weak”. Here’s what the scale means:

  • Strong: These parts are some of the talk’s best points. (Click the time shown at the start of each section to go to that exact moment in the video on YouTube, so you can easily see what I’m discussing. To return here, just click your browser’s Back button.)
  • Dubious: The points marked “dubious” indicate aspects of the talk that aren’t ideal, with remarks about how you might handle them differently for better results in your own talks.
  • Weak: The “weak” points are those that (to me) greatly reduce the talk’s impact from what it might have been. Again, the remarks can help you avoid those traps.

These are the points you’ll see discussed in this post:

So let’s get started

Weak: Expects a reply to his greetingScroll up to Contents ↑

0:20 – Notice the circular gesture Allan uses to prompt people to reply, after he says his opening line of just 2 words:

“Good morning!”

Expecting people to respond so early can irritate them

But expecting people to respond so early can irritate them. (I know it irritates me when speakers do that!) That’s because the speaker hasn’t built any rapport, or given any value, and yet they’re asking listeners to do some “work” – even though it’s tiny.

It also reminds me of primary school, where the teacher seeks an obedient response from the whole class.

To my mind, that’s a poor way to open – basically seeking to fake rapport. And it’s for the speaker’s sake, with little if any audience benefit.

A much better approach would’ve been just to say “Good morning!”, but without any need for a reply. Mentally, most listeners would react much better to that opening line without the pressure!

Dubious: Asks for brighter lightingScroll up to Contents ↑

0:23 – Ideally of course, the lighting would be set to the best level before Allan took the stage. Still, what can you do as the speaker if you walk onto the stage and the lights are too low?

A good option would be to ignore the issue if possible

In fact, a good option would be to ignore the issue if possible. Although Allan instead chose to mention it, he handled the issue smoothly, without much fuss, and moved on.

Perhaps it was even by design, to ensure he could make the joke that I discuss next. Whatever the case, it’s a pity to mention the lights or other technical details (unless absolutely vital) because it distracts listeners from the content. That’s especially true during the opening, where you have the chance to focus people’s attention and set the tone for the whole talk.

Dubious: Makes a joke at listeners’ expenseScroll up to Contents ↑

0:26 – Many of the in-person audience might’ve been used to humour similar to Allan’s, because the talk was given in his home country of Australia. But calling your listeners “dummies”, as he did, is very risky all the same!

Draw the speaker and listeners together through shared experience

Although some listeners may have liked the wry joke, a few might’ve taken offence. So a less risky use of humour could’ve been to say something very brief, but that’ll actually draw the speaker and listeners together through shared experience (rather than implying the audience was beneath him).

For instance, he might’ve said:

“Wow, it’s hard to get parked in Sydney, isn’t it? From where I parked, I walked here – for 30 minutes!”

Also, the talk’s been watched almost 1,000,000 times online (in its 1st year or so), and I’m sure most of those people would be used to a different sense of humour (and accent) from what they heard. So a self-contained joke like the one about parking might well be received better by online listeners than Allan’s quip, in which he pretends to verbally slip up, saying:

“…when I grab some of the dummie… the participants…”

Strong: Gets listeners involvedScroll up to Contents ↑

0:32 – When Allan gets people to pair up, I love this part of the talk for 4 reasons:

  • The exercise is extremely relevant to the topic, and gives people value (unlike when he just wants them to say “Good morning”).
  • As a non-verbal activity, it balances the highly verbal nature of the lecture-style talk.
  • The audience enjoys it, as you can tell from the buzz around the room afterwards.
  • People have listened passively for just ½ a minute before they take part. (Naturally, most talks don’t involve people at all, never mind within just 30 seconds!)

Consider how your own audience could meaningfully take part

So whenever it’s appropriate, consider how your own audience could meaningfully take part in your talk. For instance, you might ask for a show of hands. Or, if you’re running a webinar, you might ask a question when people register.

Dubious: Gives a “command”, & treats listeners as a groupScroll up to Contents ↑

0:32 (again) – Despite the exercise’s very positive nature, mentioned above, Allan starts it abruptly by saying:

“Everybody hold your right hand in front, like this…”

Can you think of any ways you could make that request more engaging? I can think of 2 improvements:

  • Omitting the word “everybody” would make his request more personal

    By saying “everybody”, he doesn’t form as strong a bond with each listener as if he spoke directly to you. In this instance, just omitting the word “everybody” would make his request more personal. (Craig Valentine, former World Champion of Public Speaking, suggests you use the Hallway Test to check your wording.)

  • He’s telling instead of asking, so adding “please” could help. (Later in the talk, he says “please” a few times (such as at 2:16) and is polite in other ways (4:32), and this was an unfortunate exception.)

So a slightly better choice of words would be:

“Please hold your right hand in front, like this…”

Strong: Waits for people to settle after the exerciseScroll up to Contents ↑

1:07 – He uses some great pauses, and this one (of about 10 seconds) is the longest.

Weak: Uses a long, quite vague call-to-action when closingScroll up to Contents ↑

The closing of any talk is key

13:55 – The closing of any talk is key (like the opening), because it tends to stick in people’s minds more than the talk’s body. And, as the speaker, it’s your last chance to spur people into action.

Here’s the closing from Allan’s talk:

“Body language is an outward reflection of emotions. If you intentionally take certain positions, and practise them, it suddenly changes how people perceive you and it changes your own physiology. You start to feel different about yourself. That’s the great thing about it. You can do things on purpose, which gives you a greater chance of getting a “Yes” to the job, the proposal, to the idea, to the date… or better!” – 72 words

Now, consider these points, and then I’ll go through them in turn:

  • Work out what the closing’s asking you to do.
  • Take note of its stronger and weaker aspects.
  • Think about how you might make it stronger.

What’s the closing asking you to do? It’s quite hard to know, for 2 reasons:

  • It uses vague phrases like “certain positions” and “do things”, which don’t tell you clearly what to do. (Likewise, the phrase “feel different” doesn’t make clear how you’ll feel as a result.)
  • It’s phrased speculatively, with the words “If you…”

What are the closing’s stronger and weaker aspects? One of the strongest aspects is that most of it’s focused on “you”. However, look at its 1st and 4th sentences:

“Body language is an outward reflection of emotions.”
“That’s the great thing about it.”

They’re topic-focused (rather than audience-focused), so they severely weaken the personal bond that’s being formed with each listener.

Avoid words with 4+ syllables

Also, the closing’s quite long (72 words, spoken in about 20 seconds), and uses a couple of words with 4 or more syllables (“intentionally” and “physiology”), which I recommend you avoid in speeches where possible.

How might you make it stronger? To address those points you read about above, here’s how I’d suggest closing the talk:

“Your body language both steers, and shows, your emotions. To feel more confident – and to have people respond better to you and your ideas – try gesturing with your palms upwards. Or, spread your fingers and press the tips together. [Pause]
Remember: The power’s in the palm of your hands!” – 48 words

Notice these 6+ improvements

Notice these 6+ improvements in this new version:

What’s your opinion of the talk?Scroll up to Contents ↑

Which do you think are the strongest aspects of Allan’s talk?

So, I hope you find those points helpful, and do let me know your thoughts, either in the comment box below or to @RemotePoss on Twitter.

  • Which do you think are the strongest aspects of Allan’s talk – or the weakest?
  • If a speaker expects you to reply when they say “Good morning”, how do you feel?
  • Did you find this critique helpful? Why or why not? What would you add or change?

Other speech critiquesScroll up to Contents ↑

I highly recom- mend these other speech critiques

This is the first speech critique on my blog, but 2 other bloggers have a whole catalogue of such posts that I highly recommend:

Related postsScroll up to Contents ↑

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22 thoughts on “Critique of Allan Pease’s TEDx talk on body language [Video]

  1. Pingback: Julien Dolay (doleole) | Pearltrees

  2. Pingback: Julien Dolay (doleole) | Pearltrees

  3. That’s an excellent analysis, Craig. I love the depth, and how you tied your comments to specific words or exact times within the speech.

  4. Thank you for your comment on the Mike Baird presentation review (http://goo.gl/mkyaAP).

    Allan Pease’s presentation was entertaining and I agree with your review on the high and low points.

    Although, a word of caution on those thinking of using manufactured hand gestures and other types of forced body language.

    In our view, there are two stand-out goals the great presenters must satisfy. Firstly, a ‘message goal’ (deliver a memorable message in a memorable way). Secondly, a ‘personality goal’ (add credibility to your message by conveying your personality).

    The ‘personality goal’ is the most important of the two. If the audience does not buy you, they will not buy your message.

    Audiences are very good at quickly forming an opinion of others on a subconscious level. This is one of the key messages Allan is trying to make in his presentation.

    Any hint of a ‘manufactured gesture’, like trying to turn your palms up when you do not normally or naturally do this, will be picked up by the audience subconsciously. This will not help you in achieving the personality goal.

    Authenticity is at the heart of what we do. We do not teach people to act, but instead build upon and work on developing existing strengths.

    Nothing works better than being yourself. Be yourself, at your best, on all spoken communication occasions.

    • Thanks Simon. I think your idea of “message goal”+“personality goal” is a really helpful way to look at talks.

      I also agree with your caution about forced body language. (In Toastmasters, for example, sometimes the culture and speech contests can promote “hammy” body language.)

      Yet, it’s still useful to work on body language and gestures over the long term. For instance, someone once told me my hands were slightly clenched when they were by my sides. I hadn’t realised I was doing that, and it was well worth working on.

      Another example is the direction in which you gesture, as shown in this pair of videos. Unless speakers think about it beforehand (and practise so it comes naturally) they tend to gesture in the wrong direction.

      Anyway, thanks again for your very thought-provoking comment, and I hope to see you around the blog again.

  5. Lots of fascinating points, and I find myself in agreement on all of them! You asked for ideas about how [Allan] could have more inclusively introduced the group exercise. I agree – it was a little abrupt. How about if he had labelled his behaviour by saying something like…”I’ve got a little activity that I’d like us all to try…..”

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful comments on his speech. I have mixed feelings about asking for better lighting. I have done so myself several times at congresses. It shows that you are confident and do not mind seeing the audience. Many speakers are pretty happy to have the audience “in the dark” so they do not get distracted or intimidated by their reactions. Asking for better lighting also showed that I wanted my talk to be more conversational rather than being a lecture.

    • Welcome to the blog, Jarno, and those are very valid points you raise.

      I’m in 2 minds as well, and so chose not to rate the lighting issue as “weak”. It’s certainly not ideal for a speaker to mention the lighting. But as you say, if you get on stage and people are too dimly lit, there are some pluses to fixing it (and I’d not thought of the ones you raised).

      If you’re interested in another example, I just remembered that the 1-hour “interactive” speech lesson by Darren LaCroix (on this blog) shows the former World Champ of Public Speaking also beginning a talk by asking for more light.

      Anyway, thanks for taking the time to add to the discussion.

  7. A very nice critique, Craig. Pease’s speaking style is very acerbic but I did warm to it after a few minutes. I agree with you about the opening gesture (circling the arms) being awkward. I confess that I am not sure whether the gesture was meant to get a response from the audience (not good and I agree with you on this) or whether he was gesturing the crew to raise the lights a few seconds before he said it. Less than ideal, as you point out.

    I like your suggestions for his closing. You should send them to him!

    All in all, it was still a useful talk, (though I was already aware of the palm up / down / pointing differences). A good primer for people.

    Thanks for the insightful analysis!

    John

    • Thanks for joining the discussion, John!

      Like you, I wasn’t certain whether the circular gesture was meant for the audience, or for the crew. Still, he’s looking at the audience and smiling at them when he does it, so they’ll think it’s aimed at them. (Also, he then briefly turns his head 90°, speaks to the crew about the lights, and does a separate hand gesture, all of which suggests the 1st gesture was to the audience.)

      All of that happens very fast (which is another big issue with the whole talk!), so it’s hard to know for sure.

      Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the talk, and as I said on your critique of Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk, there were some interesting parallels between the two.

    • It’s got to have been a gesture to the audience! Surely!

      I have to confess I’m extrapolating wildly here, but…
      a/my technical team would rather fall on their swords than make the kind of mistake that I had to correct from the stage
      b/ no technical team that could respond would have set the lights too low in the first place
      c/ therefore I conclude the lighting issue was a preset trick (and a childish one, I think but that’s irrelevant to this 🙂 )

      S

      • If I had to bet one way or the other, I’d go for your option. Perhaps the similar gesture when asking for the lights to be raised was an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that the original objective was to get an audience response. A clunky opening either way.

        John

  8. Nice analysis!

    Personally, I’d have stopped listening after the first 15 seconds it was so badly done… I think you’re a bit generous there! 🙂

    • Thanks Simon. I really enjoyed the talk, and I thought the content was great, so it came as a bit of a shock when I listed the strong to weak points that there were so many dubious or weak ones!

      It just goes to show that the talk could have been so much more powerful if most of those weaker areas were turned around.

      Another takeaway was that a speaker’s charisma can make up for a lot, as he does have that confident air.

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