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.”
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 15-minute talk here. Or, later in the post, you can click the links to watch key parts of it.
- 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’ve been. Again, the remarks can help you avoid those traps.
- Weak: Expects a reply to his greeting
- Dubious: Asks for brighter lighting
- Dubious: Makes a joke at listeners’ expense
- Strong: Gets listeners involved
- Dubious: Gives a “command”, & treats listeners as a group
- Strong: Waits for people to settle after the exercise
- Weak: Uses a long, quite vague call-to-action when closing
- What’s your opinion of the talk?
- Other speech critiques
- Related posts
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:
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 ↑
- 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.
Dubious: Gives a “command”, & treats listeners as a groupScroll up to Contents ↑
“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 ↑
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:
- Its 1st sentence uses the word “your” (twice), so the closing starts far more personally. In fact all its sentences focus on the listener now (rather than on the topic).
- It’s specific about how people will feel, and what listeners should do.
- Each word has at most 3 syllables (the longest being “emotions”, “confident”, “gesturing”, and “remember”).
- The whole closing’s 33% shorter, at 48 words instead of 72.
- Its last sentence is easy to remember (and easy to repeat) because:
What’s your opinion of the talk?Scroll up to Contents ↑
Which do you think are the strongest aspects of Allan’s talk?
- 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:
- Almost 20 speech critiques by Andrew Dlugan
(on the Six Minutes blog)
- 20+ speech critiques by John Zimmer
(on the Manner of Speaking blog)
- In particular, see Andrew’s critique of Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk. I especially liked the colour-coded transcript in Andrew’s post.
And John Zimmer’s critique of Ken’s talk makes some great points too.
It struck me that Ken (like Allan Pease) also started his talk by saying “Good morning” and cracking a joke. But the way the 2 men did those things were subtly different, with strikingly different impacts. So do take a look at Ken’s talk.
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