How People With High Emotional Intelligence Use the ‘TED Talk Techniques’ to Become Super-Persuasive



Why are people with high emotional intelligence so charismatic and  persuasive?

Sometimes, it’s because of a series of hard-to-see techniques they use without even realizing. But, once you know what you’re looking for, you can’t stop seeing them.

It all has to do with three things: prompting laughter, provoking engagement, and asking questions. And, I stumbled across an excellent example of all of these in an unlikely place: while looking at the transcripts of the most popular TED talks of all time, to see what they had in common.

This is why we call these practices “the TED talk techniques.” Here’s how it all works, and how people with high emotional intelligence learn to practice it effortlessly.

Emotions take over

Let’s start with emotional intelligence itself. By my favorite definition, emotional intelligence is the practiced ability to leverage both your emotions and the emotions of other people to make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goals.

Practically speaking, it’s often about memorizing habits of behavior and communication, so that you don’t accidentally let emotions derail what might otherwise be a positive outcome. 

Here’s a fast, easy example that happens all the time: 

Suppose you have an apartment to rent. Or a car to sell. Or a service to offer–one that’s the perfect fit for a potential customer. But when you meet to discuss it, your attitudes simply put each other off.

Maybe one of you seems overly eager to deal. Maybe one of you seems clearly distrustful of the other. Whatever it is, you rub each other the wrong way. Emotions take over. The deal falls apart. 

Nobody winds up happy, and you realize it wasn’t the objective match that went wrong; it was the emotional miscommunication. So, ether you learn from the experience, as people with high emotional intelligence hope to do, or else you keep making the same mistakes.

Laughter, applause, and question marks

All right, you might say, that’s familiar enough. But what does it all have to do with TED talks?

Well, there are something like 3,500 videos of TED talks on the internet, plus another 50,000 or so talks that have been given at TEDx conferences over the years. Helpfully, however, TED ranks the  top 25 most popular TED talks of all time on its website.

So a little while back, I decided to figure out what sets these particular talks apart.

These talks are about all kinds of subjects. On the surface the speakers don’t seem to have much more in common than any random group of people.

But when I looked deeply at the transcripts of these top talks — a combined 70,000 words, covering seven hours of video — I found some interesting patterns.

The single most-repeated word in the combined transcripts, by far? “Laughter.”

The second-most-repeated word? “Applause.”

The speakers didn’t actually say these words, of course; it’s that the transcriptionist added “laughter” and “applause” to describe the audience’s behavior.

Then, on a hunch, I decided to examine punctuation. Sure enough, fully 15 percent of sentences in the transcript ended with question marks, as opposed to periods or exclamation points.

The speakers weren’t giving speeches, I realized, so much as they were trying to simulate conversations.

‘In fact, I’m leaving’

Now, I’ve shared this insight about TED Talks in the past. And, I’ve heard from readers who told me it’s changed how they give speeches and presentations. 

A business consultant told me she planned to revise a report she was supposed to give based on the insights. A priest said he was rewriting his latest sermon. 

However, most of us spend a lot more time talking with smaller groups, or even one-on-one, than giving speeches, and I think that’s where emotional intelligence comes in. Because, if you unpack each of these three techniques, I think you’ll see why they work just as well in smaller settings.

  • Take the “laughter” in the TED talks. It isn’t prompted usually by things that are uproariously funny. Instead, they’re more humanizing, gentle, and memorable. For example, in the very first lines of the top-rated talk, the speaker opens by joking that he has such a tough act to follow that he might skip his speech.
  • Or else, consider the “applause.” It’s not so much about excitement; instead it represents the audience’s engagement, and agreement with something the speaker says or asks. It’s always about setting expectations and creating connection.
  • Finally, the questions come across as a result of the speaker pulling, dragging, and cajoling the audience minute by minute into something approaching an interactive conversation, even when it would be logistically impossible for everyone in the room to be engaged in a single discussion.

People with high emotional intelligence seem to realize that in one-on-one or small group conversations, the techniques are simple: just do all of three of the things we just describe above, only maybe a little less.

A Bible, a salesman, and a bit of advice

I realized after examining the TED talk techniques through the prism of emotional intelligence that we’ve examined some of these techniques before.

On laughter, for example, one of my best friends on the planet also happens to be my accountant. When he wanted to send me a memorable message — a reminder to file my paperwork on time — he didn’t just call me and ask; he used humor by literally sending me a Bible in the mail and asking me to swear on it that I’d procrastinate less.

On applause, I’ve talked about how I stumbled into how emotionally intelligent people learn to preface some of what they have to say with certain attention-grabbing one-on-one phrases – even simple things like, “you might not realize this,” or else, “I don’t know if anyone has ever told you this … “

And, on questions? Well, my advice there is that if you’re giving advice and you want to demonstrate emotional intelligence, you should  ask at least as many questions as you try to answer.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk

Look, time marches on. I suspect the whole notion of a TED talk has become a little cliched for a lot of people, compared to just a few years ago.

It’s a punchline now when someone gets a little impassioned or goes on too long: “Thank you for coming to my TED talk.”

But there’s still a lot that we can learn from the format, and people with high emotional intelligence are often eager to put things like this to work.

As I describe in my free, aptly-titled e-book, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, I like it when things are simple. And the simplest way I know if to improve emotional intelligence is simply to study and copy the techniques that other people use effectively.

Remembering to use laughter, engagement and ask a lot of questions seem pretty simple to me. And if they help you get a bit closer to achieving your goals, I think they’re worth trying. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.





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