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Teach Like TED: 9 Practical Classroom Tips Taken from TED Talks

Teach Like TED: 9 Practical Classroom Tips Taken from TED Talks

At this point, you’ve probably at least heard of TED Talks, if not watched a few, and maybe you even have a favorite that you’ve shared with your class. The individuals behind some of the most popular TED Talks are incredible communicators, making their messages heard and felt in 18 minutes (or less). And, while your next lesson on fractions doesn’t need to be TED Talk–worthy, applying some of the secrets from these skilled speakers could change your teaching practice for the better. I picked up Carmine Gallo’s bestseller, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds for my own personal professional development not long ago, but as I pored through the pages, I saw classroom application after application. Here are nine quotable moments that (in my opinion) belong in every teacher development program.

“What fuels a speaker’s passion does not always involve their day-to-day work.”

Gallo opens the book by talking about passion and then saying how identifying and harnessing that passion can generate enthusiasm in the way you communicate. But, he reminds you that your passion can be bigger than what you do every day. Case in point: as a former kindergarten teacher, I didn’t necessarily need to be passionate about math or reading, but I did feel passionate about early education and closing achievement gaps before they have a chance to widen. With that passion at the core of what I was doing, math and reading lessons were about something much bigger than singing the days of the week and identifying the characters in a book. On the toughest days, I could use that underlying passion to connect with my students and galvanize excitement for learning.

“Narrative is the most powerful way to break down resistance.”

If you’ve taught for 1 year or 10 years, you’ve probably experienced how a personal connection with a student can move mountains. Storytelling builds trust, and students that trust their teachers show up, ask questions, and work hard. Gallo notes that researchers have discovered that our brains are more active when we hear stories. When you find opportunities to connect with your students by telling a story that reaches them on a personal and emotional level, don’t deem those “lost instructional minutes.” Rather, consider how they can become an investment in building a classroom culture based on being vulnerable enough to learn, grow, and even fail sometimes, together as a class. But, don’t stop there. Use stories to turn abstract concepts into tangible and memorable ideas that students today can grasp onto. If done right, your stories can help answer the dreaded “Why do I need to know this?” question, once and for all.

“Make it look effortless by working at it.”

That’s right—to be a truly authentic orator when addressing your class, you have to practice. There is a well-known theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a new skill. If this is true, then the good news is that you’ll build those hours quickly with lots of on-the-job practice by leading your own classroom. Even still, the best teachers plan, prepare, and rehearse their tone, timing, and delivery and then iterate on those ideas year after year. Yes, you will still probably laugh when remembering your first-year-teacher self, but with continued practice, your communication skills will improve. So, don’t turn down the opportunity to have your class filmed or to have a peer offer feedback on a lesson (even if it makes you squirm at first)—the best public speakers open up themselves to honest feedback and then build on that advice.

“Learning is addictive because it’s joyful.”

How appropriate that Gallo stresses the importance of teaching your audience something new and interesting each time you address them. I mean, really, that should be an educator’s bread and butter, right? The real takeaway here, though, isn’t just about grabbing ahold of every teachable moment; it’s more of a realization that we’re all wired to crave information. Even if the topic at hand isn’t the most interesting, going the extra mile to find ways for your class to relate to it and see the application in daily life will trigger the part of the brain that continually thirsts for knowledge. Can you deliver lessons in ways that surprise and delight your students, debunking any preconceived notions of how it’s supposed to be taught? Chances are that if you do, it will stick.

“Sometimes you need to surprise your audience in order to get them to care.”

This idea goes hand in hand with the above tip about bringing novel approaches and ideas into your speech. In Gallo’s words, “People remember vivid events; they forget mundane ones.” I like to think about this public-speaking best practice as the “hook” in any good lesson. Whether it’s a video, statistic, demonstration, or surprise guest, make it memorable. Do it well, and it only takes a couple of minutes of your instructional block, but it surprises your students and gets them to perk up in their chairs and listen for more.

“[Humor] reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages.”

Let me start by saying that making your lessons funny doesn’t mean memorizing a joke to kick-start every lesson—particularly if such a tactic would come off as disingenuous. This tip is an important one, however, especially considering that your audience is often made up of difficult-to-please adolescents. So, keep in mind that you don’t have to be stiff and serious all the time. Finding humor in a situation and bringing that commentary to the surface can help you connect with your students. And, according to psychological studies, a humorous person is perceived as pleasant and interesting, even intelligent.

“Too much information prevents the successful transmission of ideas.”

At the top of this blog post, I mentioned that TED Talk speakers talk for no more than 18 minutes. It’s true, and it’s a fundamental rule on every TED stage. Researchers have discovered that the longer the presentation, the more the listener has to organize, comprehend, and remember—and, quite frankly, that makes the brain tired. That’s why Gallo suggests finding ways to focus on the most pertinent information in shorter snippets of time so that your audience still has brainpower to digest and respond to what they were just taught. As a teacher with a finite number of minutes and a predefined set of standards that must be covered, you likely have some experience with this task. But, given the research, it’s worth asking yourself, “Am I droning on for too long?” and “Did my students process and retain the key bits of information they need to understand?” When you know the brain science and apply it to your teaching, it can make a difference in how you construct a lesson.

“People remember information more vividly when more than one sense is stimulated.”

This tip might call to mind the different types of learning styles frequently discussed in education, such as auditory, kinesthetic, and visual—it certainly did for me. But, this strategy for improving public speaking (and your teaching) is about so much more than identifying how your audience learns best and appealing to those preferences. Gallo calls out brain science that, in summary, states that when the brain is allowed to build multiple representations of an explanation, say by hearing it verbally and seeing it visually, the mental connections are much stronger. Layer in other multisensory experiences such as touch, taste, and smell, and you have a winning, memorable combination.

“Everything we’ve discussed will be meaningless if you are putting on an act.”

Is there a tougher audience out there than children? In the classroom, you can count on them to be 100-percent honest about their feelings on your teaching style, and that starts with being able to spot a phony when they see one. So, while there are certainly teachers who successfully pull off a rap song on American history or who create a special handshake for each and every student, know if something like that is in your wheelhouse or not, and if it’s not, find something that is. Being authentic goes a long way toward building trust; don’t be afraid to leave your own mark.

Too often, you get to spend just one year with your students—one year. But, the best teachers are remembered for decades. How do they do it? In perhaps the most poignant words of this book, Gallo reminds us: “Don’t ever let anyone get away with calling public speaking a ‘soft skill.’” Skilled communicators (and teachers!) spread ideas, inspire others, and excel to the tops of their chosen fields. Check out Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED for more smart and practical tips, and get inspired today with 4 Motivating TED Talks for Educators.

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Madison Michell

Madison Michell has been a member of the Edmentum team since 2014 and currently serves as a Marketing Manager. As a former Kindergarten and 3rd grade teacher during her time as a Teach For America corps member, she believes education truly has the power to transform lives. She is passionate about connecting educators with online programs, best practices, and research that improve teaching and learning for today's students.