How To Write A Blog Post As Great As A TED Talk
What makes TED talks so irresistible? And what can you as a Content Marketer learn from the masters of presentations to write in a more captivating way?
TED talks suck.
Hear me out. I mean that as a compliment.
TED talks are the bane of existence for people doing presentations. Once you’re among the millions of people who have seen Ken Robinson speak about How Schools Kill Creativity or Amy Cuddy’s talk on body language, you might:
- Realise how bad your own presentations are in comparison
- Realise how many people now will expect TED level quality from you
- Start to despair
But don’t despair. Instead, see the positive side and use TED to become a better Content Marketer.
Does it sound surprising to connect TED with Content Marketing? It shouldn’t be.
Seen through a marketing lense, TED talks follow the formula: Give value to your audience through interesting (and free) content — spread the content — drive more business by selling more books, attracting more donors, or commanding higher consulting and speaking fees.
With minor conceptual modifications, this is exactly what you’re doing when you create content that your audience finds valuable.
So what can we learn from this masterclass of quality content?
Understand the three elements of persuasion…
2,350 years ago, Aristotle’s students were cramming for an exam and cobbled together a cheat sheet of the master’s teachings. Tucked between party invites (“Toga party at sunset. Bring tzatziki”) and love notes (“can I be the cork to your amphora?  YES  NO”), the cheat sheet somehow survived and became known as the Aristotelian Rhetoric.
In it, the old man identified that a speaker required a mix of three elements to be effective:
- Ethos: How credible are you? Have you studied or worked in a particular field? What makes you a competent source of information. The same factual information holds more weight, depending on who says it.
- Logos: How new and unique is what you’re saying? How good are your arguments? Here, your audience is judging you with their left half of their brains.
- Pathos: Do you connect with your audience on an emotional level? Do you captivate people with an interesting story? Why should they care?
TED speakers usually hit it out of the park in all these categories. How can we get close to their level?
…and improve in each
Naturally, your personal or company’s credibility can’t grow overnight. But here’s a few ideas for you to help it along:
- Involve subject matter experts
- Have them guest blog on your site (Do you need to pay them? Yes, if they are real heavy hitters. But you can also get experts for free if they are starting out and building their online reputation)
- Interview them and only publish the interesting bits.
- Publish regularly: It’s like coming on time and being prepared for a meeting. You are more credible if your audience can rely on you showing up when they expect it. (Which is why Tuesday is Kontent360’s New-Blog-Post-And-Newsletter day)
- Showcase your value: Have case studies and customer quotes on your site that show how your work has benefited your customers.
- Promote your work: Classic content marketing promotion that aims to grow the audience will impact your Ethos. Like it or not, but having 20k followers on Twitter gives you a different standing vs having 100.
- At the same time, resist the temptation to buy followership. You won’t get the engagement you want from it, and it’s just fake. Fake sucks.
Logos, the intellectual element of the content, is largely about two things:
The internal coherence of an argument
If A > B and B > C, then A > C. If you commit errors of logic and write in non-sequiturs, your audience will scatter like cockroaches when the kitchen light goes on.
But also, this is where the quality of your storytelling is under scrutiny. Unnecessary sentences and rambling asides chip away at your audience’s interest. This is where TED dazzles most. Even if sometimes the content isn’t all that spectacular, the delivery is almost always impeccable. That’s because TED won’t allow a speaker to just pick a topic and run with it. Months of preparation go into editing the text and slides, and getting the speaker to memorize the whole speech start to finish. (Tim Urban writes about the experience of memorising a 14 minute speech)
Here’s how to bulletproof your internal coherence:
- Create a narrative skeleton of your blog post before putting meat on the bones. Consultants do this by first writing the headlines of the slides before filling them with detailed, supporting content. This is called horizontal logic. Here’s a good summary of it.
- Spend at least as much time editing your text as it took you to write the first draft. In his seminal book On Writing Well, William Zinsser writes that “rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost”. Weigh every word and sentence, and strive to becoming a better writer by reading classics like On Writing Well and the Elements of Style.
- I find it useful to do read-throughs with different hats on. I do one grammar and spelling read-through, one for flow – and one for substance where I catch gaps in my logic. I always adopt a new reader’s mindset.
- Have someone else proofread. Pick the smartest person you know and encourage them to not spare your feelings.
The novelty and uniqueness of your thoughts
In a TED talk, the speaker usually talks about something really impressive they have written, done, or experienced.
- What is something that only you / your company can tell? For example, there surely are stories of challenges you or your customers have faced. Share them with your audience so that they can benefit from the lessons learned.
- Make sure you capture institutional knowledge. What people in different functions know needs to find its way into your marketing content. For more on this, read our free Content Marketing Strategy eBook, chapter The Company
- Also, be mindful that specificity is a big plus. Resist the temptation to provide mere abstract lessons learned. Tell your audience the details of the hard knocks that taught you – with blood, sweat and tears splattered across the lens.
- Have an opinion on contested topics in your domain. Opinions are interesting, when they are well founded (Ethos – your reputation – comes back into view here). For example:
Challenge yourself to be interesting through the boring dinner test:
Imagine your audience persona as a real person and tell them over dinner what you plan to write. If they are genuinely interested in what you’re saying, you win. If their attention drifts, scrap it and pick another topic. Every day I see at least one blog post which would not have passed the boring dinner test.
(PS. Read the Customer Section in our Content Marketing Strategy eBook on how to build your audience persona)
Sure, How-To posts and Top Ten lists are a content marketer’s meat & potatoes. Nothing wrong with them. But to be truly memorable, you need more: Tell stories only you can tell and take a stand.
Pathos is all about building an emotional connection with your audience.
Now when you hear that, it evokes the image of someone sharing how they were bullied as a child and therefore started an anti-bullying charity. And you think: How on earth will I do that in my marketing content? I only have so many heartfelt stories to share!
Think more broadly. Pathos is everything that evokes an emotion in your audience. And emotions range from joy to sadness, from surprise to disgust. A few selected TED moments of good Pathos:
- Bill Gates, after speaking for about 7 minutes about the fight against malaria, introduces his second point: “What makes a great teacher?”. This leaves the audience confused. Wait – how does that fit into the topic of fighting diseases? Emotion: Confusion, Surprise.
- Tim Urban essentially delivers a 14 minute standup comedy session on his struggle with procrastination: Emotion: Laughter, Pity
- Peter van Uhm starts the talk by praising the audience for making the world a better place through the practice of their profession. And by then saying “you have chosen a pen or a microscope. I have chosen a gun”, he introduces the idea of weapons and armies making the world a safer place. He then brings a real machine gun on stage, making the audience queasy. Emotion: Relatedness, Empathy, Fear, Unease.
You need emotion to help achieve three goals:
People need to know why they should care
If your main tool is the written word, you need to make sure that your headline, introduction and first part of the body text draw people in. And if you can do that on an emotional, and not an intellectual level, they are more likely to stay on. Emotion is a key ingredient that had 200,000 people read my blog post on my first startup’s failure. Evoking how bad it felt to be sitting in a cold warehouse, waiting for orders to come in, had a lot to do with people reading through a 5,000 word article.
Emotions will help your audience understand your point on a different level
It’s the old cliche of a picture is worth a thousand words. The horrifying image of the running girl covered in napalm is a far more powerful piece of information about the Vietnam War than statistics would tell.
Emotions will help the audience remember.
As Maya Angelou said: people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Connecting an idea to an emotion is key to making it stick with your audience. I will always remember my first WaitButWhy post (in case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge fan), 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook. Again, the reason was purely emotional: First, it’s hilarious and I still laugh out loud when I re-read it. But it was also the feeling of “this guy totally gets me and we think alike”. It’s been four years since that article came out and I can still quote passages from it.
So wherever you can, try to evoke feelings in your audience:
- An interesting analogy for a complex topic, a cartoon that brings an abstract point into sharper relief, an image or GIF (The satisfying feeling of having understood something complicated)
- Jokes will provide comic relief
- An unexpected turn in your narrative will surprise your audience
- An outrageous claim will shock, offend, and make people curious to hear more
- Story bookends, frequently used by the Economist where the article starts with an idea that is then revisited towards the end, provide a sense of storytelling closure.
However, adding emotion is hardly news and most people do it already. You will need to stand out in this context, too – by evoking common emotions more powerfully or by going for rarer emotions that your audience is not used to experiencing in the context of online content.
You’re on your own here. But it will come to you with experience. The more you read and write yourself, the more discerning you will be and will learn to dismiss cheap emotions like Robert Parker scoffs at mass-produced wine.
Pathos kicks ass
What Aristotle didn’t anticipate is that in 2017, Pathos, the emotional connection, reigns supreme. In his book Talk like TED, Carmine Gallo analysed 500 TED talks, and came to this conclusion:
The perfect talk consists of 10% Ethos, 25% Logos and 65% Pathos.
Pathos is two and a half times more important than Logos. Savour that.
To get used to this idea, try this: You spend a certain amount of time thinking about your new topic, researching, and crafting your argument. That’s Logos. Try to spend at least the same amount of time thinking about how you will connect with your audience. If you do that, you’ll be at 1x, not the 2.5x that Carmine Gallo is asking from you. But it’s a start.
Of course, this number isn’t gospel. It also applies to TED talks, and I haven’t yet seen someone do this for blog posts. But I bet that this number isn’t too far off the mark for blog posts either.
One thing is clear to me – any piece of content I remember (film, podcast, book, theater play, blog post) I remember because it struck a chord with me emotionally.
When the Allied Forces landed in Normandy in June 1944, they first established so-called beachheads, fists on the table that served as a starting point for the long journey to Berlin.
Most companies blog posts are like shooting arrows at a fortress. That’s because a beachhead, or any other breach of the enemy’s defenses takes more time and work.
A TED Talk-like blog post is your Content Beachhead. You create something remarkable that gets people talking for years.
My own Content Beachhead was my 2014 blog post about the reasons for my startup’s failure. Besides the high readership, it gave me a bump of over 1,000 Twitter followers, was quoted in various tech articles, got me speaking engagements, as well as a Harvard Business School case study.
Velocity Partners, a London Content Marketing agency, created a Content Beachhead in 2013 with their much-quoted presentation “Crap – The Biggest Threat to Content Marketing”.
What will be your Content Beachhead?
Follow the rules above and you have a great shot at creating one.
Talk like TED by Carmine Gallo