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“Ideas worth spreading” is the mission that TED and all of it’s TEDx counterparts around the world live by in spirit. I’ve always enjoyed TED-related talks because if you listen to it with a receptive mind, there are tons of learning and new interesting thought concepts that may very well be the one that revolutionises a certain industry (or even the world)—my all-time favourite being Tony Robbin’s Why We Do What We Do.

Because Starks are honorable.
Because Starks are honorable.

TEDxKL 2015 – Infinity & Beyond was no exception, hosting presenters such as Irshad Mobarak, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, Professor Adrian Cheok, Afdlin Shauki (otherwise known as Chief Kodok), Dato’ Sri Idris Jala and many other thought leaders in their own domain. While all the presentations were mind-opening in their own right, the one I really enjoyed was Afdlin Shauki’s talk on making an effort to keep your mind open and change your perceptions.

While all these speakers are specialists in their own field, I can’t help but observe many uncanny similarities in the traits that they propagate. As someone who aspires to be a TED speaker one day (I’m sure many people share my aspiration), I asked myself:

“What are these traits and how does it make these people an opinion leader in their métier?”

After pondering on the presentations for a more structured examination, here are some traits that I realise the speakers have in common.

They are brilliant storytellers

Datuk Sri Idris Jala says his dad told him: "If you want to be number one, there is only one lesson, you have to be ketui.*" *Ketui means "Kiasu" (Hokkien dialect for afraid to lose) in Kelabit!
Datuk Sri Idris Jala says his dad told him: “If you want to be number one, there is only one lesson, you have to be ketui.*” *Ketui means “Kiasu” (Hokkien dialect for afraid to lose) in Kelabit! (Image Credit: TEDxKL)

Everyone has an idea that was meant to be heard, but if you fail to persuade your audience, it doesn’t really matter what your idea is. The most successful speakers are those who are abundantly driven and passionate about their vision. Not just the idea, but also how it can change the world and improve lives of millions of people worldwide. Being a passionate presenter makes your ideas contagious.

Ideas are not concrete, only when exposed to thoughtful people can they morph and adapt into their most potent form. Facts and figures don’t make your audience think, stories do. Our brains are constantly hungry for good stories. So if you want to connect with a huge audience, forget the data and make a firsthand connection with them by telling a story.

Neuroscientists confirm that our brains are more receptive to stories than cold, hard facts. When we read charts (and all other kinds of boring data), only the part of our brain that controls linguistic abilities light up. But when we are listening or reading a story, the other parts of the brain that we would use if we were actually experiencing the story shows high levels of activity as well.

“Stories are data for the soul.” – Brene Brown

Sh*t, I better improve my storytelling.

They have the ability to unleash the vision within

Image Credit: TEDxKL
Image Credit: TEDxKL

Passion and belief lead to mastery of a certain topic and this same mastery forms the premise of a prodigious presentation. To inspire others, you must first inspire yourself. If you’re not sure of yourself, you sure as hell can’t get people to share your vision! If you express your enthusiasm, passion and make a connection with your audience, you stand a more significant chance to persuade and inspire.

“When you’re faced with choices in life, think about the points – Who am I and what do I stand for? What is the inherent truth?” – H.E. Vicki Treadell

Hence, I believe it is important to stay true to yourself and stay authentic when telling stories. The most inspiring speakers I have come across are very open and comfortable with exposing their vulnerabilities. Don’t be afraid to express your passion on a certain topic. To get a better understanding, watch this TED Talk video by Brené Brown.

They have an open mind

This is my favourite trait of all. Have you ever experienced an interpersonal conflict where each person keeps insisting that they are correct and the other party is wrong? Sadly, life is not math (or programming) and some arguments just cannot be solved with a simple right or wrong. Life hardly ever works that way.

“I am not always right. I can be wrong.” – Afdlin Shauki, realising that sharks aren’t that scary after taking selfies with them.

Sadly, traditional education systems do their best to differentiate right from wrong in an effort to punish the wrong. In most schools (especially Chinese vernacular schools), teachers punish students when they question authority and for asking why (which ironically, is the basis of science). I don’t know about you but I believe that this process slowly but surely instills the fear of failing since early childhood and stifles innovative thinking.

By definition, the notion of right or wrong is subjective. Not only do humans proclaim what is right and wrong based on our perception, we also tend to hold onto it as truth and become defensive about it. Embracing the fact that right or wrong is a fleeting thought will open your mind to new information. Some of the most successful people in the world did what others said would never work.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

Be open to new concepts, enrich your mind and start believing.

They do tons of research because they want to

"We're moving from information communication to experience communication. That's the future of the Internet." — Professor Adrian Cheok, Inventor & Professor of Pervasive Computing (Image Credit: TEDxKL)
“We’re moving from information communication to experience communication. That’s the future of the Internet.”
— Professor Adrian Cheok, Inventor & Professor of Pervasive Computing
(Image Credit: TEDxKL)

Referring back to the previous point on traditional education, I’m was dumbfounded when my cousin-niece told me about her schooling experience (she’s studying in a vernacular primary school in Malaysia), and that the education system is still built on endless spoon-feeding and rote learning. Looking back at when I was still in primary/secondary school and despite all the technological and thought advancement brought forth by the internet, I realised nothing much has changed!

“I always disliked studying, thankfully I realised that studying and learning are two totally different things!”

To my shock, our youth education system is still stuck in the f*cking industrial age (which is a giant disservice to the country and the students). This obsolete education model with a one-size-fits-all approach, is definitely not meeting needs of our growing knowledge economy. There is so much more to be done to give the future generations a personalised learning experience that empowers them with the technical skills, knowledge and values to thrive in our modern society.

So the question is, how did the TED speakers get so good?

To be really, really good at something, one must embrace a mixture of active learning and meaningful learning. Active learning is the best method to retain knowledge in the long run by trial and error (not just to score in exams). And engaging in meaningful learning will help structure thoughts in a relational manner, which helps immensely in solving real-world problems.

To reinforce this point, all TED speakers speak from experience instead of reciting lines from a textbook. They find a topic that they are truly interested in, do tons of research about it and question themselves (active learning), finally using that knowledge to solidify their understanding about that topic (meaningful learning). When these speakers pitch a presentation to the TED Talks committee, they see it as an opportunity to strengthen their grasp in their chosen area (and to know their sh*t better).

They are strategically comical

"I’m excited to be wrong because it means that I can learn something new. If you’re wrong, it’s the best opportunity for you to learn. What I saw was that people change the world by adding value into other people’s lives first before making money." — Afdlin Shauki, Actor | Director | Comedian | Singer
“I’m excited to be wrong because it means that I can learn something new. If you’re wrong, it’s the best opportunity for you to learn.
What I saw was that people change the world by adding value into other people’s lives first before making money.”
— Afdlin Shauki, Actor | Director | Comedian | Singer (Image Credit: TEDxKL)

Jeremey Donovan (the author of How To Deliver A TED Talk, amongst many other things) said that the most compelling TED talks average a laugh a minute, even when the topic takes a serious tone. So, why do all TED speakers have humour as one of they key weapons in their arsenal?

The use of humour in presentations is very powerful if you know how to harness it to your advantage. Humour impacts the psychological, emotive and cognitive. Due to the fact that humour-processing abilities are developed in parallel with growing cognitive and language skills, interpreting jokes uses both hemispheres of the brain and can be used to surprise, build an emotional connection with the audience, and provide stress relief (especially when talking about serious topics).

As a speaker, he is already in a more powerful position by being on stage. With this in mind, well-timed jokes can help manage audience emotions and make them a lot more receptive to what you are saying.

That being said, there is a vast difference between incorporating humour into a compelling presentation and being a stand-up comedian. Reflect on your personal experiences that invariably relates to your idea. Carefully select experiences that you think your listeners can effortlessly relate to so they can visualise your point first hand. The mental image that you create can help your message linger at the top of your audience’s mind.

So to sum it up:

1. Be a brilliant storyteller

2. Unleash the vision within

3. Open up your mind

4. Do tons of research!

5. Be funny (strategically)

I’ve got my work cut out for me. Time to work on these traits  !

This article is originally titled “’Visionary’ and 4 other traits TEDxKL speakers have in common” and you can read the full original article here. It is republished with permission. 

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