TED’s Anna Verghese Shares Her 10 Public Speaking Tips

From power posing to embracing your inner control freak, here are 10 lessons from a reluctant pro.

By Angela Ledgerwood


From power posing to embracing your inner control freak, here are 10 lessons from a reluctant pro.

By Angela Ledgerwood

Anna Verghese has one of the most prestigious jobs in philanthropy, working with the likes of Richard Branson, Laurene Powell Jobs and Jeff Skoll (founder of Participant Media) in her role as the Executive Director of TED’s Audacious Project. Yet finding the confidence to hold her own in such impressive company took her years to develop. And there’s not that much pressure when you happen to work for the organization that all but invented the art of the effective communication. “I tend to lead and solve problems quietly,” says Verghese, who started at TED as an assistant eleven years ago. “When I have something important to say I’ll say it – and people will listen – but it has taken me so long to find that voice and that confidence. Literally years.”

Since launching the Audacious Project in April of 2018, Verghese and her team have raised a whopping $US493.8 million dollars. These funds are allocated toward seven world-changing ideas hoping to change humanity for the better such as tackling climate change by tracking gas emissions from space and addressing food scarcity in six countries across East Africa, to name just two. The Audacious Project embodies exactly the kind of radical and drastic action we’re going to need to keep our planet alive. Verghese spends much of her time communicating these big ideas and inspiring others to get on board, so we asked her to distill what she’s learned about speaking in public effectively and share what has helped her along the way. Now you can command the room like a pro. 

T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison speak with Anna Verghese at TED2018. Image credit: Bret Hartman / TED

Know Your Audience: The first question I ask myself before anything else is, “Who is my audience and what knowledge base are they starting from?” To get anyone to care about what you’re sharing, you first need to draw them in on your idea or thought. Make your opening example or anecdote something that’s going to resonate with your specific audience – articulating your idea, why it matters and the possibility behind it becomes much easier to do from there.

Use Your Friends AKA The Guinea Pigs Test: Make sure you test your presentation on friends and see what they get stuck on or confused by. So many times I’ve thought I’ve had it down, only to find out from a friend that an additional sentence here or there for context helped them connect the dots. This has been so illuminating!                                                          

Don’t Neglect Your Power Pose: It’s obvious (and thank you Amy Cuddy!) but body language is so important. I tend to move around when I talk. I make sure to always take a moment to root myself before beginning my presentation. I also find a couple of people on both sides of the audience to connect with in my first couple of sentences. Again, the adrenalin is running around and it’s important to feel connected and safe, in the room you’re in.

Slow It Down: I literally write and bold in neon on my notecards the words “PAUSE” or “BREATHE” before certain lines where, when I’ve practiced I tend to race ahead. It works about 97 per cent of the time but it’s a good reminder when the adrenalin is rushing or you get caught off by a sentence you’ve messed up in the moment.

Hello Control Freak, My Old Friend: I am a control freak and someone that feels they need to know their lines and prepare for every eventuality before getting up on stage. In this case, that part of me really helps with preparation. For my fellow control freaks, get to know your material so inherently well, that if someone picked a certain paragraph from your script you could do just that paragraph, alone, with no problem. Once you get to that point of knowing your script you can start to put real feeling and emotion into your words, and be able to pick up and respond live, to the energy and reactions in the room.

Improv For Improvement: On a separate note, I do think particularly for my hosting jobs, some improv classes would likely be very beneficial to loosening up and being prepared for things that inevitably come out of left-field. 

Be the Glue: Specific to hosting, it is important to remember that you are simply the glue keeping the session together, setting and resetting the tone and mood levels after each speaker. To me, the moment it becomes about the host it goes off kilter. Get to know your speakers, and figure out a way to set them up for a warm response on stage, without giving away anything about the talk itself.

It’s Not About You: More often that not with my work on the Audacious Project, the people I’m introducing on stage or presenting on are social entrepreneurs. Badass heroes that deserve all the funding and support in the world. What they do to make our world a better, more equitable place is beyond humbling. So when I get caught up in my own head about what to say, I bring it back to these people and the beneficiaries they’re serving. It helps root me, and give me the purpose needed to follow through.

Uplift Other Voices: As a woman, and as importantly a woman of colour, I am particularly focused on lifting up the voices of those that ordinarily do not speak up. Whatever the reason, be it related to their confidence or lack of perceived experience, or that they’re just more of an introvert and simply don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a room full of people, I actively seek out those opinions, especially in question time. 

Refresh with the Experts: TED’s curator and my boss Chris Anderson has written a book about public speaking but we are very adamant about saying there is no formula! Everyone has a different approach and needs to understand what’s best for them. The above are my personal tips and what’s helped me over the years. 

Chris Anderson and Anna Verghese speak at TED2018 Image credit: Bret Hartman / TED

Anna Verghese’s 3 Favourite Recent TED Talks

Stacey Abrams

Watch it here.

Like millions of others, I’ve been in awe of how she handled herself through her campaign. She gave a breathtaking talk at TEDWomen this year, sharing lessons on what she’s learned from her campaign for governor of Georgia, as well as some advice on how to change the world… hinting to her next steps. Stacey for President!

Ai-jen Poo

Watch it here.

I was introduced to Ai-jen’s incredible work at the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance (NDWA) through my dear friend and TEDWomen speaker Courtney Martin. What Ai-jen has spent her life’s work doing to both dignify and redefine the way we think about domestic work is the work of a true hero. I was so happy to see the TEDWomen crowd get as inspired and humbled by her work and purpose, as I have been over the years.

Eldra Jackson III

Watch it here

Formerly incarcerated, and having spent 24 years on a life sentence at Folsom State Prison in California, Eldra gave a stunningly powerful talk on how toxic masculinity victimizes both its targets and its perpetrators. With it, he offered hope, through a program he experienced in prison that helped him to break down the emotional barriers and challenge his notions of masculinity.