5 Great Talks You’ve Probably Never Heard

John Cleese

When it comes time to give examples of great talks, there are plenty of old standbys we reference regularly: President Reagan’s Challenger speech, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream, or David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, to name a few. But we’re always on the lookout for new talks that can illustrate the impact a world-class speaker can have on an audience. That’s why “Quantified’s Best Practices” is our favorite part of our biweekly newsletter. So we were thrilled to discover James Clear’s ongoing list, “Great Talks Most People Have Never Heard.

We combed through the list, taking in each of the talks he’d included. They ranged across industries and across decades, and each one of them was powerful and inspiring—both as communication fanatics and human beings.

Of course, given Quantified’s unique obsession with communication data, we were interested in understanding, quantitatively, what makes these talks great. So we picked a few of our favorites and used our AI-driven platform to analyze the content, delivery skills, and overall presence to measure exactly how these speakers were impacting their audiences, and why.

The results: Five best-in-class talks you may have missed, and what makes them great.

Art Williams: Do It. 1987

What It’s About

Art Williams, insurance executive and founder of Primerica Financial Services, spoke at the National Religious Broadcaster Convention about how to win in business. His premise: that while theory is all well and good, real success comes from character, passion, and the guts to “just do it.”

See folks, in trying to win in business you’re just going to have so many false starts. You think you get it going time after time, and you just get knocked back to ground zero. And it’s your ability to compete, to pick yourself up off the bat one more time, to go for it one more time, that’s going to determine success or failure. […]

See folks, I want you to know almost everybody in America almost does enough to win. They almost get there. They almost are over the hump. They almost have it going. They almost, in everything they do, almost is a way of life to almost everybody in America. But the winners do it.

What do they do? They do whatever it takes to get the job done. They do it, and do it, and do it, and do it, and do it, until the job gets done. […] We need leaders in America who can do it. If you want to become somebody, do it. If you want to go in business for yourself, do it. If you want to become financially independent, do it.

Why It’s Great

90 Tone & emotionIn this talk, Williams scores in the 90th percentile for his use of vocal tone and emotion, which reflects his own passion for his subject matter and helps him engage with and connect to his audience, as well. In business-related communication especially, it can be too easy to fall into a matter-of-fact, monotone vocal pattern that may get the message across but certainly doesn’t drive it home in any meaningful way. However, when speakers allow their emotions to play out through their voices, audiences are more likely to internalize, connect to, and remember the message.

JK Rowling: The Fringe Benefits of Failure. 2008

What It’s About

In her address to Harvard University graduates, Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, whose manuscript about a boy wizard was rejected twelve times before it was finally published, spoke about the fear of failure—and the power we have to touch others’ lives if we embrace that fear rather than allowing it to stifle us.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places. Of course, this is a power like my brand of fictional magic that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate or control just as much as to understand or sympathize. And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or peer inside cages. They can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally. They can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.  

Why It’s Great

90 PersonalizationRowling’s talk scores in the 90thpercentile for personalization. That is, it was clear that she had taken the time to understand who her audience was and what they were interested in, excited about, and concerned about, and tailored her speech to address those specific needs. Audiences can detect canned stump speeches right away, and when they realize speakers are talking at them, rather than tothem, they’ll tune out. But when speakers align their messages to address the cares of the audience, they feel validated, remember the speaker and the message better, and are more likely to be persuaded.

John Cleese: Creativity in Management. 1991

What It’s About

Funnyman John Cleese spoke at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel about how to nurture and hone creativity by keeping an open, rather than closed, state of mind.

Creativity is not a talent. It is not a talent, it is a way of operating […] You see when I say “a way of operating” what I mean is this: creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have […] We can usually describe the way in which people function at work in terms of two modes: open and closed.

So what I can just add now is that creativity is not possible in the closed mode. Let me explain a little. By the “closed mode” I mean the mode that we are in most of the time when at work. We have inside us a feeling that there’s lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we’re going to get through it all. It’s an active (probably slightly anxious) mode, although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable. It’s a mode in which we’re probably a little impatient, if only with ourselves. It has a little tension in it, not much humor. It’s a mode in which we’re very purposeful, and it’s a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic, but not creative.

By contrast, the open mode, is relaxed expansive less purposeful mode in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful. It’s a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.

Why It’s Great

93 Thought LeadershipCleese’s talk demonstrates a high level of thought leadership, meaning he went beyond the simple lecture method of regurgitating ideas and brought an impressive breadth and depth of context to his discussion. By incorporating historic research, present-day beliefs, and even future-looking ideas, along with his own interpretations of and claims about the academic literature, Cleese positioned himself as a credible, innovative expert on the topic at hand, leaving a lasting impression on his audience.

Nathan Myhrvold: Roadkill on the Information Highway. 1994

What It’s About

Twenty-four years ago, when the Internet was still in its early years, former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold lectured on how “information highway” would transform communications and networking as we knew them.

Sort of in a very general sense, man has been bound by physical proximity. We’ve been prisoners of the world’s geography, and the tyranny of geography has ruled our lives. Originally, this meant we could only communicate in a very small, local area. A series of things, transportation, the steam ship and railroads, shrank the world. […] Well, this technology’s going to shrink the world even more. And not only does it expand on the existing modes of communications, it allows fundamentally new things.

I can call anyone in the world, if I know their phone number, even in Albania, and more or less it’s going to go through. But I can’t meet people with similar interests. I can’t form virtual communities. I can’t say, “Gee, anyone who’s out there, who’s interested in buying a microscope, let’s get together and talk about it,” or, “Everyone who’s a real physics nut, let’s communicate.” Unless you know their specific numbers, you can’t get to them. The new modes of communication and the ability to shrink the world are going to change the way we think of things. It’s going to remove the tyranny of geography from human society and change our society enormously in the result.

Why It’s Great

94 confidenceMyhrvold’s confidence in this highly technical, future-forward talk scores in the top 6 percent, and while confidence is important for any speaker, it’s especially critical when a speaker is discussing topics that, for the audience, may be new and difficult-to-fathom. Sometimes when a speaker or his message doesn’t already have well-established credibility, confidence is the foundation of audience perception. Myrhvold’s detailed, certain language and self-assured delivery illustrate his confidence and help him keep the audience focused and engaged.

Randy Pausch: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. 2007

What It’s About

Less than a year before he died of liver cancer, Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch spoke to graduating seniors about achieving his childhood dreams and enabling others to do the same.

All right, so what is today’s talk about then? It’s about my childhood dreams. And how I’ve achieved them. I’ve been very fortunate that way. How I believe I’ve been able to enable the dreams of others. And to some degree, lessons learned. I’m a professor. There should be some lessons learned. And how you can use the stuff you hear today to achieve your dreams or enable the dreams of others. And as you get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others thing is even more fun.

So, what were my childhood dreams? Well, you know, I had a really good childhood. I mean, no kidding around. […] And it was an easy time to dream. I was born in 1960. Right? When you’re eight or nine years old and you look at the TV set and men are landing on the moon, anything is possible. And that’s something we should not lose sight of. Is that the inspiration and the permission to dream is huge.

So what were my childhood dreams? You may not agree with this list, but I was there. Being in zero gravity. Playing in the National Football League. Authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia. I guess you can tell the nerds early. Being Captain Kirk. […] I wanted to become one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park. And I wanted to be an Imagineer with Disney. These are not sorted in any particular order, although I do think they get harder, except for maybe the first one.

Why It’s Great

93 TrustworthinessNothing turns an audience off more quickly than a speaker who is spouting advice or recommendations without first indicating why they’re qualified to give it. Part of that is about building credibility, but an equally important part is about building trust. Pausch’s talk scores in the top 7 percent for trustworthiness, and that’s largely due to his incredible openness about his own experiences—his childhood dreams, his health, and his mind-set, then and now. He offers significant detail not only about what he’s done and what he believes, but also about what he hasn’t done and what he doesn’t believe. Pausch’s transparency, integrity, and authentic vulnerability position him as a trustworthy speaker, enabling him to more successfully engage and motivate his audience.

Featured image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lucvanbraekel/3046329439