best practicesTop 5 TED Talk clichés you should avoid

by Briar Goldberg • November 12, 2020

This is my grandmother. We never met. But I’m told she was a delightful woman, who loved a good practical joke and used to soak cucumbers in the bathtub before turning them into pickles.

screen shot 2020 11 12 at 4 57 02 pm

I’ve decided to include this arbitrary information about my grandmother in the introduction of this blog to help me illustrate one of the most common clichés I see in so many speeches, presentations and even TED Talks. I call it “The Grandparent Intro.”

It’s not the actual information about my grandma that’s problematic. It’s the fact that The Grandparent Intro has been used so many times, by so many different speakers. That overuse is what turned it into a cliché. In fact, that’s actually the definition of what a cliché is: something that’s become so overly familiar and commonplace, that it’s lost its original meaning and/or power.

If you're a speaker trying to capture and hold the fleeting attention of your audience, commonplace is your mortal enemy. Clichés cause your message to lose it’s meaning, and when your message doesn’t mean anything your audience will stop listening. And, if your audience isn’t listening, what’s the point?

But fear not, mighty speaker, because in this post, you’ll learn about five of the most common clichés and how to avoid them!

Cliché Alert #1: Overused phrases and audience engagement tactics

Close your eyes and imagine a world where no speaker ever asks you to close your eyes and imagine anything! That would be a real win-win and help us not only survive, but thrive. Raise your hand if you agree.

Ok, I’m having a bit of fun here but make no mistake, these three sentences are full of some of the most common clichés. In fact, I’m willing to bet you’ve seen a presentation or webinar that included at least one of these cliché phrases (imagine a world, win-win, survive/thrive) or overused audience engagement tactics (close your eyes, raise your hand) in the last six months. That’s how common they are! This isn’t an exhaustive list, but the general rule is, if you’re writing a speech and a phrase is top of mind, it’s likely because it’s been used too often and should be avoided.

One way to check yourself is by thinking about how you would articulate something if you were having coffee with a close friend. We usually don’t use cliché phrases in casual conversation so, speaking to an audience like you would speak to a friend can keep you from falling into the cliché trap.

Cliché Alert #2: Predictable pre-story introductions

Well-told, relevant stories always add a bit of magic to speeches and presentations. But, over the last several years, it’s become a common practice for speakers to introduce stories before actually telling them! This is especially true for stories about individual people who serve as examples of a larger group or trend. Those introductions often sound something like this:

  • “Let me introduce you to Bob...
  • “I want to tell you a story about Milly…”
  • “This is Ayan..[picture of Ayan flashes on the screen]

This is a problem because the cliché tee-up might cause your audience to tune out before you’ve even had a chance to tell the story. So, instead, skip the tee-up and dive right in. If your story follows a solid narrative arc (setting → characters → conflict → climax → resolution) it will stand on its own.

Cliché Alert #3: Cliché slides

Yes, your slides can be clichés! Cheesy shutterstock images or slides that only include one word can make your speech or presentation feel very standard. For example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen both of these slides in presentations about public speaking.

screen shot 2020 11 12 at 4 56 37 pm

Here at TED, we think you should only use slides if they actually help your audience better understand what you’re trying to say or explain.

Cliché Alert #4: Famous Quotations

“It’s a good thing for an uneducated man to read a book of quotations”

-Winston Churchill (allegedly)

For a long time, using famous quotations was considered a great way to make speeches more interesting and dynamic. However, more often than not, famous quotes sneak their way into presentations and act more like place holders than actual content that enhances the audience’s experience. Not only that, but they often take up valuable space where the speaker could instead, share their own unique opinion or idea. What a missed opportunity! So, before including a quote, ask yourself if it will really help your audience better understand what you’re trying to communicate. If so, go for it! If not, replace the quote with an opinion or insight that is uniquely you.

Cliché Alert #5: Speaker-Centered Communication vs. Audience-Centered Communication

This is, perhaps, the most common and most dangerous cliché of all. So many speakers, especially those preparing TED-esque or motivational talks, often create entire presentations around speaking their own truths, finding their authentic voices or following their dreams. But sadly, the truth about “speaking your truth” is this: If the audience doesn’t understand how your truth applies to them, or what they get by learning about your dreams, they’ll tune out or quickly forget what you’ve said.

These are examples of what we call speaker-centered communications -they are very common and, therefore very cliché. Audience-centered communications, on the other hand, center the speech or presentation around the audience’s needs/hopes/expectations. To make sure you keep your audience at the center of your next speech or presentation, ask yourself this question before you start drafting your talking points:

  • Why has my audience taken time out of their busy days to listen to me speak?

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying you should avoid using personal stories or insights. I’m simply saying that those stories and insights must include something valuable for the audience.

Trust me, you can’t go wrong if you keep your audience at the center and avoid these common pitfalls. Doing so will make your next speech or presentation a real win-win. Raise your hand if you agree.

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Briar Goldberg

Briar is the Director of Speaker coaching at TED. Before joining the TED team, she was an executive communication coach and speechwriter who worked with CEOs and executives from several Fortune 100 companies. Briar believes effective communication is as much a science as it is an art and her two cents on communication and public speaking has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, The Muse, CNN and ABC News.

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