Talk Anatomy: How to speak up for yourself by Adam Galinksy

In each "Talk Anatomy" post I take a popular talk, dissect what makes it work, and extract lessons to help you hone your own persuasive powers.

I recently got an email from recommending Adam Galinsky’s talk - “How to speak up for yourself” - delivered at TEDxNewYork.

15 delightful minutes later, I wasn’t at all surprised that TED picked this one out of thousands to send to my inbox (and place onto its front page).

Watch it yourself, or jump straight into the analysis below. 

The Structure

Here’s the structure that Galinsky used to organise his talk: 

Strength #1: Strongly logical and engaging structure

This structure is a TED staple that’s been used by thousands of speakers without becoming boring and trite. Why? Because it works.

First, it moves constantly between different types of content - from story to question, then to theory, followed by advice, backed up by research, etc.

Every 2-3 minutes it shifts gear. This keeps the audience engaged because monotony - whether in voice or content - simply puts us to sleep.

Well-cited research by John Medina finds that our attention span rarely survives the 10-minute mark. Every 10 minutes, something must happen to “reset” our attention. (In my experience, 10 minutes is overly generous)

Changing content type can be that reset button.

If you expound on a theory for 7+ minutes, audience heads will lower. Shift to a story or an exercise, though, and you’ll keep their heads up and their eyes on you.

*The structure is also strongly logical. Take another look at the order of things:

  1. Stories to get us engaged
  2. Questions to get us thinking
  3. Framework to help us think about the question
  4. Key message to focus our attention on what matters the most
  5. Tools for us to apply to our own lives
  6. Conclusion to tie everything up

Whenever you want to help people think about and solve a thorny question, this is a superb way to organize your talk.


Strength #2: A framework to see the world

A great grad school professor (who sadly passed away) once told my public policy class that the most powerful tool in persuasion is to frame the debate

Example: Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump put enormous energy into framing what the election was all about. If you asked Clinton, it was to prevent a dangerous man from wrecking America (and the world). If you asked Trump, it was about overthrowing the elites to make America great again. One of them won, but both were great efforts.

Give people facts and opinions, and they might forget or reject them.

But give people a framework to see the world, and you shape how they interpret any fact they’re given.

Galinsky gave us the below framework to think about what we say & do in society:


Whatever situation we find ourselves in - should I correct my boss? Should I scold my friend’s child? - we can filter them through this framework.

Then Galinsky told us that these ranges expand and contract, depending on how much power we have: 


This is a beautifully simple and intuitive framework that we can immediately apply to our lives, and that is essential.

The framework you provide must be simple, intuitive and applicable.


Strength #3: Minimalist slide design, with purposeful animation

Notice that this framework isn’t just simple and intuitive, it’s also visual - and thus lends itself to elegant and simple slide design: few colors, flat shapes, sans serif words, and zero additional adornments. 

Every word and shape on screen has a purpose. This puts minimal strain on our over-worked brains, allowing us to focus on Galinsky’s narration.

Notice, as well, that the few animations he used are extremely purposeful - such as this one at the 5:58 mark: 


It feels entirely natural, and not something designed to spice up a vapid talk.


How I'd improve his talk

The first half of Galinsky's talk was, by any measure, outstanding. The second half could have been stronger, however.

Here's why: In the 2nd half, he introduced no fewer than 7 tools to help us expand our range of acceptable behaviour, within 7.5 minutes.

That’s a LOT to cram into a sliver of time.

Please remember this: when you introduce new points in your presentation, you owe your audience the following service:

  1. Define it clearly and concisely
  2. Make it concrete with an example, story, exercise, research, etc.
  3. Conclude solidly by tying it back to the main point or with a call to action (or a “what this means for you is...")

This takes time, which Galinsky didn’t give to all 7 of the tools. For instance, here’s what he said about the tool "displaying expertise":

“Expertise gives us credibility. Now, when we have high power, we already have credibility, we only need good evidence. When we lack power, we don’t have good credibility, we need excellent evidence."

That was it. ALL of it, within 15 seconds.

Nothing to make it concrete, and no conclusion.

Sure, most of us know what "display expertise" means... kind of. But if you stop there and don't flesh it out with something interesting, nobody will remember it.

Contrast this with what he said about the “perspective-taking” tool:

  • He told us what it is: “It’s looking at the world through the eyes of another person”.
  • He made it extra concrete with an exercise AND a story
  • He concluded by re-iterating what perspective-taking can do for us

That took two minutes, and that's the point.

Because you need proper time to flesh out and round out each of your points, you can't bring too many of them into a short talk.

Galinsky actually stopped at the 15 minute mark, so he could've given three minutes to stories or examples to make the tools stronger and more memorable.

I would've advised him to do that, or better: to cut down on the number of tools to talk about. When it comes to persuasion, sometimes, subtraction really is addition.

Other issues: Terms in the talk also could've been better defined. For instance, early on he said it was all about power, but while discussing the tools he kept repeating assertive and likeable. So perhaps the key message should be "power AND likability". Also, the 2nd tool - "perspective-taking" - seemed an awful lot like the 1st tool - "advocating for others", so perhaps the two could be combined. When your terms blend into one another, 

In sum

If your purpose is to help people think about an issue, give this structure a try:

  1. Get them interested - such as with story or exercise
  2. Get them curious - by putting the question to them
  3. Give them a framework - to change how they think about the question
  4. Give them a focus - tell them what the key element is
  5. Give them tips and action - so they can put it into practice
  6. Conclude and accept the applause

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