Moving Speakers with “Mentor TEDs”


Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 8.04.44 PMEarly March is Optimist Club Oratorical Contest season in the freshman English classes at my school. Since our local Optimist Club chapter hosts its regional meet at our school in April, my department decided long ago to make the annual oratorical contest a component of our freshman speech unit. The prompts for the oratorical contest are intentionally (though sometimes intimidatingly) broad; for example, this year’s competition asks speakers to discuss “How My Best Brings Out the Best in Others.”

While it’s easy to identify the real-world value of learning how to speak comfortably in front of a large group, it is harder for me to explain when, in real life, students might be called upon to speak for five minutes about the benefits of doing their best. Thank goodness for TED Talks. The success I’ve had with using mentor texts to teach writing has led me to look for mentor speeches. As I explained to my freshmen earlier this week, TED Talks offer real-world (and really popular!) examples of the kind of expository speaking the Optimist Oratorical Contest requires. Though I know my technique of using TED Talks to teach speech might not be anything new, I’d like to share four great “Mentor TEDs” that inspire my students. For each example, “Speaking Moves” are the hallmarks of good speakers or good speechwriters.

Mentor TED #1: “Got a Meeting? Take a Walk”  by Nilofer Merchant

Speaking Moves Demonstrated:

  • Shocking opening statement
  • Clear thesis
  • Mixing research with personal anecdote
  • Natural posture and gestures
  • Clever transition

I like using Merchant’s speech because her opening line, “What you are doing, right now, at this very moment, is killing you,” grabs the audience’s attention and makes her speech immediately relevant. Merchant also demonstrates how one can be both relaxed and professional when speaking. Public speaking sometimes causes students to abandon their own voices in favor of the voice they think listeners want to hear. Merchant seems at ease with herself and her voice on stage. The savviest writers in my room liked Merchant’s winking conclusion about connecting the “tush” to her “bottom line”; that bit gets a laugh from the crowd, but it’s also a great example of circular speechwriting.

Mentor TED #2: “Why Lunch Ladies Are Heroes” by Jarret Krosoczka

Speaking Moves Demonstrated:

  • Open with a story/anecdote
  • Humor
  • Eye contact
  • Engaging visual aid
  • Making a personal moment universal

I dare your heart not to melt at Krosoczka’s photos of grade school students paying tribute to

their smiling school lunch staff. Every time I watch this talk, I want to initiate a School Lunch Hero Day at my school! Krosoczka, an author, understands how to unspool a story, and he mixes humor and heart very well. Krosoczka’s last few lines transform his personal story of making his lunch lady a hero into a reminder of the universal power of a thank-you.

Mentor TED #3: “The Danger of Silence” by Clint Smith

Speaking Moves Demonstrated:

  • Open with a quote
  • Parallel structure
  • Using speed and stress for dramatic effect
  • Using vivid metaphors, alliteration, and other poetic techniques in speechwriting (“gut-wrench guillotine your tongue”)
  • Effective gestures
  • Speaking with sincerity and conviction

“The Danger of Silence” is a great introduction to spoken word poetry. While my students might not demonstrate Smith’s musicality in their Optimist Oratorical Contest speeches, they can follow his example of speaking from the heart, sharing difficult stories, and using effective gestures to communicate ideas (watch what he does with his arms when talking about being “wrapped up” in indecision).

Mentor TED #4: “Life Lessons from a Volunteer Firefighter” by Mark Bezos

Speaking Moves Demonstrated:

  • Open with a story/anecdote
  • Effective gestures (“I’m no hero” pose)
  • Natural posture
  • Conversational yet professional tone
  • Making a personal moment universal
  • Effective visual aid
  • Linked introduction and conclusion

I marvel at how smoothly Bezos transforms his story about begrudgingly saving a pair of shoes from a fire into a challenge for listeners to start changing the world now, little bit by little bit. Bezos, like Krosoczka, is a great storyteller whose style would be easy for some of my students to emulate.

Since the Optimist Oratorical Contest speeches cannot exceed five minutes, I used the TED website to filter speeches by duration. All of these speeches can be found in the “0-6 minutes” category.  I also chose these mentor TEDs because each of them is accompanied by a transcript on the TED website. Students can make “mentor TED noticings” about speech delivery simply by watching and listening, and they can study the craft of speechwriting by reading the transcripts and highlighting their noticings.

This year, my students and I used the mentor TEDs as a springboard for our speech unit; once they knew what their Optimist Club Oratorical Contest speeches could look and sound like (minus visual aids–those aren’t allowed in the contest), students were eager to get started and seemed less intimidated by the idea of speaking in front of the class.

Not teaching a speech unit but still interested in using mentor TEDs? Here are some other ways to use mentor speeches in your classroom:

  • If you’re studying rhetoric or argumentative writing, print the TED talk transcripts and ask students to identify where speakers employ pathos, ethos, and logos. Then, watch the TED talks to see how speakers use their voices and bodies to communicate those approaches to argument.
  • Use the TED website “Search by Topic” feature to find two or three speeches about the same topic; students can practice comparative analysis and evaluation by reviewing the speeches and determining which is most convincing and why.
  • Ask students to submit a mentor TED and their list of mentor TED noticings from that speech. Once all students have selected a mentor TED, the class could discuss “the anatomy of a TED talk” analyzing their many mentor TEDs to determine how a TED talk works. (The TED website might even have a feature about this topic–it’s worth taking a few minutes to explore the site!)
  • Supplement your collection of mentor TEDs with YouTube videos from the National Forensics League and National Catholic Forensics League. Some of my best high school memories come from my time on the forensics team. I competed in Original Oratory, and few things delight me as much as a well-written oration. (I’m a speech nerd and proud of it!) Searching for “NFL Original Oratory Finalists” on YouTube yields a host of impressive speeches from high school students across the country, including “Punchline” by Josh Gad (yes, that “Olaf from Frozen” Josh Gad). Competing in Original Oratory taught me how to write argumentatively; the recognizable pattern that most orations follow might help your students improve their argumentative writing, too.

How do you use TED Talks in your classroom? What are your best strategies for teaching speech? What are your favorite “mentor TEDs”?  Please tweet me @msjochman or reply in the Comments section below.



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