Unlock the secrets to why TED Talks are irresistible: Talk #1 Simon Sinek

About 8 years ago, one of the first TED Talks I remember watching was Simon Sinek’s TED Talk titled ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’. I was so impressed by it at the time, I printed out a colour copy of his Golden Circle visual and sticky-taped it onto my desk next to my computer. Every day when I looked at it, I was reminded to start with why. I’ve watched the talk multiple times and each time it’s as enjoyable and powerful as the first time I watched it. I’m not alone either in my interest in this talk, it’s been viewed over 43,000,000 times.

I’ve been curious to analyse the most popular TED Talks for a while now and it was only fitting that I started with this talk first. So, if you have ever been curious about what makes this TED Talk so powerful, or if you’d just like some pointers that you can re-use in one of your talks, read on.

MY ANALYSIS OF SIMON SINEK’S ‘HOW GREAT LEADERS INSPIRE ACTION’ TED TALK (2009)

1. WHAT WAS HIS OBJECTIVE?

To inspire leaders and companies to start with why in order to influence their employees or customers to follow them or buy from them.

2. WHAT IS THE STRUCTURE OF HIS TALK?

Opening – He poses a series of hypothetical questions which make us think and gets us curious to find out why. He explains why he chose this topic and what he’ll talk about

Information Chunk #1 – What is ‘The Golden Circle’ – He introduces his concept about the Golden Circle and gives an example so we can relate to it.

  • 1.1 Introduces his idea, the Golden Circle
  • 1.2 Provides an example from Apple

Information Chunk #2 – Why the Golden Circle works – He explains the science behind the Golden Circle and provides a story about man-powered flight to bring it to life.

  • 2.1 Explains science behind why Golden Circle works
  • 2.2. Shares story of pursuit of powered-man flight

Information Chunk #3 – Benefits of Golden Circle – He explains why it’s important to attract those who believe what you believe and shares two stories to bring this to life.

  • 3.1. Explains the Law of Diffusion of Innovation and how it relates
  • 3.2. Shares two more stories to bring this to life

Closing – He closes by re-iterating why we follow those who start with why

3. WHAT ARE THE KEY THINGS HE DOES REALLY WELL?

His ‘idea’ is extremely simple – the Golden Circle doesn’t involve multiple steps or parts, which helps make this easy to understand and easy to remember
He leverages the power of storytelling – He explains the science behind his solution, but illustrates this by telling 3 stories of companies and leaders, to bring his idea to life in a relatable way
He surprises with his use of visual aid – he doesn’t have any slides at all, instead he uses a simple flip-chart very effectively
He relies on repetition to help his point stick – he repeats his key phrase “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” an incredible 8 times
He uses questions to promote curiosity – he asks a total of 18 questions throughout his talk (e.g. He opens with “How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions?”)
He infects his passion through his voice – he emphasises different words by modulating his voice and uses pauses effectively. By controlling his voice, he doesn’t say any ums and ahs.

If you’ve found this useful, I’d love to hear what your takeaways were in the comments below. I will be regularly breaking down my favourite TED Talks on here, so if you have a TED Talk you’d like analysed next, please let me know! I’m open to suggestions.

NOTE: INTERESTED IN THE FULL TALK?

If you haven’t ever seen it and would like to, you can watch the full 18 minute video here:

If you’re as nerdy as me and are keen to see the talk as it’s spoken, word for word (broken down into the structure I have highlighted above), here it is:

Opening

“How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example, why is Apple so innovative? Year after year after year after year, they are more innovative than all their competition and yet they are just a computer company. They’re just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants, the same media. Then why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement? He wasn’t the only man who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. He certainly wasn’t the only great orator of the day. Why him? And why is it that the Wright brothers we able to figure out control-powered man flight, when there were certainly other teams who were better qualified, better funded and they didn’t achieve control-powered man flight and the Wright brothers beat them to it. There’s something else at play here.”

About 3 and a half years ago, I made a discovery and this discovery profoundly changed my view on how I thought the world worked and it even profoundly changed the way in which I operate in it. As it turns out, there’s a pattern, all the great and inspiring leaders and organisations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers, they all think, act and communicate in the exact same way and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it and it’s probably the world’s simplest idea. l call it the Golden Circle.”

Information Chunk #1 – What is ‘The Golden Circle’

1.1 Introduces his idea, the Golden Circle

“Why, How, What. This little idea explains why some organisations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t. Let me define the terms really quickly. Every single person, every single organisation on the planet knows what they do, 100%. Some know how they do it. Whether you call it your differentiating value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very few people or organisations know why they do what they do. And by why I don’t mean to make a profit. That’s a result, that’s always a result. By why I mean what’s your purpose, what’s your cause, what’s your belief. Why does your organisation exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning and why should anyone care? Well as a result, the way we think, the way we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in. It’s obvious, we go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organisations, regardless of their size, regardless of their industry, all think act and communicate from the inside out.”

1.2 Provides an example from Apple

“Let me give you an example. I use Apple because they’re easy to understand and everyone gets it. If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this. “We make great computers, they’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?” Meh! And that’s how most of us communicate. That’s how most marketing is done, that’s how most sales are done and that’s how most of us communicate interpersonally. We say what we do, we say how we’re different or how we’re better and we expect some sort of behaviour, or purchase or vote or something like that. Here’s our new law firm, we have the best lawyers with the biggest clients, we always perform for our clients, do business with us. Here’s our new car, it gets great gas mileage, it has leather seats, by our car. But it’s uninspiring. Here’s how Apple actually communicates. “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one. Totally different right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me. All I did was reverse the order of the information. What it proves to us is that people don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it.

What it proves to us is that people don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This explains why every single person in this room is perfectly comfortable buying a computer from Apple. But we’re also perfectly comfortable buying an MP3 player from Apple, or a phone from Apple or a DVR from Apple. But as I said before, Apple is just a computer company, there is nothing that distinguishes them structurally from any of their competitors. Their competitors are all equally qualified to make all of these products. In fact they tried. A few years ago Gateway came out with flat screen TVs. They imminently qualified to make flat screen TVs. They’ve been making flat screen TV screen monitors for years. Nobody bought one. And Dell came out with MP3 players and PDAs. They made great quality products and perfectly well designed products and nobody bought one. In fact talking about it now we can’t even imagine buying an MP3 player from Dell. Why would anybody buy an MP3 player from Dell? Why would you buy an MP3 player from a computer company? But we do it every day.”

Information Chunk #2 – Why the Golden Circle works

2.1 Explains science behind why Golden Circle works

“People don’t buy what you do, then buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with every body who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. Here’s the best part. None of what I’m telling you is my opinion. It’s all grounded in the tenants of biology. Not psychology, biology. If you look at a cross section of the human brain, looking down what you see is the human brain is broke into 3 major components, that correlate perfectly with the Golden Circle. Our newest brain, our homosapian brain (our neocortex), corresponds with the what level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behaviour, all decision making and it has no capacity for language. In other words when we communicate from the outside in, yes people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits, facts and figures. It just doesn’t drive behaviour.

When we communicate from the inside out, we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that drives behaviour and then we allow people to rationalise it with the tangible things we say and do. This is where gut decisions come from, you know sometimes you can give somebody all the facts and the figures and they still say I know what the facts and details say but it just doesn’t feel right. Why would we use that verb ‘it doesn’t feel right?’ Because the part of the brain that controls decision making doesn’t control language and the best we can muster up is ‘I don’t know it just doesn’t feel right’. Or sometimes you say you’re leading with your heart or you’re leading with your soul.

Well I hate to break it to you. Those aren’t other body parts controlling your behaviour. It’s all happening here in your limbic brain, the part of the brain that controls decision making and not language. But if you don’t know why you do what you do and people respond to why you do what you do, then how will you ever get people to vote for you or buy something from you or more importantly be loyal and want to be a part of what it is that you do.

Again, the goal is not to sell to people who need what you have, it’s to sell to the people who believe what you believe. The goal is not just to hire people who need a job, it’s to hire people who believe what you believe. I always say that if you hire people just because they can do a job they will work for your money. But if you hire people that believe what you believe then they’ll work for you with blood, sweat and tears.”

2.2. Shares story of pursuit of powered-man flight

“Nowhere else is there a better example of this than the Wright brothers. Most people don’t know about Samuel Pierpont Langley and back in the early 20th Century the pursuit of powered-man flight was like the dot com of the day, everybody was trying it. And Samuel Pierpont Langley had what we assume to be the recipe for success. I mean even now when you ask people why did your product or why did your company fail and people always give you the same permutation of the same 3 things. Undercapitalised, the wrong people, bad conditions. It’s always the same 3 things. So let’s explore them. Samuel Pierpont Langley was given $50,000 by the war department to figure out this flying machine. Money was no problem. He held a seat at Harvard and worked at Smithsonian and was extremely well connected. He knew all the big minds of the day. He hired the best minds money could find and the market conditions were fantastic. The New York times followed him around everywhere and everyone was rooting for Langley. Then how come we’ve never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?

A few hundred miles away in Dayton Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright had none of what we consider to be the recipe for success. They had no money, they paid for their dream from the proceeds of their bicycle shop. Not a single person on the Wright brothers team had a college education, not even Orville or Wilbur and the New York Times followed them around … nowhere. The difference was, Orville and Wilbur, were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine it would change the course of the world.

Samuel Pierpont Langley was different. He wanted to be rich and he wanted to be famous. He was in pursuit of the result. He was in pursuit of the riches. And low and behold look what happened. The people who believed in the Wright brothers dream worked with them for blood and sweat and tears. The others just worked for the pay check. And they tell stories about how every time the Wright brothers went out they would have to take 5 sets of parts because that’s how many times they would crash before they came in for supper. And eventually on December 17th 1903, the Wright brothers took flight. And no-one was even there to experience it. We found out about it a few days later.

And further proof that Langley was motivated by the wrong thing. The day the Wright brothers took flight, he quit. He could have said, that’s an amazing discovery guys and I will improve upon your technology. But he didn’t. He wasn’t first, he didn’t get rich, he didn’t get famous, so he quit. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe in what you believe.”

Information Chunk #3 – Benefits of Golden Circle

3.1. Explains the Law of Diffusion of Innovation and how it relates

“But why is it important to attract those who believe what you believe? Something called the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. And if you don’t know the Law, you definitely know the terminology. The first 2.5% of our population are our innovators. The next 13.5% of our population are our early adopters. The Next 34% are the early majority, your late majority and your laggards. The only reason these people buy touch tone phones is because you can’t buy rotary phones anymore. We all sit at various places at various times on this scale but the Law of Diffusion & Innovation is if you want mass market success or mass market acceptance of an idea, you cannot have it until you achieve this tipping point between 15 and 18% market penetration and then the system tips. I love asking new businesses what’s your conversion rate and they love to tell you it’s about 10% proudly, well you can trip over 10% of your customers. We all have about 10% who just get it. That’s how we describe them. Right, that’s just like that gut feeling, they just get it.

Your problem is how do you find the ones who just get it before you’re doing business with them, versus the ones who don’t get it. So, it’s this here, this little gap that you have to close as Geoffrey Moore calls it crossing the chasm. Because you see the early majority, will not try something, until someone else has tried it first. And these guys, the innovators and the early adopters, they’re comfortable making those gut decisions. They’re more comfortable making those intuitive decisions that are driven by what they believe about the world and not just what product is available. These are the people who stood inline for 6 hours to buy an iPhone when they first came out. When you could have just walked into the store the next week and bought one of the shelf. These are the people who spend $40,000 on flat screen TVs when they first came out even though the technology was sub-standard. And by the way they didn’t do it because the technology was so great, they did it for themselves. It’s because they wanted to be first.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe. In fact people will doo the things that prove what they believe. The reason that person bought the iPhone in the first 6 hours and stood in the line for 6 hours was of because what they believed about the world and how they wanted everyone to see them. They were first. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

3.2. He shares two more stories to bring this to life.

“So let me give you a famous example. A famous failure and a famous success of the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. First the famous failure. It’s a commercial example. As we said before a second ago, the recipe for success is money and the right people and market conditions right? You should have success then. Look at TiVo. Right from the time TiVo came out about 8 or 9 years ago, to this current day, they are the single highest quality product on the market. Hands down, there is no dispute. They were extremely well funded, market conditions were fantastic, mean we use TiVo as a verb. I ‘TiVo’ stuff on my piece of junk Time Warner DVR all the time.

But TiVo’s a commercial failure. They’ve never made money and when they went IPO, their stock was at about $30 or $40 and then it plummeted and it’s never traded above $10. In fact I don’t think it’s even traded above $6, except for a couple of little spikes. Because you see when TiVo launched their product, they told us all what they had. They said ‘we have a product that pauses live tv, skips commercials, rewinds live tv and memorises your viewing habits without you even asking’ and the cynical majority said ‘we don’t believe you, we don’t need it, we don’t like it, you’re scaring us’. What if they had said ‘if you’re the kind of person who likes to have total control, over every aspect of your life, boy do we have a product for you. It pauses life tv, skips commercials, memorises your viewing habits etc etc. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.

Now let me give you a successful example of the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up to on the mall in Washington to hear Dr King speak. They sent out no invitations and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well Dr King wasn’t the only man in America who was a great orator. He wasn’t the only man in America who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. In fact, some of his ideas were bad. But he had a gift. He didn’t go around telling people what people needed to change in America, he went around and told people what he believed. ‘I believe, I believe, I believe’, he told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause and they made it their own and they told people and some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And low and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day, at the right time, to hear him speak. How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves.

It’s what they believed about America that got them to travel on a bus for 8 hours to stand in the sun in Washington in the middle of August. It’s what they believed and it wasn’t about black vs white. 25% of the audience was white. Dr King believed there were 2 types of laws in this world. Those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by man. And not until al the laws that are made by man are consistent with the laws made by the higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happens that the civil rights movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life. We followed him not for him but for ourselves. And by the way he gave the I have a dream speech, not the I have a plan speech.”

Closing

“I listen to politicians now with their comprehensive 12 point plans, they’re not inspiring anybody. Because there are leaders and then there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority. But those who lead inspire us, whether they’re individuals or organisations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with why who have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.

Thank you very much”