How to Own the Room | Stephen Webb Ted Talk Tips

By Mar 13, 2019 April 5th, 2019 Ted Talk Tips

I adore watching Ted Talks, and as a Communications Coach, I also like to break them down. I love to learn what the speaker has to say, and I love to analyze how they could say it better. So, let’s look at “Where are all the Aliens” by Stephen Webb. Stephen demonstrates, above all, how to own the room.

The content is fascinating—I really like geeking out over science. The content matter of this talk, in particular, blew my mind. Stephen provides many facts, figures, and numbers that would not have packed such a punch with me and the several million viewers he has gained if he wasn’t such a good speaker.

Let’s look at how he owns the room.

Strength: Use of Gestures

Stephen is WONDERFUL at what we, here at Executive Speaking, like to call “image gestures.” Image gestures illustrate the concept the speaker is trying to get across. They add dimensions and power to communication.


At 2:07, when Stephen is talking about representing the age of the universe by one year, he uses both hands spread apart—then brings them close together—this gesture is adding an image to what he is speaking about. He is SHOWING us the length of one year.


Image Gestures add an extra layer to communication. Using Image Gestures allows a speaker to own the room.

Strength: Provides relevant examples

Stephen is also great at providing examples the audience can relate to. For those of us who are new to all the astronomer talk—he breaks this down in a way we get.


Stephen talks about the age of the universe as being a calendar year, and he says, “our species came into being about 12 minutes before midnight.” Suddenly my mind is blown, and I’m actually relating to the complex math although I’m not an astronomer.


Using relevant examples helps the audience understand complexities and remember the details even more because the audience can RELATE. When a speaker uses relevant examples, they own the room.

Now let’s look at opportunities to own the room even more:

Opportunity: Getting beyond monotone

An area of opportunity for Stephen would be to vary his vocal pattern. He needed to have more variety, or contrast, in his sound. More contrast in his voice would have added even more engagement.


Stephen has such a soothing voice. It is very easy to listen to him; however, his voice always sounds the same. With this lack of contrast, I found my mind at times drifting in and out from the talk even though the content was very engaging. I would have liked to have heard different sounds at the beginning—then perhaps when he was delivering the message that we may indeed be alone in the universe—this would be a time to use that smooth sound pattern because that, if true, is a shocking message.


Getting beyond monotone helps the speaker own the room.

Opportunity: Asking questions

Another opportunity would be to really ASK questions.


Stephen poses a wonderful question about seeing alien activity at 1:39 and asks, “we should see them, shouldn’t we?” but he moves on too quickly. As an audience member, I don’t have the time to really think about this question.

I often feel robbed when speakers don’t pause after profound questions because I don’t have time to think about the answer or get excited for the speaker to provide the answer. If he would have used the rule of a 3-second pause it would have made his next point SO much more impactful. My thought process should go like this:

Stephen asks the question “we should see them (aliens) shouldn’t we?” and I think…well, yeah, we should, why haven’t we…wait, have I missed them? Have they been here? What am I missing? TELL ME STEPHEN! But Stephen went too fast to the next point, so I had no time to care about his answer.


The impact of asking the audience the question is the speaker will have a higher level of attention and retention that helps them own the room.


Now like I said, this was a wonderful talk and was voted one of the best TED talks of 2018 for a reason, but even the best can get better at owning the room. We at Executive Speaking are committed to helping even the best get better. If you would like to translate these insights into action, we invite you to explore Leadership Speaking Bootcamp.

©2019 Executive Speaking, Inc

Executive Speaking

Author Executive Speaking

Anett Grant has 40 years of coaching top executives, leaders, and emerging leaders from 61 of the Fortune 100 companies, as well as countless midmarket and small businesses from all over the world.

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