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Teach Your Class Like a TED® Talk

Use basic rhetorical appeals to keep participants present and engaged.

If you've ever watched a TED Talk, you've spent 18 minutes wrapped in a message presented by a credible, passionate and often entertaining speaker. TED Talk messages are motivating and thought‐provoking. Have you ever considered that engaging TED Talks have a lot in common with engaging group fitness classes? If not, this article will change your mind!

The TED Concept and Group Fitness

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks are organized by a nonprofit that started in 1984 and is devoted to spreading ideas in the form of short, powerful presentations. The recipe for an intriguing TED Talk easily transfers to a group fitness workout. Think about it: Popular TED Talks are passionate, entertaining and educational. So are successful group fitness classes! People leave smiling and feeling inspired. They take the nuggets of information home and, hopefully, use them to lead healthier lifestyles. TED Talks feel seamless, and they are professionally delivered. Top‐ranked instructors make difficult workouts seem effortless through precise, professional delivery (as in TED Talks, no one sees the behind‐the‐scene hours of planning and preparation). TED Talk speakers often use simple visuals to convey their messages, while winning instructors do the same by peppering their workouts with colorful words and stories.

The concept of teaching your class like a TED Talk applies best to nonchoreographed classes, although the idea has broader application if you tap into communication theory and leverage the skills that TED Talk speakers have used for years. When you deliver a message, your goal is to inspire people to open their minds and change their ways; you're seeking to influence their day‐to‐day lives. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, father of modern rhetoric, argued that an influential message must be delivered with credibility (ethos), solid organization (logos) and authentic emotion (pathos). Here's how to put this success formula into action for your next class.

Showcase Your Credibility

Credibility is your invisible label, the "brand" that people think of when they hear your name. Some retail brands are literally people's names, but in the fitness industry your brand is your reputation, your word and the integrity of your actions. The following are a few ways to showcase your credibility.

Be authentic. An authentic teaching style develops gradually. Take time to find your true voice and develop your own brand. Are you the welcoming educator, the athletic background coach, the fun party creator or the drill sergeant? In order for people to follow and trust you, your persona must align with your personality and experience.
Everyone is different, and if club management is smart, they'll recruit a variety of instructor brands to populate the schedule and appeal to different member types.

Share your experience and expertise. Members want to know that their instructor values professional development, takes the time to design classes thoughtfully and invests in continuing education. Don't be afraid to mention a recent trip to a conference and share nuggets of knowledge you gained from it, talk about studying for an upcoming certification, share information about a recent industry publication or refer to examples from years past that highlight your valuable tenure.

Use credible language and imagery. If you're teaching a specific sports format (rowing, cycling, running or sports conditioning), keep your verbal images authentic to the activity. I can tell when indoor cycling instructors have never been on an outdoor bike by the way they cue terrain or gear changes. If you want to be a believable cycling instructor, get a feel for being on the road while tackling gear changes on hills and shifting your weight when sprinting downhill. If you're coaching a demanding set of intervals, be sure you've done them yourself and communicate the intensity accurately. For example, if you truly are asking your crew to do an all‐out "empty the tanks" interval, then don't follow up with another three.

Stay in your lane. When someone asks you a question in class, it's okay to admit that you don't have all the information. In many cases, you may be the connector or the information facilitator. It's always safe to say, "Here's what I do know; here's what I don't know. Here's someone I can connect you with to find out, or here's what you can do to learn more." If you say you'll follow up, keep your word and do it. This also builds credibility. When people believe and trust you, they'll follow you. Present ethos with your words and actions.

Convey a Logical Message

In today's technologically driven world, information comes from many directions. Messages are easily lost in translation or in the static of the audience's mind. When you start a group fitness class, you obviously have a plan, but how you communicate that plan is critical to the member experience. In a TED Talk, you always hear the main theme of the message within the first 2 minutes. It's usually blended into a story or an attention‐getting fact. The theme is shared early on so you get a sense of where the speaker is going with that message.

Here are some ways to solidify the logos, or logical appeal, of your class so that it better resembles the road map of a successful TED Talk.

Plan the first 60 seconds. Always open with energy and enthusiasm. Start with a "hook" that relates to the class theme. This can be a rhetorical question, a statement or a humorous line that gets the attention of members but also connects to your main message. For example, if you're working on extensive intervals in your cycling class, it would be appropriate to lower the intro music as everyone enters and say, "Endurance is about being able to do the tougher stuff for longer. Good morning, everyone! I invite you to work on some of that tough stuff today."

Make it about them. No matter what class you're teaching, a well‐planned message should always include the WIIFM ("What's in it for me?"). People are more likely to buy into a workout that's designed to help them with something specific. When you share that early on, you'll get the members' attention and be clearer.

Separate the forest from the trees. No matter what class you teach, find a way to distinguish between the big picture (the forest) and the details (the trees). "Today we're doing three main sets. The second one will be the toughest of the three." This preview sets the stage, but it also sneaks in a message on energy expenditure so that attendees can gauge their expectations accordingly. I have seen instructors stand in front of their class listing the entire workout down to the minutiae; but I've also seen the opposite, where members wonder what the next 60 minutes will be about.

Design for flawless following. In business presentations, we coach speakers to preview, review and transition smoothly so audiences can follow along. This applies beautifully to coaching‐style classes. Separate your class into a few segments. The magic number for retention is usually three, according to creativity and mind‐mapping specialist Philippe Packu (Buskes & Packu 2014). For example, in an Indo‐Row® class, after the warm‐up and the pressure test, preview the first wave by describing intensity, time and any other details. After the first wave, review it by saying, "Well done with the first longer wave. Now, could you push out higher power if you had shorter intervals to work with? That's coming up next."

When members know the game plan for their workout, they're more likely to give you their best. Even though this may all seem simple, challenge yourself by sketching out your class in several compartments. Think through the transitions and the overall flow.

Evoke Emotion

UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian's primary research in the 1970s revealed that the meaning of a message depends heavily on nonverbals. A message is communicated 93% through body language and tone of voice, and is based only 7% on words (Mehrabian 2007). One‐on‐one or group coaching is all about that: emotion! All highly ranked TED Talks involve emotional appeals. Here's how you can bring those appeals to life in your class.

Strategize your eye contact. Whether your class uses a stationary machine (bike, rower, treadmill, etc.) or a variety of equipment, face‐to‐face connection is invaluable. Too many instructors face the mirror, thinking they're making instruction seamless. Personable instructors visually connect with their audiences. They scan the rows comfortably, yet they make intentional eye contact with as many people as they can.

Vary your gestures and personal space. Although nonverbal communication varies from person to person, the more space instructors cover in the room, either by moving about or by using their bodies to communicate, the more expressive they are perceived to be. No matter the room or equipment design, walk the floor, connect with members and give them your personal attention.

Choose language wisely. Although words are secondary to nonverbals, you can be intentional with your choice and design. Use alliteration ("a powerful pose"); repetition ("a movement that builds energy, a movement that builds grit, a movement that builds balance"); or antithesis ("a 2‐minute segment that doesn't give you breath, but a 2‐minute breath that gives you focus"). If your class allows for metaphors or visuals, use them! If humor is context‐appropriate, use that too. If there's space to close with a story, then by all means tap into the heaviest hitter in emotional language: storytelling.

Pause with purpose. The more mindfully centered your class is (indoor cycling, yoga, Pilates or flow‐type classes), the more appropriate it is to pause. Public speakers who command attention in a room pause at the end of a sentence and let people absorb the meaning of their words. Pausing allows members to think, allows you to slow your pace and demonstrates your comfort with silence. It fluctuates the overall volume of your speech and creates a dynamic flow. It also slows down and adds variety to the typical speech rate tempo of 150–200 syllables per minute. As we see with political speeches, the more important the message, and the larger the audience, the longer the pause


Use sticky language. In their award‐winning book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive While Others Die (Random House 2007), Chip Heath and Dan Heath promote the power of "sticky language." Sticky language always involves emotion, which is why we say that "people may not remember what you said, but they remember how you made them feel."

Credibility, Logic, Emotion

To teach your class like a TED Talk, start by using the basic rhetorical appeals of credibility, logic and emotion, which apply to any kind of message. Practice your craft, get feedback from a trusted colleague (see the sidebar for a checklist), and videotape and audiotape yourself—while looking for the three pillars of influence developed thousands of years before anyone wore a microphone or exercised intentionally.

This article is an off‐shoot of the session "Schwinn® Cycling: Teaching Tips From TED®—Noble to Noteworthy," which the author co‐presents with master trainer Jeffrey Scott. Catch the session at the IDEA® World Convention this year in Las Vegas, July 19–23.




Buskes, H., & Packu, P. 2014. A practical mind map tester. Accessed Dec. 1, 2016. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/a-practical-mind-map-tester/id808255491?mt=11.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. 2007. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive While Others Die. New York: Random House.

Mehrabian, A. 2007. Communication without words. In C.D. Mortensen (Ed.), Communication Theory (2nd ed., pp. 193-200). London: Transaction Publishers.

Tatiana Kolovou, MBA

Tatiana A. Kolovou, MBA, started her professional journey as a health educator and became an organizational development trainer, public speaker, university professor and executive communication coach. She is a faculty member for the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and the owner of Ethos Fitness, a boutique fitness studio in Bloomington, Indiana. She is also an ACSM-EP professional and a veteran master trainer for Schwinn® cycling, a Core Health & Fitness brand. Find her courses on LinkedIn Learning or reach her at [email protected]

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