In the days of tweets, apps and ‘multi-tasking’ and singing animals going viral on YouTube, who’d have thought that a series of learning focused ‘lectures’ called 'TED Talks' (of all things) would have been watched 500 million times (June 2011), in every corner of the world?
Yet it’s true. TED.com - a place that’s unashamedly about intelligent ideas - has achieved extraordinary success in spreading inspiration and has permanently raised the bar for public speakers.
In 1984, when the first TED Conference was held, the rest of us mortals were stuck in conferences and meeting rooms, listening to a dolly mixture of speakers ranging in quality from the distinctly average, to the downright awful. Powerpoint joined the scene in the 1990s, only adding to the torment of audiences. Of course public speakers shone here and there, but there was no workable way to share those inspired moments with others.
It wasn’t until 2006 with Chris Anderson at the helm and a shiny internet platform under foot, that TED Talks as we know them emerged. By the end of 2006, their talks had reached 2 million viewers. By 2009, that number had leapt to 200 million.
The TED format and its speakers have too come a long way from the first talks in 1984, when Nicholas Negroponte opened his speech; which was mainly directed at his lectern and notes, rather than his audience; with the inspiring line, “In this rather long, marathon sort of presentation…” (a rather neatly edited version is available here).
And in less than a decade, TED.com has completely changed the game for public speakers, spokespeople, campaigners and influencers. Here’s what’s shifted:
A book I bought recently listing the greatest speakers of all time was almost exclusively made up of public figures: political leaders, activists and business leaders (with the odd celebrity thrown in). This is no surprise. To be deemed a brilliant speaker you must have an audience and until recently you usually had to be in some way 'famous' to be listened to.
But look again in ten years and how many of the greatest speakers will be TED Talkers? Perhaps they’ll be humble storytellers like Chimamanda Adichie, or inspired scientists like Jill Bolte-Taylor or mathematical magicians like Arthur Benjamin; all of whose talks have been viewed more than Bill Clinton or David Cameron or Bill Gates’ TED Talks.
TED shows us that anyone can reach public speaking renown and that deeds are now overtaking public position as an indicator of who we should listen to.
In the recent round of TED auditions, the organisers warned against “…jargon-junkies, dullards, wafflers, motivator wannabes… and spouters of new-age fluff.” Much more than the speaker’s reputation; the gloss they put on their delivery; or even the choice of subject matter, a clear, intelligent idea is what TED Talks have come to offer.
It’s this focus on content over form that has lead to a merciful lack of ‘professional’ public speakers at TED who might otherwise prowl around the stage firing out buzz phrases and carefully manicured stories to put across a generally ‘motivational’ sort of message.
No, the idea is King and everything else that happens on stage is in service of that idea.
The idea, as the monarch of the performance, must be set on a throne. We must see him in all his splendour. We must show his legitimate right to reign through evidence – anecdotal, or, better still for TED fans, scientific. Any pageantry or surrounding hoopla must serve to re-emphasise this idea, or show it in a different light. There must not be three or four other ideas - princes or princesses - milling about nearby trying to take a piece of the spotlight. In twenty minutes or less, there simply isn’t the time.
Harvard professor George Church biologist failed to make the online video cut in his 2010 TED Talk which was described by one blogger as ‘incomprehensible’. TED Talks have shown a public speaking truth much known, but scarily little practiced (especially in the academic world); that if your audience can’t understand you idea or ideas, you’re not really serving your purpose as a speaker.
TED teaches us that as useful as it is to have some level of speaking technique (fingers crossed robot-voiced speakers are gone for good), it’s not enough to just be a technically capable speaker with a great idea. Assuming the speaker can jump the hurdle of tolerable public speaking ability, it’s their passion and belief for their subject matter that will keep us hooked.
TED Talks put paid to the idea that ‘great’ public speaking must be well paced, perfectly professional, eloquently delivered, with no ‘ums’ and ‘erms’ and so on…. On the contrary, Tony Robbins talks way too fast in his TED talk; Jill Bolte-Taylor (who, I suspect, would be received as ‘crackpot’ if she spoke that way at a scientific conference) speaks with almost religious fervour; and Jamie Oliver, who ums and erms and wanders around the stage like a lost sheep still manages to garner a standing ovation.
TED format speaking respects each speaker’s authentic style and allows, even embraces quirky performance, so long as the speaker is saying something important and believes in what they’re saying.
If it ever were the case that sensible people were taken in by NLP-style selling from stage, surely TED is showing us that the stage for that in today’s world is shrinking
Part of the success of the TED format is the relief that there won’t be a sales pitch at the end of the presentation. Audiences can sit back, learn something and be impressed. Then, when they think of your subject and want more, they’ll know whose website to consult, whose book to buy, or whose programme to join. Whilst I haven't found any stats on this (please share if you have), it seems to make sense that speakers like this, who build their reputation through sharing their expertise, are those who profit from their generosity in the long-run.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially of all, TED Talks show us just how much can be learned in 18 minutes, 8, or even in 3 (take Terry Moore’s new approach to tying a shoelace as a fine example). In this attention deficit era, it serves our audience – and ourselves – if we can be succinct.
The signal for speakers is clear: if Al Gore can put across his complex message about climate change in 20 minutes, so can you with your message, whatever it may be. Rather than trying to ‘pack it all in’, TED speakers are encouraged to focus; on one idea, one story, one discovery that would in some way change the world.
This is the TED innovation that requires the speaker to ask crucial questions of editing: “What would it benefit my audience most to hear?” “Which example is most clear?” or “How can I tighten that part up so it’s really vivid?”
No longer can speakers spout lukewarm, monochrome material until they’ve run out of puff- TED Talks have changed the game for public speakers and it’s up to the rest of us to keep up.
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