TED Talks: The Good. The Bad. And the Ugly.

Written by Susie Ashfield

The average price of a TED Talk is $7,500 dollars. For that price you are going to be expecting something that changes your life or, at the very least, something that makes you sit up and listen. The late Sir Ken Robinson (who died in 2020) did both in his TED Talk entitled simply Do Schools Kill Creativity? and he did it without props, PowerPoint, or visuals, standing alone to make an argument so compelling that it has become the most watched TED Talk ever:

The Good

So what makes this talk stand out? Why does this speaker have the power to engage us with just his own presence? In the book ‘Talk Like TED’, Carmine Gallo suggests that this comes down to not one key factor, but a combination of three crucial elements.

Firstly, the talk must be memorable, so that months after viewing it the audience can still remember the way they felt after the talk, and what the essence of the message was. Robinson ensures his talk is unforgettable by starting in a calm but focused way. He has a conversation with the audience. Nothing here seems over-rehearsed, nothing seems laboured or artificial. He simply stands and talk to the audience as though they were in his own living room, delivering jokes with a wry smile, pushing up his glasses, and throwing out questions to his enraptured listeners. He tells amusing stories, most of which he attempts to deliver in a totally deadpan style, but always giving in just at the end and throwing in a light chuckle. It is his ability to weave stories into his material that makes the whole talk so accessible, so relaxed and sincere.

Secondly, the talk must be novel. With such a simple but unexpected title, how could it not be? He takes an institution that we see as fundamentally good and productive, and turns it on its head with an argument that is as complex as it is simple. All of this is done is under 20 minutes. The topic he chooses embodies the very ethos of TED: an idea, and an idea worth spreading. At no point throughout his talk do you feel you are in a learning environment. The irony of this is outstanding: the audience is captured by an idea through the forum of storytelling, jokes and a casual conversation. No formalised learning programme. No structured lecture. Robinson demonstrates his idea throughout his talk: he embodies the best format for education.

Finally, a talk must be emotional. Robinson, though quiet and seemingly mild mannered, has the focused sort of energy that requires no shouting or screaming for attention. His passion for his subject is undeniable. Humour (the most prevalent emotion in his talk) is in itself an extremely powerful tool, but when the tone of the talk becomes more serious, the change in the atmosphere is one that allows a very clear, very strong message to drop to the floor with a deafening thud. It is a combination of all of these factors that makes this TED Talk unmistakably brilliant, undeniably honest and completely and totally inspirational.

The Bad

Whilst it seems unfair to label any TED Talk as ‘bad’ there are a few I have watched and contemplated how much I would have paid to have seen it live, before anyone else. Naturally, a few of the talks just aren’t my thing, and it seems natural to have a preference for some subjects over others. There is one talk in amongst all these brilliant speakers that I actually struggle to get through, however. Admittedly, I’m a little biased, as I’m not a huge fan of the individual in what I’ve seen of him, but I also know that he is hugely popular and holds an enormous fan base in America.

I’m talking, of course, about David Blaine, the world-renowned illusionist and entertainer. The issue I have with his talk How I held my breath for 17 minutes is not in the content. In fact, if his content were to be delivered by anyone else it would probably be fascinating. Time and time again we tell our clients, ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’ and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in this talk. Blaine mumbles and looks down, seemingly unable to physically connect with his audience, unwilling to move away from his podium, and giving off a defensive image through his body language. What should be a fascinating and empowering talk becomes move of a slow bumble through his CV, and even his list of amazing feats becomes nonchalant, seemingly average. Try to watch the whole thing without the sound and it becomes quite a challenge:

I show this video to clients when I want to make an obvious point: you may very well have the most amazing story, idea or theory in the room, and the most fascinating content. But if you are unable to deliver that information in a way that engages and excites the audience then nobody is going to buy into what you want to say.

And The Ugly

Jessi Arrington is a TED Talk that I present to my clients without comment. The basis of her talk is the revelation that you can and should buy all of your clothes at a thrift store. I am always interested to hear the first reaction they come back with. It’s often mixed. Some people are impressed with her unfaltering enthusiasm, her excited high pitched voice and her passion for her subject. Others are more cynical, pointing to flaws in the content. Eventually, through discussion, the feedback seems to end up at the same place:

The talk itself is interesting, lively and enjoyable, but Arrington seems to have missed one huge element in the talk. One obvious, unmistakable factor that she has almost completely ignored: the audience. When preparing a talk or presentation the first questions you need to ask yourself are ‘who are my audience?’ and ‘what do they want from me?’ Now, bearing in mind that the price of a TED Talk is $7,500, it’s fairly safe to assume that she will have a wealthy and extremely privileged audience in front of her. Maybe this will be a revelation to them, but she has forgotten that there are people who need thrift stores as necessities in their life, not just as a novel way to reduce their impact on the environment. The talk lacks self-awareness, and whilst it’s difficult to spot at first, the feeling of uneasiness grows on the watcher. Her idea is not revolutionary and it comes across as elitist. Whilst this was almost certainly not her intention, a few small changes in the script might have prevented this slightly classist tone from seeping in. The backlash against this talk on the internet followed quickly and ruthlessly, with one online reviewer exclaiming ‘We’re excited for the follow-up detailing how Wendy’s dollar menu is cheaper than eating at restaurants with table service’.

The moral of this story? The audience has a right to switch off at any time. Begin by understanding that the main thought running through the mind of the viewer is ‘what’s in this for me?’ Work from that point outwards and with a basic understanding of sensitivity and awareness and you won’t go far wrong.

Presentation skills, TED-style

Susie Ashfield gets amazing feedback from the presentation skills training and coaching she delivers on our behalf. She takes her key learning points from the TED talks – the good, the bad and the ugly – and combines them with her training and practice as an actor, director, voice-over artist, trainer and professionally qualified coach. And she brings this rich blend of knowledge and experience to bear on one thing – developing your skills as a presenter.

No matter how good or bad your presentation skills may be at the moment, you can improve them. Learn a step-by-step method to inspire and motivate your audience over the course of a day. Master the art of storytelling, learn to paint strong visual imagery, and understand how to get your audience behind your ideas, no matter how audacious or complex they seem. Let Susie help you – to see how, click here.

If you’re interested in knowing more, just give us a call on 01582 463460 – we’re here to help!