TED: Affected and Pretentious or Inspiring and Authentic?

The TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Conference has moved to Vancouver. The 2014 edition runs March 17th to the 21st. In an overview of the TED phenomena, BC Business magazine describes the history, success and criticisms of TED. One of the aspects of TED that is both a source of its success and a cliché to its critics, are its 18 minute presentations, which, in a kind of motivation speaker arms-race, has forced presenters inside and outside of TED to come up with ever more inventive, entertaining and emotive gimmicks, tricks and props.

I write this as a person who usually gets a lot from most TED speakers and doesn’t mind the occasional histrionics that some speakers employ. But an article by Steve Burgess, in BC Business, casts a light on  aspects of TED presentations that are on the border between parody and sincerity:

Parodies have emerged, notably the Onion Talks, a series of videos featuring rapturous audiences applauding platitudes, ludicrous theories, and statements of the obvious. Although TED’s online videos are a sophisticated product—recorded with an array of the same cameras used at the Academy Awards and carefully edited to remove glitches and moments when speakers forget their lines—Anderson says the professional look of the videos is somewhat deceptive. “We encourage TED speakers to be themselves, and not these polished speakers they see in the videos.”

The most popular TED talks tend to have a certain “wow” factor, offering ideas that turn conventional thinking on its head, such as biologist Alan Savory’s assertion that global warming can be counteracted through increased livestock grazing. Other popular talks provide feel-good facts, such as Swedish doctor Hans Rosling’s survey of global statistics suggesting an inevitable march of global progress. All of which can lead wannabe TEDers to believe they can crack the lineup by following a can’t-miss formula.

“There are people who try to game the system,” Anderson says. “Someone who decides they want to become a TED star, figure out the right way to emotionally manipulate the audience and get them to stand up and cheer—we’re alive to that and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding it. Audiences get wise to that very quickly. If you try to find a formula, it’s a trap. What we’re looking for is authenticity. There are lots of people out there with good ideas who really struggle to communicate them. One of the most important things we’d love to get a lot better at is helping coach them.”

David Leach, in the same edition, writes:

Not everyone worships at the church of TED. “In the cult of TED,” complained Martin Robbins, in the New Statesman, “everything is awesome and inspirational, and ideas aren’t supposed to be challenged.” Other skeptics see an unsettling strand of Silicon Valley libertarianism. “TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering,” warned Evgeny Morozov, in a scathing review of TED’s e-book imprint for The New Republic, “a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity.” During the 2012 conference, #FiveWordTEDTalks trended on Twitter to spoof TED’s grandiose over-simplifications. (“How Pinterest Will Save Syria,” tweeted Morozov.)

Nassim Taleb, former hedge-fund manager and author of The Black Swan, called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.”

But the best part of the BC Business TED coverage, in my opinion, was this small nugget written by Kristen Hilderman and illustrated by Graham Roumieu titled “How to Give a Motivational Speech.” It punctures the balloon of every Steve Jobs, TED-talk wannabee. It is both amusing and depressing at the same time: “Content isn’t nearly as important as drama and stage presence.” That maxim seems to operate in too many areas of private and civic life. Just look at politics.

1. Rely on extremes. You dropped out of school or you were top of your class at Yale; in your business’s first year you almost went bankrupt. Or you made millions.
2. Let your hands do as much talking as your mouth.
3. Always use a wireless mic. Taping a handheld to your face is better than encumbering your moneymakers (see tip number 2).
4. Rhetorical questions are your friend. Do you want to succeed at this or not?
5. Don’t be afraid to get cosy with the crowd.
6. Content isn’t nearly as important as drama and stage presence.


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