TED presentations – jumped the shark?

Fonzie - the ultimate presenter!

If you’ve not heard the phrase “jumped the shark” it means to have gone so far down the line that things have become silly, past their best and so on. It comes from (I’ve been told) and episode in Happy Days when Fonzie goes waterskiing. In short, it’s the beginning of the end because things have got so silly you can’t maintain the show…

I like TED talks. I’m ambivalent about TEDx (not least because the one I went to in Newcastle a couple of years ago was a waste of time, with one good presentation, one okay-ish one, and a fist-full of embarrassments) but this article in the Guardian suggests the whole concept has… well, jumped the shark…

Looking at some of the TEDs I’ve watched recently it’s hard to argue that some of them aren’t just padding…

What do you think? Has TED has its day? The article in the Guardian Newspaper certainly suggests they have. In fact you might infer more and assume that TED,  frankly, never had it in the first place…

So let’s think about it.

What are the positives of TED presentations?

It’s hard to argue with the statistics. As I write this today, the TED.ORG website is highlighting a presentation a psychologist from Harvard Medical School, Susan David. Her presentation covers the same ground as her book on Emotional Agility which, by co-incidence, I’ve read. There are some powerful ideas in the book and I commented recently that it’s worth a few hours of your time to read it.

But while it’s an interesting book but like many such books it’s essentially got enough ‘new idea’ content for a very big blog post, but padded with example after examples… examples which provide evidence (not proof!) of the author’s thinking, but after a while just pall, because they don’t actually take you anywhere new as a reader. It’s a bit like trying to validate a story in a newspaper by more and more copies of the same paper.

Her TED presentation, on the other hand…

  • is approaching 3 million views
  • gets the idea of the book over in just fraction over quarter of an hour
  • contains some absolute blinders such as “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”.

That’s quite an improvement over the hours it takes to slog through the book. Even at the speed I read it takes some time to get from cover to cover.  🙂  Score one for TED!

And I have to tip my hat here to Simon Sinek. His “Start With Why” currently says it’s approaching 40 million views. I’l say that again. 40 million. And that doesn’t include the copies that sit on hard drives etc., so it’s hard to argue that a decent presentation can’t have an impact.  Sinek’s book has a few fairly negative reviews, comparing it to the presentation, and saying that they didn’t need to read the book once they’re heard the presentation! Rather than take that as critisism of the book, let’s take it as validation of the presentation.

But wait! The video quality is pretty shoddy – and the audio quality is frankly shocking. So why has this presentation nearly 40 million views?!? What makes it so good is the combination of The Big Idea and the way it’s put over. It’s simplicity itself – or it appears so in the way it’s delivered. It’s the ultimate TED presentation – big ideas, simply put. Score two to TED.

What are the negatives?

Let’s go back to Susan David.  She’s okay but not great. It’s a bit pretentious-sounding to be honest. That’s perhaps fair enough because she’s presenting big ideas  – but sometimes that just goes too far:  “We felt as a family emotionally and financially ravaged” – I mean really… who actually talks like that!?

I begin to see what Julie Bindel means. (Julie is the author of the Guardian article above.) And if you’re not convinced, listen to  the line “My English teacher fixed me with burning blue eyes and...”.  Let’s face it, who cares about the colour of the eyes, let alone the fact they were burning? That’s just pretentious-tosh designed to make things sound, well, bigger than they are. The bad news for Susan David’s presentation is that Dr Who said it so much better and faster (new-Season Six, Episode Four for you fans):

“Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is. Being alive right now is all that counts.”

As you can imagine, smallSimon (an animated version of me) has a short video on this: it turns out that trying too hard to make yourself sounds smarter backfires, quite spectacularly. It turns out KISS isn’t just good advice for tech, but for being judged smart by your audience!

Worse, many (TED and) TEDx presentations are what I once brutally called ’emotional masturbation on the stage’. At the time, I went further and suggested that I didn’t want to pay to hear a speaker using me as his/her therapist because she/he hadn’t come to terms with a crap experience earlier in his/her life. Let’s face it, anyone who’s every 10th sentence is “I’ve come to terms with this…” clearly hasn’t. You could even argue that me telling you how far I went in my rant about emotional masturbation is a form of emotional masturbation – after all, how much is it actually helping you, rather than making me feel better about myself! 😉 )

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some cracking stuff there too, but… but… but…

Of course, another downside is that in just 15 minutes it’s harder to present evidence. Slides can help, of course, but there’s a limit to how much can be squished into a short period of time. What you can do, of course, is present the idea in such a way that people ‘get it’, trusting that the data behind The Big Idea is valid – and that’s what the best TED presentations do.

What about TEDx presentations in particular?

I’ve seen some great ones.  Simon Sinek’s video, for example, is “only” a TEDx. But I’ve also seen some badly delivered, pointless and self-indulgent tosh under the heading of TEDx. I looked at a list of TEDx speakers I’ve met, heard of or worked with recently and was, politely, underwhelmed.

TEDx presentation sites

On the other hand there are some stand-up-and-cheer presentations from TEDx. The issue is that TEDx is a franchise and it’s impossible to generalise. I’m going to have to put a lot of comments about individual TEDx or TEDx speakers on one side because of this. Instead, let’s look at the broader picture of TEDx: I’m in the UK, so let’s look at the TEDx available to me. A quick search on this map from the TED website shows a plethora of TEDx around – and a search found four (four!) of them within half an hour of me.

I can tell you – as someone who’s tried to fill a monthly schedule of speakers – that you can’t find enough good speakers to do that. You just can’t!    Some of these events were in the past, granted, but that just further proves the case that TEDx isn’t as well curated as you might hope – do we really need a TEDx at Newcastle University that’s unrelated to the TEDx at Newcastle?   (And while we’re at it, why isn’t the TEDxNewcastle actually in Newcastle?!)

In short, there might be more TEDx than there are TEDx-worthy presenters!

Does the brand suffer? Because let’s face it, if you’re not a confident, experienced presenter and your accepted to do a TEDx, what are you going to do?  Copy the big names at TED, that’s what. And if they’re not presenting in a style that suits you it can all go horribly wrong!

Does the problem start at the top?

The guide to presenting like TED

Not long ago I read the book TED Talks, by Chris Anderson. Chris should know what it’s all about ‘cos he’s the top dog at TED. I really liked it – to the point where I’ve taken one of his ideas as the foundation for a conference presentation I’m giving in a month or so (It’s called,  “Don’t edit books, edit people” for the Society of Proof-Readers and Editors.) The downside though, is that Chris talks at very great length about coaching and training people to be good enough presenters.

And then he goes on about it some more. And a bit more, just to make the point that you have to be good to be TED. But here’s the catch – he creates clones. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good model he uses and it’s certainly better than the vast, vast majority of presentations – but it’s a bit of a template, a formula. Presentations aren’t a one-size-fits-all thing: different topics need different styles of presentations. And while we’re at it, different audiences need different styles of presentations.

But TED is TED is TED…

… is TED.  In fact TED presentations, as a style, have become so ubiquitous that there are books and courses about how to present like TED. (I don’t know if the training is any good – the adverts just pop upon my Facebook stream – it’s to be hoped their courses are better than the the way they target their marketing! 😉 )

Not convinced it’s a template? Well then, here’s a mocker:


Maybe it’s not that TED is bad – nothing that popular can be bad, surely… but maybe TED has become so successful that it’s no copied well past the point of being appropriate. Could TED have become a victim of its own success – with people copying and reproducing the style without understanding the reasons for that style?

I want to finish with a self-referencing analogy to PowerPoint templates and in-house styles. A lot of organisations have them, in an attempt to make sure that presenters can’t create shockingly bad presentations with 19 bullet points per slide, written in Times New Roman font, with a size of 12… Great, but in doing so they impose a style and structure, that while it lifts the bottom-most-presentions up, simultaneously puts a lid on the very best presentations. Is the TED style doing something analogous?

What say you, gentle reader?

Simon says...

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