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An ambivalent afternoon with TED(x)


Public speaking is hard. Really hard. And so it’s not anyone’s fault that they’re not super amazing at it. But (there’s always a but), when an entire event is based around public speaking and (there’s often an and too) some people have paid good money to attend said event, expectations are high. So I, like many, like my public speaking short, sweet, and (preferably) singular. And while some of the speakers I saw were pretty good, some reminded me of compulsory speeches in fourth form, except those dry-mouth clicks are amplified around a shed of a thousand people.


To immediately contract the above, 15 mins is too short for complicated ideas. And the trend of the last 5-10 years is to try and make complicated ideas simple, to try and make academia entertainment, to make social science self-help. The whole ‘popular science/economics/psychology/whatever’ genre, typified by TED, Freakonomics, RadioLab, Malcolm Gladwell, etc, makes us feel good because it makes us feel like we are really learning something, but too often you walk away from those experiences/books/podcasts with small ideas that actually misrepresent the complex (and necessarily difficult) work behind them. Outliers becomes “it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at something”, Freakonomics becomes “legalising abortion lowers the crime rate 15 years later”, RadioLab becomes a really boring conversation at a dinner party (“I heard this podcast the other day…”).

But it’s not TED or Malcolm’s fault. The simple fact is if you really want to find out about complicated ideas, you actually have to put some time and mental energy into it (probably reading some pretty dry material that doesn’t include catchphrases or powerpoint presentations). Neuroscience is difficult. Economics is difficult. Psychology is difficult. They take work. And work is hard. And takes longer than 15 mins. So while TEDx made me feel in the moment like I was taking things in and confronting some interesting ideas, as soon as I walked away, that feeling was largely gone. What once seemed ‘heavy’ when hearing it, quickly drifts into the ether of all the content that swirls around our heads these days.


To (again) contradict the above, 15 mins is too long for most stories. From the few speakers I saw, there was a four-to-five minute span of both narrative energy and audience attention.


I was very happy that the speakers I saw were mostly pretty natural and not too TED. There’s a format to TED speaking (“What would you say if I told you that …”)


People like funny. Obvious, I know, but it was weird seeing a guy who was Nelson Mandela’s bodyguard do okay when he was talking about race and nationhood, but totally KILLED when telling a funny story about Mandela and Prince Charles in Brixton. But if we’re after funny, it’s gotta be really funny, and at what point should we go to a comedy?


Speaking of funny, the Modern M?ori Quartet definitely are. And they can sing like angels.


The guy who had the “best job in the world” didn’t mention how he makes a living off those animal selfies.


When people give you one of those sturdy paper bags with heavy things in them (like a really thick fashion magazine), the handles become really sharp and cut into your hands.


I read somewhere that that TED was like an evangelical church for affluent white people and being there you could see it in the air. The audience was hungry for ideas and when people were asked their hands, they did so with glee.


None of which is to say that I didn’t enjoy it. For the most part, I did. But the evangelical, self-help vibe is maybe just not my thing.

Review overview