TED Talks... But Does He Say Much?

Throughout high school the periodic forced feeding of “inspirational” TED talks was an exercise in mental torture. The formula consisting of the self-satisfied, enlightened, guru strutting around a stage completing a series of predictable, yet irritating, hand gestures while speaking down to an enraptured audience filled with middle aged white people still gets to me today. My little misanthropic high school self could not understand the appeal of having someone speak down to you, especially when this narcissistic speech is filled with dramatic pauses, bad jokes, and irritating power point presentations.

There is almost nothing within the vast majority of TED Talks that should lend itself to being popular. So why have TED Talks become such a major source of knowledge and inspiration in our society? Well, as a more educated (though no less cynical and misanthropic) student, I think I finally understand the TED phenomena.


Why We Like TED Talks

Although I personally find the vast majority of TED Talks nearly impossible to stomach, there is obviously something in the formula that works for a large number of people. I think the foundation of this lies in the simplistic nature of many of the points made in the typical TED Talk.

To be fair, this is something that cannot really be fixed in a speech that is only about 20-minutes long (although trashing about half of the carefully rehearsed dramatic pauses would probably add at least five minutes to the speech), there is simply not enough time to go into great detail. It is this inability to go into great detail that leads to the inevitable black and white presentation of nuanced topics (i.e. if you do this you will be so much happier and more successful), we like the idea that problems we are facing either individually or as a society can be fixed by a simple step-by-step process handed to us by someone who knows better. However, no matter how much we wish for a quick fix, life is infinitely complex, and there is no magical fix-all for our problems.

Beyond feeding into our naive dreams of simple solutions to our problems, the concept of TED Talks is a breath of fresh air; there is something so exciting about people willing to spread information and ideas without cost and without party bias. Giving individuals the opportunity to listen to leaders and the highly educated is a great thing; so where do so many TED talks go wrong?

The Issues With TED Talks

The largest issue with TED Talks, and the thing that makes them so unbearable, is the formulaic layout highlighted in the first paragraph combined with the simple-turned-profound messages. Any sincerity or passion is squashed out of speakers through the intense audition and rehearsal process. What we are left with are carefully orchestrated pauses, bad jokes, and a never ending sense of smugness. It is this lack of sincerity and the feeling of mass production that creates the condescending air of TED Talks; FYI to future TED speakers, fake self-deprecating jokes do not count as sincerity!

Beyond the sickening formula of TED Talks, there is a huge issue with some of the content. Here are a few of my favorites that seem as though they should be joke, but actually exist under the banner of “ideas that are worth spreading”: “How to Tie your Shoes” (apparently we have all been tying our shoes wrong since the age of six!), “How to Use a Paper Towel” (in which the speaker ironically wastes numerous paper towels in order to prove his point about not wasting paper towels), and, “Gaming can Make a Better World” (I’m not saying gaming is bad, but I don’t think that spending 21 billion hours a week playing online games is going to fix serious issues we are facing in our society). There have also been numerous TED Talks about different forms of education that are often under researched and simply add fuel to picking on under-payed teachers. Just because a smart (or rich) person has an idea, does not mean that idea is “worth spreading”.


Potential for the Future?

Although my personal opinion of TED Talks is, evidently very low, I do think their idea of spreading information has great potential. In fact, in researching TED Talks for this article I came across one that actually touched my cold, cynical heart. This TED Med talk given by the University of Utah’s own Dr. Margaret Battin entitled “Choosing the Least Worst Death” was everything 99.9% of TED Talks fail to be, sincere.

Though she used graphics, and it was obvious she was prepared for the talk, there was much less strutting around and no dramatic pauses; you could hear the emotion in her voice as she discussed the complex nature of death in contemporary society and her own experiences with the topic. This is exactly what a TED Talk should be, someone sharing information and displaying its complexities in order to increase discussion rather than dumbing down issues to fit into simple three step plans. TED Talks will never reach their full potential so long as they continue in the path of self-satisfied professionals delivering speeches on simple topics pretending to be profound. It’s time for TED to change, now there’s an idea worth spreading!


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