Can you imagine Jesus delivering a TED talk? No, me either.

“I hate TED talks. I can’t abide the way presenters pace around the stage, I hate the gravity with which they deliver their message, and being patronised by a smug, overconfident ‘thought leader’ is pretty intolerable.”

Julie Bindel is an English writer and co-founder of the law-reform group Justice for Women. And she hates TED talks.

She particularly hates the presenters (whom she calls TED-bots) strutting around the stage, “delivering well-crafted smiles and frowns, well-placed pauses and casual hair flicks.”

According to Bindel they’re all overconfident, over-rehearsed, and overly dramatic.

This might come as a surprise to those of you who enjoy public speaking, especially preaching, because the rise of the TED talk was always taken as an indication of the fact that the monologue presentation isn’t dead.

It is argued, often by preachers, that even though the research tells us people learn very little from a monologue, the popularity of TED talks suggests otherwise.

See, the preacher says, it’s not that the monologue is dead. It’s just that people like short, sharp, engaging presentations like TED talks. In other words, sermons need to be more “TED-worthy”.

Well, Julie Bindel wouldn’t agree. And the popularity of her Guardian article, “Why I’d never do a TED talk”, suggests she’s not the only one.

As most people know, TED is a four-day conference of fourteen-minute-long research lectures, technology demonstrations, arts performances, and self-described “world-changing ideas”. It has become the lightning rod for the intellectual style of the digital age.

But what might not be known as widely is the fact that the speakers are required to pass a series of exacting auditions before getting onto the big stage. Once there, they are filmed with multiple cameras and edited exactingly, after which their talks are posted online where they’ve had more than eight hundred million views.

There’s huge pressure on presenters to be absolutely pitch perfect. In his New Yorker piece on TED talks, Nathan Heller describes one presenter, usually a functional and evanescent teacher, rehearsing his speech more than four hundred times to ensure it was a “virtuosic feat, a summa of his work to date”.

“Now, with an hour left until his lecture, he was concentrating on minutiae and grace: the slow, assured sweep of his gaze across the audience; the way he strode across the stage; the timing of a joke,” Heller wrote.

Which leads us to Bindel’s two main objections to the communications phenomenon that is the TED talk.

1. Style over content

The over-rehearsed style appears to be more important that the content of the presentation. They are too slick, too self-aware, too staged, says Bindel.

“Why do they all seem to perform identical gesticulations?” she moans.

Rather than making them more engaging communicators, all that rehearsal makes them seem less normal, less human. There is a law of diminishing returns at work here. Some rehearsal will make you better. But too much makes you slick, and slickness is the enemy of relateability.

Bindel objects to how un-nervous the speakers are. They look completely at home on that stage. But she thinks a bit of nervous energy is a way of showing respect to your audience. It shows you actually care what they think.

2. Shallow content made to sound complex

According to Julie Bindel, most TED talkers “state the blatantly obvious on a loop, sounding as though they have discovered the theory of relativity all over again… They appear to have learned the art of making the simplest ideas appear complex.”

That confected gravitas is grating, I admit. It comes off as insincere and stale when combined with the overconfident, over-rehearsed style preferred by TED.

Okay, so I’ve got to be honest here. As someone who regularly presents at major Christian conferences around the world, I see a lot of TED-worthy talks being delivered in the name of Jesus. On big stages, with huge audiences, lighting, cameras, screens, the works.

They are highly rehearsed or have been delivered many times (which amounts to the same thing). They are derivative, shallow, and presented with a kind of faux intensity that wins over the newer members of the audience. They’re full of breathy expressions of how much God loves us, prearranged pauses, penetrating stares, trenchant attacks on the object of their scorn.

They repeat truths we’ve heard a million times, but deliver the material with such momentousness it makes you feel like you’re watching Kennedy announce the race to the moon.

They move some, but inform no one.

Why on earth are preachers looking to TED for clues on how to communicate? TED talks glorify “ideas” for their own sake, and reward glossy presentation over rigorous thought or intellectual debate.

Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen once said that the best preaching manages to be “flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.”

That doesn’t sound like TED. In fact, it sounds like Jesus.

The sermon isn’t a set of ideas delivered by a guru or expert. It’s testimony, raw and true. The pulpit is a witness box, the congregation a jury and the preacher a witness to the truth that God is engaged in a redemptive mission of cosmic proportions in Christ.

The preacher’s voice should be filled with the unmistakable urgency, risk and passion of one giving dangerous testimony to the activity of God that otherwise goes unspoken. The church gathers to hear the truth and nothing but the truth about its living witness as a sign of the kingdom of God.

The best Christian preaching is rough, guileless, and unsophisticated. But it’s also marked by authenticity, truth and beauty.

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18 thoughts on “Can you imagine Jesus delivering a TED talk? No, me either.

  1. Mike – I agree that much of what is presented on TED talks is too well manicured, packaged, and “perfect”. But look at some of the more successful speakers. I see their TED talks as brief introductions into deeper discussion. Their talks have become corporate or even church “conversation starters” rather than being used as comprehensive teaching.
    Look at how TED presentations from people like Simon Sinek, Adam Grant, or Susan Cain have taken their impact. Each used TED to present ideas, sell their books, and open the door for opportunities longer form speaking engagements.
    Your and Ms. Bindel’s criticism of TED is only valid if TED is seen as the end of the discussion. TED used as an opening of a longer engagement though, it seems quite useful. Christian leaders should take the opportunity to use popular TED talks as a launching point of the deeper conversations that may well diverge from the TED topic, but allow the opening of the door. In Acts 17:23, Paul used the “an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” for his entrée into the conversation in Athens. Maybe TED is the modern day altar TO AN UNKNOWN GOD?

    1. I take your point, but out of 800,000,000 views you’ve only mentioned three talks. The exceptions prove the rule.

    2. You had me at the title. Great question and insightful. Both Bindel and you make some really good points. Though I have enjoyed a few TED talks and been informed in a smaller few, I have also felt the condescension and self-importance drip from both the speakers and the audiences at time. But the title is haunting and helpful. I will think about that question and the implications for a long time. Thanks.

  2. To be pedantic, I mentioned three speakers with five TED appearances who combined have about 10% of those 800,000,000 views, but that’s not really important.
    The point I was making that as missionaries in the world, we should not be so dismissive of the TED phenomenon, but instead leverage it as a launching point to deeper conversations about how we gain purpose for life and a understanding of the world through the our relationship with Jesus Christ.

    Thanks for engaging. I’m always happy to see the notification email that you’ve made another post.

    1. Sure. I’ve got no problem with us using TED talks to engage in conversation. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about emulating a TED talk in the pulpit.

  3. In my mind I always imagined that the Philosophers, that Paul encountered on Mars Hill, were giving Ted Talks. 😉

  4. on sunday, the priest normally does not have too much choice on what he will preach about. he only has maybe 15 minutes. most of the people are waiting on him to bless the bread and wine and close the mass.

    They love you if you can pull a sunday in less than 38 minutes. Latin masses got by on a cool 30 minutes back in the day. most priests did not preach in a latin mass. a weekly masses are also fine. no preaching. easy 30 minutes.

    I don’t think TED would do very well on saturdays and sundays in the catholic church. 15 minutes would be long. 10 minutes . . . and then the apostle’s creed.

  5. Mike, I agree as well. I loved this very much! I remember one of the young men I know growing in ministry and decided to plant a church I was excited for him and followed him through social media. His church grew, and I saw the changes you mentioned. On his social feed, he posted how he was practicing his message over and over and told folks not to miss it because it was going to be awesome! I loved his enthusiasm, but my heart sunk as I sensed or (judged) him moving to a performance mentality. I can not imagine Jesus going over and over a message to make sure the story was perfect that His voice inflections were on point. Ministry is not a script; we are not actors. Thanks for Nowen quote it resonates for sure. I will copy and paste that so I can be reminded.

  6. Fascinating observation and one well made. In a post-Christian age, one could surmise that TED talks are secularism’s form of sermons – the popularity of TED could be an unarticulated yearning for people to hear a message, to fill a void in their lives, to provide meaning and purpose to them – and often this is measured by an audience’s response to the performance first, content second, instead of ideally being a balance between both.

    I agree with your point that a sermon should not be a performance, but content driven by authentic passion inculcated by the Holy Spirit yet in churches, and I admit to this failing, we often judge a preachers by their performance, not necessarily the message.

    I really admire pastors who turn out usually two sermons a week amidst the hurley burley of pastoral life, which are fully researched, contain a thesis, backed up by scripture, contextual examples, and a call to action, and often without the luxury of rehearsal.

  7. The appeal of a TED talk is none of the things that were pointed out that are applicable to ministry. The key factor of TED talks is they are ENGAGING THE AUDIENCE. Like it or not all the drama, body language, pacing all feeds into engagement which translates to people consuming what you say. Jesus surely used these types of methods when he used Humor to engage his crowds. The story of the prodigal son eating with the pigs would have knocked them off their normal stance as they listened. I disagree with this 1000% Captivating an audience is vital but the essential ingredient is that the content being communicated be truth and not fiction.

    1. Britney Speares and Lady Gaga ENGAGE THE AUDIENCE, but that’s not the point. The point is that Jesus was authentic in a way many TED talkers aren’t. Re-read the post. You missed the point 1000%.

      1. No not really you want to pigeon hold Jesus into what your construct of what God is and does. Very Pharisaical. Authentic is relevant to the content of the talk not attached to the methods. The methods are directly tied to the culture. According to Paul he became all things to all people. Broaden your view of the Kingdom and who is allowed in. Just because you don’t care for this method of hearing the truth of God’s word does not mean the rest of the culture doesn’t. To a Jew he became a Jew, to a TED attendee he would be come a, dare I say it, TED Talker. It’s a heart issue not a delivery issue.

        1. Okay, so if I disagree with you (which I still do), you call me a Pharisee, tell me that I pigeon hole (not hold) Jesus, and that I have a limited view of the Kingdom. Seriously, this is what annoys me about social media. When people disagree with you they feel they need to attack you in the process. You’ve shown no inclination to try to hear what I’m saying, so I give up.

  8. For what it’s worth (or not), I have found the TED talks I have watched to be engaging, informative, and not repeating things that were cliches or old information to me. I’m sure there are ones like the two of you describe too, but like everything in life, we have to try to be discerning.

    And I think the parallel with sermons is not very apt.

    (1) Generally TED talks are short, well presented by someone I’ve never heard before on a topic I’ve chosen to listen to because I’m interested, whereas sermons are typically not short, presentation is variable, I’ve generally heard the same person many, many times before and I’m often not interested in the topics.

    (2) While Jesus was “authentic”, I’m not sure how often he sermonised. The sermon on the mount was almost certainly not one sermon but Matthew collecting all those sayings together, and typically he taught via parables, pithy and cryptic aphorisms, or dialoguing.

    As you and I have discussed before, I think sermons should be the exception, not the rule. They have been shown to be a poor method of teaching and changing people, though they may be better suited to inspiring and provoking if they include lots of stories (as yours do), short enough, original enough and relevant enough. I think we can learn a lot from TED talks, no doubt some of it negative but a lot positive too.

  9. I do not think that a TED talk and preaching are the same type of public speaking. I agree that TED talks are a particular communicative environment guided if not guarded by its own conventions…like the Church…but with different ones. I also can think of a lot of things that I cannot imagine Jesus doing. I cannot imagine him doing a TED talk. I also cannot imagine him looking like the picture in this post. I just found the critique here based really upon an opinion piece which itself demonstrates little engagement with the phenomenon a little easy. Do all the speakers use the identical gesticulations? Do the organisers not recognise the human appeal of genuine nervousness? I guess I read the opinion but wanted some evidence in relation to the claims. That said, yes, authenticity every time but the communication of authenticity through different mediums does require different skills … authenticity communicated through writing for example is different than personal communication? The danger of course is that the skills, style, instead of enabling the authentic self to come through overpowers it. As for monologues I find many folk who deride them use them frequently, writing is a form of mono? I say all of this agreeing with your answer so not even sure why I am bothering writing…other than I am currently working on a fuller response to this question…but I have written to much to quit now…I need some coaching on responding to blog posts…

  10. Billy Graham did a TED talk when he was about 80 years old. It was awesome! Just saying.

  11. … she shuddered as memories from years of Christian women’s conferences washed over her …

  12. […] Can You Imagine Jesus Delivering a TED Talk? […]

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