“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.