The question of cred and TED

February 7, 2013

At first, they served as mind-blowing studies into the human condition and the direction of everything from education to energy, world affairs to space travel. Today, TED Talks, the highly popular series of spoken word presentations, sound more like simple pitches from entrepreneurs eager to fund their wind farms, organic lines of pickles, or to extend careers as corporate motivational speakers.

All too often, to make their points, the cast from TED seems to resort to doomsday prophecy, unfettered speculation, or PBS-style self-help palp with titles like “8 Secrets to Success” or Tony Robbins’Why We Do What We Do.” (Didn’t I see that on his late-night infomercial during the 90s?)

JUNK TALKS: TED speakers
entertain rather than educate

Five years ago, when I first started watching TED Talks online, I was enthralled. Here was the spoken word reinvented for contemporary audiences, a depth of thought rarely available, and all online for free. I studied those earlier presenters closely and borrowed style and substance from TED speakers in training my own clients. I even took Prezi training to emulate the breezy, flowing style so common to many TED presentations.

Lately, though, TED seems to have lost its credibility with talks based more on overstatement and exaggerations with speakers whose credentials are determined by their entertainment value rather than substance. TED’s recent NPR programming illustrates the point. Without the body language and cool visuals, TED talks presented over radio make the listener focus on words and ideas, not on flamboyance and presentation.

Recently during a long car ride, I listened to a summation of recent TED talks about food, and heard time and again presenters who too often stated the obvious, or worse, resorted to fear mongering and exaggeration to make a point.

For instance, I listened to a chef turned lunch lady who is focusing now on improving the quality of food for school kids. A noble cause indeed. But she begins her talk claiming that we are feeding our children to death to the point of extinction. Really? Killing our children? Extinction? Come on over to my neighborhood. Kids are aplenty. The meteorite must have struck elsewhere, thank God!

I then listened to another chef espouse the virtues of a Spanish fish farm that uses the marshes of Western Spain to sustainably raise fish and seafood. Unfortunately, he spoke from the mound as an elite, one who can easily afford to eat the world’s finest, freshest, and most expensive foods, and thinks everyone else can too. Not exactly a game plan for ending word hunger or delivering better nutrition to inner city kids. He found offense with a fish farmer who feeds his stock 1/3 chicken protein, even though he’s OK with humans eating fish. Talk about twisting the food chain to support your own restaurant’s menu.

And then there was the architect whose British accent, no doubt, is what qualified her to speak on food’s influence on cities. Her premise, that today’s agriculture is unsustainable, flew in the face of the very farmland I happened to be driving through at the time. For more than a century (probably longer), Lancaster County, PA has sated the appetites of Philadelphians, in a symbiotic relationship of farm to table. Real sustainability that she claimed is absent in today’s modern world.

The entire TED phenomenon raises some serious issues for professional communicators, like myself, whose job it is to prepare clients for speaking appearances. Do we succumb to the TED temptation of exaggeration and elitism all in the hope that entertainment and fear will persuade others to a belief, opinion, investment, or just-released book? Or should we strive for accuracy and rationality in our rhetoric?

TED’s influence is now seen far and wide in conferences and classrooms, and it’s bound to make even more of an impact now that online, open lectures are all the rage in higher education. So is cred dead when it comes to live presentations? TED’s latest offerings are more fast food than nutritional content for the mind, a trend I hope they change and return to a thinking man’s objective and modulated views of the world.

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