Anderson Misses the Boat Today on TED Talks

I wish I were as optimistic as Chris Anderson, who wrote today, “Anyone Can Give a Memorable TED Talk,” in the Wall Street Journal (April 30-May 1, C3).

Chris Anderson TED Talk Picture

You can read the entire article by clicking HERE.

Anderson, who is the President of TED, has a new book that hits the market next week Chris Anderson TED Book Coverentitled TED Talks:  The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

He gives these tips:

  1.  ask yourself if you have something worth saying
  2. slash the scope of your talk so that you unpack the idea properly
  3. give people a reason to care
  4. build your case piece by piece, using familiar words and concepts
  5. tell stories
  6. practice

His premise is that anyone, with the right approach, and enough practice, can be a greater presenter.  In the article, he tells the improbable story of Richard Turere, a 12-year old Maasai boy, who gave a talk at a TED conference, in front of an audience of 1,400 seasoned professionals.

I don’t think so.  I have provided instruction and critiqued thousands of speakers in Business Communication courses over the past 39 years, and have coached individuals one-on-one countless times.  In fact, even today, I am meeting a speaker for individual coaching who gives a talk next week.  I can start naming people right now who you would never see on the TED Talks site, no matter how much time I would spend coaching them, and I would still be listing names hours from now.  And, I don’t think it’s because I’m a lousy coach.  Sorry – everyone can’t do it.

His assumption is that there is something within an individual, that if unlocked properly, will propel a person to greatness.  He would say that if you stay with it long enough, and apply the correct instruction and techniques, success is simply a matter of time.

I will admit that for many people, presenting is more a matter of “will” than “skill.”  There are people who simply don’t want to get any better, and therefore, even intense training and coaching will not get them there.  They could be great, but they don’t want to be.  Fortunately, there are enough people who do respond to training and coaching, and who do become great speakers, that keeps me going as a professional resource.

But, what about people who can’t?  What if fantastic presenting is not a will or skill issue?  There are plenty of people who fall short of any or all of the six behaviors listed as tips above.  They just can’t do it.  It’s not their strength.  It never will be.  Do we beat them up and put them through the misery of intense scrutiny toward an end that will never happen?  I would far rather build on something else that they are good at – one of their strengths – to work around their presentation weakness, than to consistently badger them to speak well.

I also think that the title of Anderson’s article today insults the great TED speakers.  I am well aware that writers rarely get to construct titles to their articles.  They usually see the title the same time all the readers do, so I am not bashing Anderson.  But the title is there for all to see.  TED Talks are premium presentations.  Great content with great delivery.  And, it is a very competitive product.  These are not like “uploads to YouTube” from your web cam.  Even many really great speakers are not to the level of TED presenters that you watch on that site.

To suggest that everyone can be like TED, is about the same as saying everyone can be like Mike.  No way.



4 thoughts on “Anderson Misses the Boat Today on TED Talks

  1. Bob Morris

    You miss Anderson’s key point.

    As he explains in the book, it’s not that everyone will become a TED speaker. Rather, that almost anyone can improve their skills as a public speaker. In fact, few are both willing and able to commit to what Anders Ericsson characterizes as hours of the “deliberate practice” under expert supervision that such improvement requires. The same is true of “Be Like Mike.” Obviously, few — if any — people will ever play as well as Jordan but almost anyone can become — over time and with expert supervision — a better basketball player…or pianist, or chess player, or — yes — a better speaker.

  2. kjkrayer Post author

    I haven’t read the book. It doesn’t come out until this week. This post is based entirely upon the article published on Saturday. In it, he writes, “With enough practice, anyone can be a great presenter.”


  3. Jim Young

    Not trying to pick a fight, but I agree with Bob. I’ve read about a third of the book over the last few days and have gained useful new (to me) ideas that I’ve already applied. I think many people will find this book very useful whether they’re giving a TED Talk or a class presentation (or just sharing ideas).

    1. kjkrayer Post author

      No probem. I have not read the book. The post I made was just based on the Wall Street Journal article that he wrote. I may feel differently after reading the book. But all I have to go on is the article that he published on Saturday. And you saw the line where he talked about the potential of any presenter.


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