Why TED talks are far less interesting than revival sermons

I like good oratory.

I teach public speaking regularly. I source and buy or download examples of great (imho…) examples of the genre, from business, politics, cinema, and the church. I watch the best of them over and over, making notes on why they work. I go over videos almost frame-by-frame with classes and seminars, pointing out this hand-movement, that inflection, the use of eyes, the deployment of silence, and of course two dozen or more classical rhetorical techniques, which I name easily in Greek and English.

I like good oratory.

A while ago, at a dinner party, the conversation turned to TED talks. I admitted, truthfully, that I have never yet watched to the end of one. It turned out that another guest was VP of a firm that sponsored one of the regional conferences, and so the conversation became slightly awkward…

…I remember, however, not so much the awkwardness as the realisation. It had not occurred to me until I said it over that table, but it is the case that I have never yet watched to the end of a TED talk. I’ve begun to watch several dozen – over a hundred perhaps. I’ve learnt from many of them. In several cases I’ve bought the speaker’s book. But I’ve always clicked the close button before the presenter received her/his applause.

On reflection, this is odd. I like good oratory. I study good speakers obsessively, watch them repeatedly, pause the video, go in slow-mo, rewind, replay. But every TED talk I have clicked on, I have clicked off soon afterwards.

This week I tripped over an NYT op-ed entitled The Church of TED, proposing that TED talks are the revivalist sermons of yore. This made me think again of my awkward conversation. I have heard and analysed great revivalist sermons; they are a world away from what I see on the TED video streams.

When I teach public speaking, I stress one point regarding purpose: the stand-up monologue is, demonstrably, a fairly poor way of communicating information. It excels as a way of communicating vision. To use the form effectively, the speaker should not aim at the mind, but at the heart. A good set-piece speech is not about changing ideas, it is about changing desires. All of this is extensively demonstrated in the literature on public speaking.

Of course, this makes sense of preaching. When I speak to experienced preachers I ask them to summarise the message of their last sermon in one sentence (if it was a well-constructed sermon, they will have done this before starting to write it of course). Then I ask them to estimate how many of those who heard the sermon would not have already known that idea. 5% is rare; 10% almost vanishingly so. Preachers repeat endlessly truths their congregations know well, with the hope and prayer that at least some of those congregated might this time be inspired to live what they profess to believe a little better. They aim at hearts, not minds, seeking to change desires, not ideas.

The TED talk – classically; no doubt there are exceptions – proposes new ideas to the hearer; it aims at communicating information, not redirecting desire. Generally in my (I freely admit, limited) experience, the informational content of a TED talk is fully conveyed in the first three minutes; however interesting and arresting the talk, there is no need or purpose in watching beyond that. I confess to a very short attention span - no; let me rephrase that; I confess to a very low boredom threshold. I can give weeks to working slowly through an obscure Latin text if it continues to offer me something new, but a videoed speaker who has said his piece gets about twenty seconds more, and then is dismissed.

Revivalist sermons told their hearers nothing new, but convicted them of the need to act on the things they professed to know. They aimed at desires, not ideas. This is, simply, the right use of oratory. And in politics and in business this is visibly the successful use of the set-piece speech. I play my students a speech Bill Gates gave, full of technical specs, rich in information, instantly forgettable, extraordinarily boring. Then I play them Steve Jobs’s keynote from a few weeks later, launching the MacBook Air.

He said one thing: ‘it’s thin.’

Oh, there is a pile of numbers and pictures and comparisons to make you realise that he means, ‘no, really, it’s thin!’ And there is of course a powerful message about desire: ‘thin is beautiful; thin is desirable; you want this computer…’ But the informational content of the speech? ‘It’s thin.’ The speech is aimed at hearts, not heads; it is about desires, not ideas.

I’ve shown them both a dozen times to classes and conferences. I can’t right now remember even what product is being pushed in the Bill Gates speech; I own a MacBook Air.

I play my students several of Obama’s speeches from the extraordinary 2008 campaign. Hardly a mention of policy in any of them; some fine rhetorical techniques (endless use of the rule of three in particular); much appeal to shared narrative (he repeatedly riffed a story of the American dream, centred on oppressed people daring to hope, brilliantly invoking iconic moments: revolution; the westward trail; the end of slavery; World War II; the moon landings; civil rights – and iconic individuals: Lincoln, Kennedy, King). Mostly, however, he simply challenged and dared people to hope for something different. The slogans were ‘Change you can believe in,’ ‘Dare to hope,’ or even ‘Yes we can!’ He spoke to the heart, not the head, invoked desires rather than proposing ideas. Whatever you think of the presidency that resulted, it was quite stunningly brilliant oratory.

Revival sermons follow the same pattern. Edwards did not say one thing at Enfield that his hearers did not already know and profess to believe; to make them actually feel that they were ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’, however, he played a remarkable rhetorical trick. He borrowed the (then instantly recognisable) form of the ‘hands’ sermon, preached to condemned prisoners on the morning of their execution, imploring them to repent now, because in a moment it will be too late – and he applied it to his comfortable bourgeoise listeners. Every line of the sermon follows through, the images are all of instability, of the immediacy of impending danger. No new idea proposed, but old ideas applied powerfully to the heart to change the desire.

No doubt there are TED talks that do this; I happen not to have heard them. The ones I have heard propose new ideas. I like new ideas, of course, but I like them in written form, so I can skim over the bits that do not interest me and pause on the crucial proofs, digging into the data to test them. If a TED talk is genuinely interesting, I turn it off and go and look for the author’s book or blog. The set-piece monologue should never be about proposing new ideas, but about changing hearts and attitudes – for the boring but decisive reason that this is what it is good at. Back in the day revival preachers knew this; TED speakers, in my admittedly-limited experience, don’t.

And today good preachers know this, at least instinctively; poor preachers, by definition, don’t.

7 Comments

  1. Terry
    Mar 18, 2015

    Fascinating stuff, Steve. I’ve been thinking through issues regarding preaching recently, so this has come at a welcome time. Could you recommend a book (or books) or other resources that go into more detail about oratory, rhetoric, and so on?

  2. steve
    Mar 18, 2015

    There’s loads of stuff out there, Terry. I guess you know the standard texts in the new homiletic – if not, try Lowry’s Homiletical Plot for an overly-prescriptive but thought-provoking challenge on how to preach.
    In business presentation, Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen and The Naked Presenter (google his blog for a taste) are good places to start; Abela’s Advanced Presentations by Design is useful in footnoting extensively to the relevant research.
    In academia, Bligh’s What’s the Use of Lectures? summarises mountains of research.

  3. Terry
    Mar 18, 2015

    Thanks, Steve.

  4. Alastair Roberts
    Mar 18, 2015

    I wonder how your comments here relate to different traditions of homiletics. Very few of the best sermons that I have heard could be summarized in a single sentence. Most of the sermons that I hear are within a tradition of expository and redemptive historical preaching. What such sermons communicate is not easily split between ‘ideas’ or ‘desires’ either (although they tend to be information-rich). One could argue that their primary communicative burden is ‘a way of seeing’ (imagination) and ‘authority’. Through such preaching, congregations are taught to relate to the Scripture as authoritative in all of its parts (and the rhetorical form of preaching serves to emphasize this), formative of Christian identity and consciousness, that we are the heirs and executors of the scriptural testament, that the Scriptures throughout look us in the eye, and that there are certain habits of Christian reading that open up texts.

    Perhaps such imaginative formation could be placed under ‘desires’, but I would be more inclined to place it in a category of its own. It very much addresses the mind, however, not primarily in order to ‘fill’ it (with information), but in order to ‘form’ it (by training the imagination). There are occasions when I remember very little of the direct content of a sermon, but I know at the end of it that my mind is more on Scripture’s wavelength than it was at the beginning (and that, even though I have forgotten the content of the sermon, I have been shaped by it to a degree that I could probably readily establish much of its content in a way that I couldn’t before hearing it). Through the imagination, the heart is integrated with the mind and both are moved together.

    I would also be interested to read a study of the history of preaching that studied the tensions between the traditions of rhetoric within synagogues and the traditions of classical oratory that the Church came to adopt. For instance, how would our understanding of preaching be affected if we no longer stood up to teach, but stood to read and sat down to teach? Many of the histrionic elements—even the verbal ones—that we associate with revivalist preaching would be less accessible if the preacher were sedentary.

    • steve
      Mar 19, 2015

      Hi Alastair, thanks. Yes; I think I grasp the distinction you are making, and I certainly recognise the concept of ‘imaginative formation’ you invoke. Not one much used in revivalist sermons, though?

      • Alastair Roberts
        Mar 19, 2015

        No, not in my (relatively limited) experience of them.

  5. Reinald
    Mar 22, 2015

    Great post. Maybe some TED videos are simply too long (“if you can’t make your point in 20 min, you won’t in 45″ a preacher friend once told me).
    One great TED talk I’m sure you’ll finish is Sir Ken Robinson about education => https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY. He’s witty, insightful and to the point. And I’d love you to share some videos on good oratory skills.

    And as a geek, I love that you draw from the tech industry (Apple in particular, which I find fascinating, along with Pixar).

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