Not a TED speaker

Groucho Marx once sent a telegram to a Hollywood Club he had joined. It said: 'Please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.' It was a joke of course, and a self-deprecating one at that. But it also held a subtle caveat about involvement in organisations. What happens if you subscribe to a society or club that subsequently damages your reputation? It led me to wonder about the activities some academics are currently engaged in. So I sent a Facebook status update and a tweet that said: 'I'm going to include not a TEDx speaker in my CV'. Again, it was a throw away remark, but thinking about certain conferences, I wonder perhaps if it's best that many of us aren't so involved.

TEDx is the offspring of TED Talks, and the trouble with TED talks, it is claimed, is that everything is awesome, ideas are 'worth spreading', but very little is actually remembered. They're nice videos to watch, but how much do you actually learn? For many, these events can be little more than vacuous and self-congratulatory, where presentation style takes precedence over substance. TED Talks often end with a standing ovation with the audience whooping and whistling, as the spot-light bathed speaker basks in the glory of their 16 minutes or so of fame. It seems more like a cult of celebration and celebrity than something designed to inform and challenge. What's more, I have never seen any dialogue with the audience - presumably it would be too messy and unpredictable for TED. Because no critical element is present, any idea can be presented without fear of challenge.

TED takes a lot of care over how it selects its speakers, grooming and training them to present in the style approved by TED, and only when they are ready are they let loose to entertain the paying audience. TED makes a lot of money presenting its goods in this wrapper. It's true that many of the speakers are very polished, dynamic and persuasive. I have no idea to what extent TEDx is run along similar lines, or whether it's a great departure from its bigger brother, but it seems to adopt the same format, and the main difference is that it is scaled down and appears in a venue near you. Here's an rather unkind, but brutally honest and humourous take on the formula that lies behind many TED talks:

What does speaking at a TED event do for an individual? Apparently it looks good on a CV, but so does a life-saver certificate or a stint working in a voluntary organisation. What does it actually mean? I've met and worked alongside several TED speakers, and they are genuinely nice people, but I have never met one who has been willing to talk openly about the hoops they had to jump through to become a TED speaker.

I have been approached twice for nomination as a potential TED speaker. Both times I declined. I wouldn't presume. My most memorable speaking engagements to date have been in places such as the Royal Institution, The Royal Society and numerous universities around the globe. I didn't need to do anything other than turn up and speak. I have been lucky to speak at many truly amazing events, and the larger the event, the more pressure there is on keynote speakers to entertain. But entertaining is only one small aspect of public speaking, and hopefully substance still takes precedence. For me, the most important thing is that audiences should be informed and challenged, and that whenever possible, they should be able to have dialogue with the speaker. So I will continue to speak at events when I'm invited, but I won't be speaking at a TED event, and I'm quite happy it will never appear on my CV.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Creative Commons License
Not a TED speaker by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Anonymous said…
hmm. I have mixed feelings, being that I have done a TEDx (back in the day when there weren't so many) and have co-produced a TEDxED with student and teacher speakers. I vowed after that to not be involved with the org because they do have a lot of rules and stipulations I find constraining to my creativity. My TEDx talk was once of my first big public appearances, and it was nerve-racking to say the least...the one thing I can say was that it was interesting to speak at a non-ED fact, one of the speakers I shared the stage with happened to be a parent of a student of mine (he is also a brill scientist). I like the water cooler effect of stepping outside one's realm and seeing what insights I can gain from others in different fields. I used TED talks quite a bit in my Theory of Knowledge class and they worked well because I asked students to challenge what was discussed. Sometimes we explored the accompanying comments space on the TED blog and other times we tweeted to the speakers themselves. One thing that does bother me is that often the speakers are one trick ponies, so when you see them live they just "redo" their TED talk, which I carefully prepped myself by viewing before I see it's a bit of a let down. That being said, I think the student-run TEDx events are amazing opportunities, not just for student speakers, but for all the students involved in planning and execution (it is probably the most work I've ever done for an event). At ours we set up a "VOXBOX", which is something I made's like a iPad attached to the wall with prompts for reflection - the speakers used it as well as audience members and we made video compilations. Do I think TED is overrated? A bit...and like anything else we've become saturated. But I do think the format (less than 20 minutes), very visual, etc. is a good one. I do think if you explore the controversies and couple your viewing with critical thinking they are vary valuable. I do know (sadly) that saying you have spoken for TED or even TEDx means more to some people than certain more obscure but in my opinion better conferences. I do know that I benefit from many ideas shared through TED and loved seeing the pride some students had when getting to share their ideas at a TEDx event. So my point is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I hear what you are saying.
Steve Wheeler said…
I like the idea of student led events, and teachmeets are a classic example of these. However, you just articulated all my concerns about TED again, and have simply confirmed what I suspected. TED is overrated, lacks critical rigour and is elitist. I think it has run its course.
Anonymous said…
I think I agree with you on the run-its-course thing. Like all things...good for a while and then we need to move on (except for the Beatles)
David Hopkins said…
I don't see many people tweeting or sharing TED talks as they used to. I haven't visited the TED website or YouTube channel for a couple of years, at least. Warwick has produced a couple of TEDx events, all very well mastered and received, but not something I ever felt impelled to attend.

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