One of the unintentional by-products of TED is that speakers, in an effort to mimic TED’s success, have been making speeches shorter and more entertaining. That’s alarming.
Wait a minute, you say. Alarming? How so? How could that possibly be other than a good thing: shorter and more entertaining speeches? Isn’t the alternative – what we used to have – longer and more boring speeches? Who wants those?
No one wants longer and more boring speeches. But that’s not the only alternative. The real alternative to entertaining speeches is – wait for it – useful speeches. And for speeches to be useful, they should be interactive. Interactive takes longer, because it simply takes a while to explain to the audience what they should do and to get them to do it.
So the real alternative that TED is crowding out of the marketplace is useful, interactive speeches that are probably a bit longer.
That’s a huge mistake, because audiences can’t get everything they need to out of a speech if it simply unrolls in front of them like a movie. A short movie. Passive learners don’t get as much out of a lesson as active learners.
Meeting planners and conference organizers who demand takeaways, applicability, and useful insights should not be pushing for more and more TED-like speeches, because there isn’t time in a ten-minute speech, say, to persuade an audience of the importance of some point of view and get them to try out the implications of that point of view in a substantial, interactive exercise that gives them the space to grapple with an idea enough to truly learn it.
TED speeches work brilliantly for introducing an audience to an idea in truncated form. But they shouldn’t be mistaken for real learning. You can’t fully know something until you have tried it out for yourself.
If you believe that attention spans are getting shorter and people more information-overloaded, then it makes a kind of goofy sense to throw in the intellectual towel and give audiences bite-sized ideas. But that’s not my experience. I’ve found the opposite: if you tell people great stories and give them meaty ideas, letting them roll up their sleeves and get involved in working on the ideas personally, they love going deep into new knowledge.
What’s really going on is that as the world speeds up, and people try to take in more and more information faster and faster, then they lose the experience of the intellectually satisfying deep dive. But that doesn’t mean they are incapable of it – quite the contrary. It means they hunger for it more than before.
I am a huge fan of TED, and I applaud the raising of the bar for speakers everywhere that TED has meant. But it would be a mistake to turn all conferences and meetings into TED-similar experiences. If we do so, we lose the opportunity for more profound explorations of topics that don’t lend themselves easily to bite-sized intellectual nibbling. Let’s agree to keep lots of speeches short and entertaining when the topic merits it, but let’s also agree to stay open to the idea of interactive, useful speeches when we want people to experience real learning.