How TED Talks Could Be Improved

If TED changed its focus and direction slightly, it could become a forum for interesting discussion.

At present it is hampered by five factors:

  1. Too much status is attached to TED talks. A talk alone can whisk a person to fame.
  2. The talks tend to emphasize positive, inclusive big ideas rather than questions and doubts.
  3. The talks dabble in science just enough to seem credible but do not engage in serious argumentation. They do not come with bibliographies (as they should).
  4. The talks tend to sound alike; many of them include a big idea, poignant personal story, and reference to science. Many come with a prop.
  5. Some of the most popular talks make unfounded claims and demonstrate poor reasoning.

Very well. How might these problems be adjusted or overturned?

  1. TED talks should not function as products. No talk should claim the last word on a subject; it should invite challenges, refutations, and corrections. TED should feature speakers with contrasting approaches to the same topic.  After speaking individually, they should engage in dialogue. A talk’s page should list sources and errata.
  2. The talks should dare to work with smaller ideas–and with ideas that aren’t necessarily cheery and warm. Many TED talks convey the message that we are all full of potential–and that if we could only tap it, we would do amazing things. It isn’t as simple as that. More talks should deal with the complications.
  3. The talks should be more focused and logical. If they claim to be scientific, they should make a scientific argument (and acknowledge its uncertainties). If they tend toward the personal, they should tell a coherent story. In general, there should be more emphasis on substance.
  4. The talks should exist in greater variety; they should not have to conform to a TED formula. Some should be longer, others shorter; some more abstract, others more concrete; some more general, others more specialized; some more personal, others more formal. There should be talks on literature, history, and mathematics, in addition to the existing topics.
  5. The talks should have to meet standards of intellectual quality. TED should vet statements about scientific findings. Speakers should ground and qualify their ideas while acknowledging uncertainty and error.

I like some TED talks–but even my favorites (such as those of Temple Grandin and Evelyn Glennie) have some of the weaknesses I have described above, particularly #2. Their real liveliness is in the subject matter, not in the big idea. Sure, the world needs all kinds of minds (provided they aren’t set on destroying things); sure, the world needs more and better listening (provided there are things worth listening to).

But big ideas come with complications, and they (the ideas) aren’t at the heart of these talks anyway. It is the speakers’ work, language, and personalities–that is, their particularities–that make the talks genuine and interesting. What is wrong with that? Why should every presentation have to include the whole world? Why should it bear the obligatory tagline, “You Can Do It Too”?

We can’t all do everything. We all have potential of some kind, but to use it, we have to employ knowledge, discipline, and ingenuity (in concrete situations). If TED toned down the hyperoptimism and upped the substance, it could have hope.

Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

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