The most popular TED talk of all time

In 2006 Sir Ken Robinson delivered what is currently the most viewed TED talk ever. At the time of this writing the talk has roughly 32 million views if you include YouTube, the TED website and all other streaming apps. Pretty impressive numbers in general, but what makes the talk so good? and why does a talk about education claim the top spot? In this post I will delve into what makes this TED talk stand out from the rest, although first you might want to take a look at the talk in it’s entirety.

In short, Sir Ken Robinson believes that education in the current form does not allow young children to explore their creativity. The education system forces children to study and focus on subjects which “matter” while neglecting arts, music and theater. Those students whom do not conform to this model are often labeled as disruptive and sometimes said to have ADHD. Besides the fact that I agree with him, at least for the most part, on his thesis statement. What makes me and the other 31,999,999 people sit through a 19 minute and 24 second talk on the state of the education system? One rather obvious thing that sticks out is that Sir Ken is quite funny. Although, a British accent and a sarcastic sense of humor still does not add up to the most viewed talk of all time. The key, I believe, is that this talk is not just witty but well rehearsed, dramatic (when it needs to be), and thought provoking.  You might be thinking to yourself right now, “aren’t all TED talks like that?”, the answer is, well, not exactly…. let me show you what I mean.

The loss of creativity due to the fear of making mistakes”

Sir Ken Robinson does something amazing that few people ever do, that is, he convinces the his audience (and my guess is a good majority of the 32 million people as well) that the education system is broken. The same education we all went through, the one that many people work in for the betterment of society, the one we spend millions of public and private money on, yeah that one is broken. In other words for the most part we walk away from the talk thinking “yeah he is right!”. In fact so many people felt strongly enough about it, that they shared it with friends and those friends shared it with others until it got to the viral status that it has now. Additionally, Sir Ken does this all the while, using no power point, no actual data, and no testimonials from scientists. That is not to say that it makes him unqualified to speak on the subject, but rather that he uses the spoken word and the power of story telling to convince the audience of his point. This is a art form that I think is lost from the modern day. There isn’t a person in the academic or business world that has not sat through a boring talk where the speaker is relying on a slide show to tell a story rather than themselves. Not to mention that slides shows are often poorly designed wall’s of text which are read aloud to a room full of adults! Technology is a great tool when it comes to public speaking, however over use will lead to a disconnect between the speaker and the audience and ultimately becomes a distraction. Speaking in front of a crowd often takes a lot of practice, and the use of technology cannot (at least not yet) substitute for the energy and charisma of the spoken word. This is, I think the main strength of his talk, his energy and charisma for education is apparent to everyone and it inspires.

“We squander the talents of children”

In the technical sense, Sir Ken uses a method of injecting jokes between bold statements, vivid anecdotes and quotes from famous authorities. He blends these tools perfectly to fit his style of public speaking. This is a well thought out performance that hit the mark in an extraordinary way. For example, if you have ever gone to a comedy club then you already know that the “up and coming” comedians can be hilarious or can bomb in a major way. This is chiefly due to the fact that people respond to jokes and story telling only if the timing, meter and the delivery is right. It can take years for even experienced comedians to figure out how to get an audience to connect with a joke or story. I believe that the realm of public speaking it is no different. The TED talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave back in 2006 was not simply an off the cuff rant with some wit thrown in for good measure. (although that can happen from time to time) His talk was a well rehearsed performance that has a lot of similarities to a live musical or theatrical performance.

“Our job is to act!”

If you have ever listened to live music you already know that a misplayed note or missed rest can be very obvious. In the same way, a poorly rehearsed talk isn’t going to win awards or sway the audience. The key is to not only practice the delivery but to also consider the timing, and use of silence when giving a talk. These aspects of a speaker should blend harmoniously with the correct and appropriate use of body language. So how to put it all together to make your next talk as good as the highest viewed TED talk? I believe the first step is to have a subject matter that you believe in. For scientists this is usually not too hard since a great many of us sacrifice a lot to do the work that we do. Other professions need to dig deep to find that passion, because if you can’t convince yourself, it is going to be a hard sell to your audience. Rehearse so that you are natural and not stumbling over yourself trying to remember details, but also think about not becoming a mechanical fact spewing machine. It’s cool that Siri can answer questions by reading Wikipedia to you, but no one wants to listen to her give a public talk. Try to channel the enthusiasm of a child telling you why their favorite toy is so cool, just be more eloquent and use bigger words. Obviously there is a lot we can learn from Sir Ken Robinson that I have left out. But at least I hope that you can get a sense of what makes this talk so good. In future posts we will look to other inspiring talks and fill in a lot of gaps in terms of mechanics for public speaking.

If you want to learn more about Sir Ken Robinson visit and you can view his other TED talks here.

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