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  • Writer's pictureMatt McGarrity

TED talks are great, but they're a unique genre

There is a growing literature that seeks to crack the code of TED talks for the rest of us. I think that’s great, but TED talks are a genre all to themselves. To go back to Cicero, they might focus on delighting, with some potential for teaching and moving. Making your presentation to your nonprofit about shifting funding into a new community needs to go beyond delight; that presentation must move. Relatedly, standards of evidence and proof are not as essential when purely entertaining; often, they get in the way. TED talks feature lots and lots of stories. Stories are interesting and often entertaining. They can make an argument or serve as evidence, or they can avoid this. Teachers who must prepare students for standardized testing should include stories, but those students need to demonstrate learned knowledge; that talk must go beyond delighting and tangibly teach new content.

I really like many TED talks, but I also see them in regards to the constraints of their genre. TED talks need to compete for your attention in the realm of entertainment. It’s either watch a TED talk or Netflix (or often, both simultaneously). Many of the presentations you give are dominated by other goals: teaching or moving. We can learn much from TED talks, but the challenge is applying what is good in those talks to what is needed for your goals. It’s akin to asking, “What can we learn from William Faulkner to make our company’s internal communications better?” Probably something, but you’re crossing genres premised upon different ends.

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