The Man Behind TED Talks on Persuasive Speaking
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because interesting ideas can resonate around the world, if delivered this way.
By Neil Parmar
Are we in the midst of a public-speaking renaissance? Chris Anderson thinks so. As curator for the TED Conference and someone who’s seen hundreds of talks over the years, he’s come closer than most to unlocking the secret of being an effective, persuasive sharer of ideas. TED Talks, once focused mostly on tech, entertainment and design, have since evolved to feature more global issues and deeply personal insights, such as rediscovering the passionate “hum” that drives burned-out workaholics, as well as explorations into fields including machine learning and artificial intelligence, “which is going to have a huge part of shaping the future,” Anderson tells OZY.
But how do you better communicate an idea while shaping how someone thinks about the world or their actions, both now and into the future? Start by listening — listening to a man who began life in a remote village in Pakistan, where the oral tradition of exchanging ideas is very much alive today. In our conversation and accompanying video, which OZY is proud to co-premiere with TED today, Anderson draws from his book, TED Talks: The Official Guide to Public Speaking.
Ideas that are truly groundbreaking and significant take a while to emerge; they’re often invisible at the time.
OZY: As TED has grown from its roots as an annual event in Monterey, California, how have you seen the sharing of ideas evolve globally?
Chris Anderson: The world is changing. Part of what we’re trying to do is identify which ideas are the most germane now, and that’s obviously a moving piece. What’s stayed constant is the notion that real change is driven more by the world of ideas, inventions, the output of human imagination and the visions that people have — rather than politicians, for example. In our normal dialogue we possibly overstate the latter and understate the former quite a bit, because politicians pronounce every day, whereas ideas that are truly groundbreaking and significant take a while to emerge; they’re often invisible at the time.
OZY: Who’s surprised you about your own belief system, or challenged your thinking?
C.A.: I’ve loved the different TED Talks on the science of happiness in its different forms. In a very direct way I would say that they have impacted me and made me happier. At various times various speakers have said things like cutting down on the amount of choice you have can actually be good for your happiness, or immersion in nature or meaningful work, or a real focus on a real relationship, or a form of generosity. Some of these ideas run counter to mainstream culture, but for me they’ve proved powerful.
OZY: Any favorites?
C.A.: One of my favorite TED speakers is a reclusive physicist, David Deutsch. I just love how his mind works. He changed my view on what optimism is. We think of optimism as this sort of hopeful feeling. He said that’s not how to think of it. Optimism is the stance that problems are there to be solved, that problems are actually solvable and that if you want an operating manual for life, you carve two tablets: One of them says problems are inevitable, and the other says problems are solvable. It’s kind of a great way to stay calm and keep moving.
OZY: One part of your video that stands out is when you say that if a speaker can reveal a disconnect in someone’s worldview, the listener will feel the need to bridge that knowledge gap — and that once a speaker has sparked that desire, it will be so much easier to start building an idea. How might that notion be applied to some of the global discourse, or lack of it, we’re hearing today?
C.A.: Before you can truly communicate, the receiving mind needs to want information. You need to have a certain level of listening, open-mindedness. There’s not nearly enough of that in our global dialogue.
In public speaking one of the key goals is to find a way to disarm people’s mistrust and skepticism and persuade them to give you a chance, and [then] implant a new piece of an idea in their mind. That essentially means convincing them you’re not there to threaten them. Part of what’s needed more broadly is to figure out how to promote that listening. Two people shouting at each other makes for compelling television, but no one really learns anything. You’re going into gladiatorial mode rather than enlightenment mode.
There are certain words where you mention them and suddenly alarm bells go off and people go into lockdown mode.
OZY: In some ways you’re describing, indirectly, debates we’re seeing in U.S. elections. Is that perhaps why TED tends to eschew overt politics in its talks?
C.A.: It is. There are certain words where you mention them and suddenly alarm bells go off and people go into lockdown mode. And it’s pretty tragic that that happens. It is part of our psychology that as soon as you go, “Wait a sec, we’re entering an us-them debate” — not all of us together trying to figure out an answer — you go into warfare mode and stop listening.
Politics can do that, certain forms of religious discussion can do that, so we’re very, very wary of doing those. Both matter, and what we’re looking for when we have speakers in those topics is to find someone who can frame an issue outside the box and avoid pressing the buttons that provoke hostility.
OZY: Given that, if TED were an American citizen, who would he or she vote for this election?
C.A.: I’m sure that TED, in different proportions, would vote for any and all candidates. And many others would kind of bang their heads on the wall and say, “Honestly, is this the best that we can come up with? Let’s do some dreaming on a better way to do this.”
OZY: We’re always looking for the new and the next in trends and rising stars. What topics would you like to see covered more in future TED Talks?
C.A.: One is not a specific topic, it’s a way of thinking about the future. I’m just struck by how down so many people are about the world right now. I’m interested in this idea of not pinning our happiness to finding solutions to problems — because if we do that, we’re going to be disappointed — but to get excited about incremental change. Maybe it’s just me at age 59, but I don’t think so. I was talking to a friend who was saying how taking two steps forward and one step back sounds depressing, but it’s actually not — it’s incredible. If you have 30 years of two steps forward and one step back, you’ve made spectacular progress. I want to find a way of communicating that mindset better: the upside of incrementalism. How about that?
This interview has been condensed and edited.