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Are we bored of TED Talks yet? (Pause)

A broadcaster of modest repute – a BBC man, but not a household name – was due to present a chamber of commerce annual awards bash for what was, presumably, a handsome fee.

Five minutes before taking to the stage, however, something happened that nobody – least of all the show’s organisers – had expected from a man of his background. He got the jitters.

The prospect of standing in front of a thousand people for the next two-and-a-half hours had suddenly become, in his mind, an ordeal akin to slack-rope walking across Niagara Falls.

Reader, he bottled it. I know this because an acquaintance of mine was asked to step in, and with nothing much to lose did a bravura job and became the toast of the evening.

This happened in the mid-Nineties, before TED Talks were a ‘thing’ – or at least a thing people had heard of outside California. There was no universal benchmark for How to Speak on Stage.

People either had a gift for public speaking or they didn’t.

Sure, there have always been teachers of oratory; the art of rhetoric dates back to Ancient Greece. Some of the most famous speakers in history were given lessons, but there was never an Everyman, easily accessible, template for what to do at ‘lights down’.

For better or worse, TED has provided that template.

Whatever you think of TED Talks – a lot of them seem to have a rather smug, superficial sheen – the best TED speakers have, nevertheless, perfected the art of commanding our attention.

There is no great mystery. A quick YouTube search reveals the same techniques being used ad infinitum. The podium has been banished, and in most cases all other prompts and cues.

Instead speakers strut around the stage. Legs slightly akimbo, shoulders back, head held high – the best can speak engagingly without repetition, hesitation or deviation for twenty minutes.

With pauses. There are always strategically placed pauses.

Undoubtedly these tropes have been thoroughly rehearsed, and, at times, some of the body language seems designed to make rather simple ideas seem breathtakingly profound.

Hands held chest high, palms facing inward, fingers slightly splayed – TED speakers adopt this particular pose when they want us to consider the awesome weight of their words. The ‘ok’ sign, a small jab of the forefinger, and a breaking-the-winner’s-tape victory pose complete the repertoire.

Public speaking is a fascinating mind game. After all – we can see how speakers use body language to command our attention. Unlike magicians, they show us how they do it. It’s a double bluff and we fall for it time after time. Still, one wonders if TED Talk-style presentations have a shelf-life? Will audiences get bored of the finesse? That, ultimately, will depend on the content. Too many TED Talks – and by extension keynote speeches at conferences – offer style over substance.

They’re a bit pseudo, frankly.

But given few things are more uncomfortable in life than watching a speaker corpse on stage, we must be grateful that they have raised the bar for public speaking – presentation-wise at least.