TED’s annual mainstage conference always kicks off with a bang, but this year the vibe at the first session felt a little different. From the #MeToo movement to the Parkland shooting to the dark side of tech, the opening talks in Vancouver set a new kind of tone for TED. It was heavier. More emotional. More frustrating.
As TED releases the talks throughout the year, I’m sure we’ll see a variety of audience and media reactions. But we’re not here to offer our personal opinions. What we pay special attention to are the communication trends at the conference. TED is the gold standard for public speaking, and it’s always fascinating to watch how they are raising the bar.
My Favorite TED2018 Talks, From a Communication Perspective
The theme for TED2018 was The Age of Amazement, and perhaps the first big takeaway was a reminder that “amazing” encompasses more than just “wonderful.” It can also be shocking, devastating, and sometimes even a little terrifying. And at the five-day conference, we saw “amazement” in all its forms.
Thought Leadership: Jaron Lanier, Scientist
Lanier gave his first TED talk in the 1980s, when digital culture was brand new, and he was at the forefront of shaping that culture. This yearhe questioned the dependency we’ve developed on our devices and the social networks we run on them, and he recommended some ways we can start to “undo” the mistakes we’ve made in designing our digital world.
“Google was born free, with ads; Facebook was born free, with ads. Now in the beginning, it was cute, like with the very earliest Google. The ads really were kind of ads. They would be, like, your local dentist or something.
“But there’s thing called Moore’s law that makes the computers more and more efficient and cheaper. Their algorithms get better. We actually have universities where people study them, and they get better and better. And the customers and other entities who use these systems just got more and more experienced and got cleverer and cleverer. And what started out as advertising really can’t be called advertising anymore. It turned into behavior modification, just as Norbert Wiener had worried it might.
“And so I can’t call these things social networks anymore. I call them behavior modification empires.”
Some listeners criticize TED talks as overly formulaic, blending into one another because they’re all crafted in the same format. But Lanier’s talk felt authentic, owned, and unique. Lanier’s content was organized and easy to follow, but it didn’t feel overly structured or rehearsed. He gave the impression that he was having a conversation with the audience, rather than giving a formal talk.
With a score of 90, Lanier demonstrated 10 percent more thought leadership than the average TED speaker.
His authenticity, combined with his in-depth perspective on the past, present, and future of our digital culture made Lanier’s talk a best-in-class example of thought leadership, according to QC’s analytics.
Delivery: Jason Rosenthal, Dad, Advocate, and Artist
Jason Rosenthal’s wife of twenty-six years died of ovarian cancer last March. Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a beloved children’s book author, published an essay in the New York Times“Modern Love” column just ten days before she died. It was called “You May Want to Marry My Husband,”and the reflection on her illness, framed as a personal ad for Jason, challenged him to seek a fresh start after she was gone.
Rosenthal’s talk focused on grief and the overwhelming heartbreak and blessing of the blank page Amy had given him.
“I would like to offer you what I was given: a blank sheet of paper. What will you do with your intentional empty space, with your fresh start?”
But Rosenthal did something unique for a TED talk: he spoke much more slowly and deliberately—poetically, even—than his fellow speakers.
In fact, with a score of 98.7, Rosenthal used 13 percent more pauses than the average TED speaker.
And this pace dramatically increased his impact by giving us space to process our emotions duringhis talk instead of after. He had the audience in tears as we felt his grief along with him.
Technology: Yuval Noah Harari & Supasorn Suwajanakorn
TED is known for raising the bar when it comes to remote presentations, like telecasting the Pope in 2017. But this year, TED did something I’ve never seen before. Historian Yuval Noah Harariwasn’t able to make it to the conference, so he delivered his talk from Tel Aviv, by hologram. The talk itself—about humanity’s digital future—was fascinating, but what really held my attention was the hologram.
We know from social and behavioral science research that we connect best with each other when we can do so face-to-face, and this hologram was veryclose to replicating that in-person interaction. We could watch him gesture and move on stage, and being able to truly experience his speaking style helped the audience buy into his message and his expertise. Without being able to see his full frame, the talk certainly would have had a different impact. The hologram, much more than a live video, created that sense that Harari was really in the room with us, speaking to us, and reacting to us as we reacted to him—in his prepared talk and an onstage Q&A that felt very much in person.
On the other hand, TED2018 also highlighted technology that is amazing in a much scarier sense of the word. Dr. Supasorn Suwajanakornis a pioneer of the video technology that allows us to edit what folks are saying, best known for his fake videos of former President Barack Obama.
In Vancouver, he spoke in defense of his work, focusing on the potential for students to meet and interview historical figures or for people to create avatars of their deceased loved ones. Still, one has to wonder whether the benefits outweigh the risks—at least until ethical regulations catch up with the technology.
In all, TED2018 was an incredible learning experience, amazing in every sense of the word, and I came home with a lot on my mind. Some of it’s exciting and positive, and some of it’s terrifying. What’s most amazing, though, is TED’s annual reaffirmation of the power of a great story, told well, to move audiences. TED is one of the masters, and watching the conference’s great stories, one after another, is pure joy.