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How TED Talks Differ from Your Pastor’s Sermon

I like good oratory and I teach public speaking regularly.

I locate great examples from various professions and watch the best of them over and over, making notes on why they work.

I review videos almost frame by frame with classes and seminars, pointing out this hand movement, that inflection, the use of eyes, the deployment of silence and classical rhetorical techniques.

At a dinner party I attended, the conversation turned to TED talks. I admitted, truthfully, that I have never watched to the end of one.

I’ve begun watching over a hundred TED talks, and I’ve learned from many of them.

In several cases, I’ve bought the speaker’s book. But I’ve always clicked the close button before the presenter received her or his applause.

On reflection, this is odd. As I said, I like good oratory. I study good speakers obsessively and watch them repeatedly. But every TED talk I have clicked on, I have clicked off soon afterward.

A recent New York Times op-ed, “The Church of TED,” caught my attention as it proposed that TED talks are akin to the revivalist sermons of yore.

I have heard and analyzed great revivalist sermons; they are a world away from what I see on the TED video streams.

When I teach public speaking, I stress one point regarding purpose: the stand-up monologue is a fairly poor way of communicating information.

It excels as a way of communicating vision. To use the form effectively, the speaker should not aim at the mind, but at the heart. It is not about changing ideas; it is about changing desires.

Of course, this makes sense of preaching.

When I speak to experienced preachers, I ask them to summarize the message of their last sermon in one sentence.

Then I ask them to estimate how many congregants would not have already known that idea. Five percent is rare, 10 percent almost vanishingly so.

Preachers repeat endlessly truths their congregations know well, hoping that someone might be inspired to live more faithfully what they profess to believe. They aim at hearts, not minds, seeking to change desires, not ideas.

By contrast, TED talks generally propose new ideas, aiming at communicating information, not redirecting desire.

Generally, the content is fully conveyed in the first three minutes; however interesting and arresting the talk, there is no need or purpose in watching beyond that.

Revivalist sermons, on the other hand, told their hearers nothing new, but convicted them of the need to act on the things they professed to know. They aimed at desires, not ideas.

This is the right use of oratory. And in politics and in business this is visibly the successful use of the set-piece speech.

I play my students a Bill Gates speech, followed by a keynote speech Steve Jobs gave when launching the MacBook Air.

Gates’ offered technical information that was instantly forgettable, extraordinarily boring.

Jobs said one thing: “it’s thin.” He then explained why this was positive, aiming at hearts, not heads; desires, not ideas.

In addition, I play my students several of Barack Obama’s speeches from the 2008 election campaign.

Hardly a mention of policy in any of them, some fine rhetorical techniques and much appeal to shared narratives. Mostly, however, he challenged people to hope for something different.

He spoke to the heart, not the head, invoked desires rather than proposing ideas. Whatever you think of the presidency that resulted, it was quite stunningly brilliant oratory.

Revival sermons follow the same pattern. Jonathan Edwards did not say one thing at Enfield, Connecticut, that his hearers did not already know and profess to believe.

To make them actually feel that they were “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” however, he played a remarkable rhetorical trick.

He borrowed the (then instantly recognizable) form of the sermons preached to condemned prisoners on the morning of their execution, imploring them to repent now, because in a moment it will be too late.

Edwards applied this to his comfortable, bourgeois listeners. The images are all of instability, of the immediacy of impending danger.

No new idea proposed, but old ideas applied powerfully to the heart to change the desire.

No doubt there are TED talks that do this; I happen not to have heard them. The ones I have heard propose new ideas.

I like new ideas, but in written form, so I can skim over the bits that do not interest me and pause on the crucial proofs, digging into the data to test them.

Preachers need to remember that the set-piece monologue should never be about proposing new ideas, but about changing hearts and attitudes – for the boring but decisive reason that this is what it is good at.

Back in the day, revival preachers knew this. TED speakers, in my admittedly limited experience, don’t.

And today good preachers know this, at least instinctively; poor preachers, by definition, don’t.

Stephen Holmes is a Baptist minister and senior lecturer in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Shored Fragments. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveRHolmes.