With over 20 million views, Sir Ken Robinson holds the record for the most popular TED Talk of all time. In this post, I deconstruct the factors that made his speech so powerful and so viral.
Tip 1: Share an idea worth spreading
Ken Robinson’s talk is entitled “Schools Kill Creativity.” That is a powerful statement of a important problem. Knowing that something bad is happening might catalyze change; however, it does not tell you what to actually do about it. A much better way to express an idea worth spreading is with a call to action that combines a “WHAT” and a “WHY”. With a nod to fellow TED star Simon Sinek, a darn effective way to do this is by using the framework: “To (action) so that (outcome).”
Using this framework, Mr. Robinson’s idea worth spreading is: ‘To educate the whole being of children so that they can build a brighter future.” There is nothing less at stake here than the future of civilization as we know it.
Tip 2: Build to your revelation by raising and then answering audience questions
Rather than state his big idea up front, Ken built up to it progressively. To see that, let’s strip his talk down to its logical essence:
- Introduction: Creativity in education is as important as literacy.
- Part 1: And, children are inherently creative.
- Part 2: However, we are educating children out of their creative capacity to meet the needs of our industrialized society. Rather than creating a better world, we are simply fueling academic inflation.
- Part 3: Instead, we should embrace the diversity of human intelligence.
- Conclusion: Therefore, we must educate the whole being of children so that they can build a brighter future for themselves and for the planet.
Mr. Robinson begins his deductive situation-complication-resolution narrative structure with the first noncontroversial statement he can make about the subject of creativity in education. Starting with something that any reasonable listener would agree with is a proven best practice in the art of persuasion. Every statement generates a multitude of potential questions. The speaker’s job is to address the most pressing question first. In this case, it is reasonable to assume few listeners need to know why creativity is as important as literacy. Ken can take that as a given. The more pressing question is ‘Do we actually need to teach kids the basics of how to be creative?’
In Part 1, Mr. Robinson answer this question with a definitive no. Children are born a creative beings. That is the end of the ‘situation’ part of his argument. However, this raises the next logical question, “Then what is the problem?” Part 2 lays out the complication that our current education system fosters left brain logical development and casts aside right brain creative expression. This raises the new question, “Well, is that necessarily a bad thing?” Still within Part 2 of his speech, Ken answers by arguing the present system is not making us happier and more productive; quite the contrary, it is simply leading to academic inflation.
Feeling the intensity of the problem at its peak, the audience is now seeking a resolution. Part 3 of Ken’s speech reveals that our greatest hope lies in embracing the diversity of human intelligence. Though his case is complete, audiences appreciate when a speaker wraps up his conclusion in a nice little package by explicitly stating it. That is precisely what Mr. Robinson does with his final words:
“What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now that we use this gift wisely and that we avert some of the scenarios that we’ve talked about. And the only way we’ll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way — we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it. “
Tip #3: Support your logical argument with proof points
If the idea worth spreading is the spine of the talk and the logical essence constitutes the ribs, then proof points are the soft tissue that gives beauty to the form. Proof points come in many forms. The most powerful proof point is a personal story. However, well told stories about others are a close second. In addition, there are other forms of proof as well including factoids, quotes, and even activities.
Though they are not mutually exclusive, there is some degree of trade off between the persuasiveness of a speech and its entertainment value. Talks are often most persuasive when built around a single story told in sections. Sharing self-contained story vignettes in each part of a speech is another reasonably sound approach. When the quantity and variety of proof points increases, a speech becomes more entertaining and less able to affect change. Stand-up comedy takes this principle to its extreme. After a great routine, the audience feels very satisfied and eager to tell others what a great time they had. Entertainment is viral. However, if you asked them what they learned, then you will get a blank stare.
Ken Robinson choose to pack proof points very densely into his speech. It took some of the impact of his message away but certainly made his talk more likely to be shared. Here is how he supported his logical arguments with proof points tightly coupled to his core message.
- Introduction: Reminded the audience of three themes running through the conference including – (a) extraordinary evidence of human creativity; (b) an uncertain future; (c) exceptionally talented children.
- Part 1: Shared stories about – (a) six-year-old girl who drew a picture of G-d; (b) his son playing Joseph in a nativity play
- Part 2: Packaged up a mix of – (a) a quote by Picasso; (b) a story about moving to America; (c) a statistic from UNESCO
- Part 3: Told a story about Gillian Lynne who developed a successful career as a dancer and choreographer
- Conclusion: Cited – (a) Al Gore’s climate crisis TED Talk; (b) a quote by Jonas Salk
Keeping the body metaphor going here, Mr. Robinson also added a few decorative tattoos to the flesh including a digression in the introduction on talking about education at a dinner party, two brilliant comic interludes in Part 2 about Shakespeare as a child and about university professors at a discotheque, and personal commentary about how his wife is superior at multitasking. It is not that these elements were completely irrelevant. Rather, the issue is that they existed to entertain rather then to inspire.
Tip #4: Bring your stories to live with description and dialogue
Ken Robinson is an expert not only at retelling but also at actually reliving stories with his audience. Doing this is difficult enough with a personal story. It is harder still with a story about others. However, true masters are able to do this even for hypothetical stories. Ken’s comic interlude about Shakespeare is an outstanding example that includes spoken as well as internal character dialogue:
You don’t think of Shakespeare having a father, do you? Do you? Because you don’t think of Shakespeare being a child, do you? Shakespeare being seven? I never thought of it. I mean, he was seven at some point. He was in somebody’s English class, wasn’t he? How annoying would that be? “Must try harder.” Being sent to bed by his dad, you know, to Shakespeare, “Go to bed, now,” to William Shakespeare, “and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.”
Tip #5: Customize your speech for your audience
As a professional speaker, Ken Robinson had probably delivered most elements of his speech countless times in the past. However, when you watch the speech it feels custom built for the venue. He achieved that effect in three important ways.
The first way was by engaging in conversational banter with the audience in a ‘pre-introduction’ to his speech. Though it is generally better to launch right into your speech, there are times when you need to take a moment to bridge the audience energy level to that in your talk. In Mr. Robinson’s case, he was the final speaker in the post-lunch time slot and was following a musical act. He engaged the audience by staring with the following laugh inducer:
Good morning. How are you? It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I’m leaving.
The second way he customized his speech was by giving his audience a contextually relevant summary of the themes running through a conference. If you have ever been to a TED conference, or any other conference for that matter, there comes a point where you have been inundated with so much information that your head is spinning. In sharing the three themes he pulled out, themes which related directly to his talk, he performed a valuable service for his listeners.
The final way he customized the speech was with frequent references to material from prior speakers and performers including 11-year-old violinist Sirena Huang, anthropologist Helen Fisher, and climate activist Al Gore.
Tip #6: Keep your audience engaged by previewing your roadmap and asking questions
Since he was building to a big conclusion using deductive logic, Ken Robinson never needed to provide an overall road-map for his talk. However, he provided road-maps for several of his individual sections as follows:
- Introduction: There have been three themes, haven’t there, running through the conference, which are relevant to what I want to talk about.
- Part 1: [none]
- Part 2: So the hierarchy [of our industrialized education system] is rooted on two ideas.
- Part 3: We know three things about intelligence.
- Conclusion: [none]
In addition to providing road-maps, he also kept the audience engaged by asking questions throughout his talk. Here are just a few of 38 instances:
- Introduction: I have an interest in education — actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education. Don’t you?
- Part 1: He [the speaker’s son James Robinson] was in the Nativity play. Do you remember the story?
- Part 2: Are you struck by a new thought?
- Part 3: Following off from Helen [Fisher] , I think this is probably why women are better at multi-tasking. Because you are, aren’t you?
- Conclusion: [none]
Tip #7: Boost your laugh count by riffing
As the passage about Shakespeare referenced in Tip #4 shows, Mr. Robinson does not just get a single laugh and move on. When the audience laughs, he pauses, then expands in ever more exaggerated fashion several more times. Even though there were several long stretches of serious content, he packed in an impressive 2.6 laughs-per-minute by riffing.
Tip #8: Repeat and elaborate on your most important points
Straight repetition is an effective and well known way to underscore a point while speaking. You can add variety and kick the impact up a notch by paraphrasing. My favorite illustration of this in Mr. Robinson’s talk is when he states the logical so-what for Part 1 of his speech in three ways:
What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong.
Tip #9: Avoid slides
The TED conference has led to a slow but important revolution is the way that slides are used in presentations of every kind. Bullets are disappearing and are being replaced by captivating imagery. However, slides are best when they are absent. Ken Robinson’s speech is just one of many most viewed TED Talks that use no slides at all.
Ken Robinson’s talk is not perfect. As highlighted earlier, it is a bit more entertaining that it is inspiring. It has not, as of yet, led to a massive revolution in education. Moreover, there were various minor tactical imperfections including his rapid speaking pace, limited vocal variety, and propensity to put his hands in his pockets. Still, these are simply nits in a powerful speech with an important idea worth spreading.