Going beyond “We should do something about that…”

I overheard a conversation last week in a coffee shop in which someone was claiming that she is “so over TED Talks.” My gut reaction was to intrude and educate her. TED Talks expose us to new and exciting and ideas, I would tell her, and can really inspire us to change the world. Before I could get up, she cut me off at the pass by leading with a nearly identical statement about TED Talks’ power. “BUT,” she quickly added, “anymore it feels like a smart and inspiring person with a cool story to share and not much else. It’s like a motivational poster hanging on the wall except it lasts 10 minutes instead of one sentence.”

All of a sudden, I was the one being educated. She really got me thinking.

Anyone reading this probably represents (at least) one of the 5 million views of Derek Sivers’ How to start a movement talk. You know the one I’m talking about: Crazy Dancing Guy on a grassy hill at a concert who, thanks to his first followers, grows his dance party from one person to hundreds of people in under 3 minutes. It’s a great talk. If there’s such a thing as an archetypical TED Talk, this is it.

And that, I think, is exactly the point my eavesdropping ears were hearing. The whole talk could have just been a picture with the caption, “Without motivated followers, a bold leader is nothing more than one lone nut.”

Compare this to a recent Elon Musk keynote in which he begins:

“What I’m going to talk about tonight is a fundamental transformation of how the world works.”

He goes on to talk about batteries and how he plans for them to eliminate the need for power plants that burn fossil fuels. It is decidedly unsexy. It’s unfit for even a motivational poster. And yet, the talk is captivating. Musk grabs our imagination, defines a huge problem and offers concrete takeaways about how we might overcome.

This was still on my mind when I read Terry Freedman’s great post, 7 Questions To Ask About Big Name Speakers At Education Technology Conferences. Like most of us, Freedman is a fan of speakers who reallydeliver and shares 7 questions we can ask that function as a sort of rubric to measure whether the headliner will hit us with sexy buzz and little substance or actually leave us with something meaningful. The point shared is that the author will get more out of attending a session by a local teacher sharing her actual work and strategies with students than from a keynote with a well-known speaker who offers little beyond inspirational hype.

Conference speakers of all stripes, not just education conferences, would do themselves and their audiences a service to read Freedman’s post and reflect on it. They need to challenge themselves to be better. It’s not enough to identify a problem nor is it sufficient to proclaim that we should do something about it. If a problem is worth discussing on a big stage, it should inherently be worth addressing.

Speakers who stop at a call to action are more of a footnote than a keynote. The challenge is to move beyond that and issue a claim to action that shares how they are changing the world. Speakers who can convince us that they are the real Crazy Dancing Guy will inspire us with their plans and truly start a movement.