Saturday, August 4, 2018

Sometimes the Truth Is Somewhere In Between

Alfie Kohn linked to this opinion piece on TED Talks, and while I'm sympathetic, I have some objections.

"Picture this," Julie Bindel begins. "A darkened auditorium, an attentive, cult-like audience staring ahead expectantly, hardly daring to breathe; a huge screen on which there is an image no one can decipher."  Excuse me -- "cult-like"?  The rest of the article is written in the same lazy style, which is unfortunate for Bindel's complaint that TED "style appears to be given a hundred times more thought than content" and that "the style puts me off devouring the content."  Style is pretty much all there is to Bindel's piece; there's not much thought in it at all.  And I'm basically sympathetic to her position, which is why I clicked through in the first place.

She builds up to her smashing conclusion thusly:
I often give talks to both small and large audiences, and always feel nervous beforehand. This used to bother me, after decades of public speaking, but I then realised that being nervous is respectful of those who are there to hear me. Why would anyone wish to listen to some overconfident, over-rehearsed guru? Why would I want to subject them to a performance?
Um, well, maybe because giving a talk is a performance.  I wonder if Bindel has defined "performance" tendentiously to mean "something other than what I do" -- she doesn't specify.  If that's what she's doing, it's disingenuous and therefore disrespectful to her readers; if not, then she's merely wrong.

I've done a fair amount of public speaking over the years, though rarely on preset topics: usually, as with the GLB Speakers Bureau, I'm up there to answer questions, so what I say depends partly on the questions I'm asked.  But most of the questions we're asked are the same, on issues and topics that I've been thinking about for decades.  When I'm formulating an answer, I'm also conscious that I'm communicating with an audience, and I hope to be memorable, maybe funny, to say my say so as to make an impression that will stay with them.  That's a performance.  Am I nervous?  Not in the panel context.  But I don't think I'm "over-rehearsed" either.

"Over-rehearsed" might be disrespectful to the audience, but then so would under-rehearsed be.  I doubt that Bindel simply stands up and wings it with no preparation at all.  Nor, I hope, does she stand up and draw a blank, gaping open-mouthed at her audience.  That would be spontaneous, natural, "real."  It would also probably generate some complaint from the people who'd shown up hoping to hear her say something substantial.  Spontaneity is, in this context, an illusion.  A performer plans and prepares so as to seem natural and spontaneous; it takes a lot of work and talent to create that illusion.  So for once, it seems to me, the truth lies somewhere between "over-rehearsed" and "under-rehearsed."  The sweet spot can't be specified in advance.

I agree with some of Bindel's objections to TED Talks, but she hasn't thought her position through.  I find myself wondering, for example, about that standard TED Talk style, which I imagine is indeed the result not only of rehearsal but of guidance by the organization.  I find it annoying too, but evidently many people don't.  It reminds me of the conventions of stage acting and indeed of public speaking a century ago, where hopefuls were taught the proper gestures to go with and convey emotions.  The survival of elements of this style is what makes it difficult for me to watch early silent movies.  But that didn't bother most of their original audiences, apparently.  I suspect that the same applies to TED talks, and it's as absurd to speak of their audiences as "cult-like" as it would be to apply that epithet to early 20th century movie or stage or Chatauqua audiences.

Yeah, the TED style annoys me too.  But when I do listen to or watch a TED Talk, it's usually the content that bothers me.  Good content is always hard to find.  In Julie Bindel's case, it's both style and content that bother me.  First pluck the beam out of thine own eye, Ms. Bindel.