Preach Like TED

“The point of a talk is to say something meaningful, but it’s amazing how many talks never quite do that.” —Chris Anderson

One of my friends is a very successful author and public speaker. He’s very good at what he does. Recently, he was asked to do a TED talk at the TEDX conference in Nashville. In case you don’t know, the TED conference began as a gathering of creative leaders in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design. Chris Anderson, the Curator of TED talks, has transformed the event into a series of culturally impactful speeches given by some of the most important and interesting people in our world. In fact, you know you have arrived when you’re asked to do a TED talk.

Anyway, back to my friend. One day we were talking about his experience in preparing to give a TED talk. According to him, you don’t just stand up and give a TED talk. You have to hand in a manuscript, rehearse in front of them, and then, change your speech or presentation after they critique you. Then, you have to do it all over again. TED was making him work harder on this speech than he had worked on anything in his life.

Here’s what got my curiosity going. My friend is a very well-known author/speaker. He’s one of the top people in the nation doing what he does. If TED was that hard on him, what would they have done to me? That led me to the next question: “What does TED know that every preacher should know.” So, I started my research on TED talks.

Here’s a few—though certainly not all—of the things I have found out.

1. TED talks are rarely over 18 minutes long.

Why? Thinking is hard, and most people can’t do it for longer than 18 minutes. Besides that, thanks to the Internet, people’s attention spans have dropped precipitately. And if you can’t say it in 18 minutes, you’re probably not going to say it any better in 30.

2. Stories rule.

Every preacher knows this. We’ve always known people remember our illustrations much longer than our points. Our failure as preachers is that we don’t make this knowledge work for us. We’ll still give our people 3 points to remember, but it’s stories that change lives and move people to action.

3. People love learning new things.

Great sermons, like great TED talks, surprise us with truth. This creates an unforgettable moment of delight that fires up the brain to pay more attention to the material being presented.

4. Use all of the senses.

Stories that evoke smells, sounds, and descriptive sights are more moving than a bland list of facts. Preachers, like great TED speakers, have to learn to be multi-sensory, multi-level story tellers.

5. Practice.

Most preachers think that once we have the sermon written, we’re done. Not so with TED talks. Now the hard work begins. Vocal pacing, gestures, learning to use pauses and anticipate audience reactions are critical moments in any great TED talk…or sermon. Once the sermon is written, great preachers rehearse and then, rehearse some more. The way you say it can enhance or ruin what you’re saying. So, practice, practice, practice…

Of course, there’s a lot more, but here’s what I find fascinating. In a time of digital and virtual realities, what’s changing the world is 18-minute talks by one person to other people.

I’ve been doing what I do for a long time. Every so often, someone will come out with a book that says, “Preaching is dead.” Well, it hasn’t died yet. I don’t think it ever will. There’s something about that moment when, as one great preacher described, “One beggar tells another beggar where he found bread.”

Great preachers work hard and pray harder to make sure these great moments are never wasted.