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Should We Preach Like a TED Talk?

Strive to be memorable, but let God and his Word change lives.
Should We Preach Like a TED Talk?
Image: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

TED talks have become quite a phenomenon. There are now thousands of short talks by world experts available on the TED website, and because so many of them are captivating and memorable, people are asking "How can I speak as persuasively as a TED speaker?" More specifically for preachers, we sometimes hear or ask: How can I preach like a TED speaker? Because if you see the tagline for TED talks—"Ideas worth spreading"—as a preacher you might think, We have the best idea worth spreading that there is! And you're right. Then we think of the attractiveness and audience pulling power of a TED speaker, and we begin to dream.

But for preachers, there will always be a prior question: "Should I even try to speak as persuasively as a TED speaker?" Because at the back of our minds is, or should be, Paul's devastating critique of rhetoric in 2 Corinthians, which although it is arguably the most rhetorically sophisticated of his letters, is stinging in its attack on people who want to be "impressive." And TED speakers aim to be impressive.

As preachers, we can and must trust the Lord to do the real behind-the-scenes work of our talk. The pressure is not on me to "deliver jaw-dropping moments." The gospel does that.

Carmine Gallo has written a book titled Talk like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds (Macmillan, 2014), in which he aims to lay bare the communication lessons of these astonishing lectures in Technology, Education, and Design (the TED elements). He did the same work a few years ago on Steve Jobs' presentation style. He distills the lessons, and illustrates from the best of the TED talks (although he misses my personal favorite, "Leading Like the Great Conductors" by Itay Talgam). Gallo backs the rationale for the nine findings by way of scientific research on the chemistry of the brain.

Here is Gallo's list of the top nine lessons that speakers can learn from TED talks:

  1. Unleash the master within. Engage the subject you're speaking about with passion because passion is contagious.
  2. Master the art of storytelling. Stories stimulate the brain and make it more likely that hearers will identify with your point of view.
  3. Have a conversation. Practice relentlessly until you can deliver effortlessly. If there's a disconnect between content and presentation, people will not engage.
  4. Teach me something new. Reveal something new, packaged differently, or offer a new way to an old problem.
  5. Deliver jaw-dropping moments. Offer a shocking, impressive, or surprising moment that is so moving and memorable it grabs attention and is imprinted on the memory.
  6. Lighten up. Use humor, which lowers defenses and makes you seem more likeable.
  7. Stick to the 18 minute rule. This rule will help you avoid the cognitive backlog of too much information. (If you're speaking 20 minutes or longer, use 10 minute chunks.)
  8. Paint a mental picture with multi sensory experiences. The brain does not pay attention to boring things, so aim to stimulate all the senses.
  9. Stay in your lane. Be open and authentic. Be yourself because people can't trust a phony.

First, a couple of quick headline cheers. As preachers of the gospel we can cheer the ideas of being passionate (#1) and authentic (#9). If we aren't excited by the gospel, we're in the wrong job, and if we're wearing a mask about it, we're also in the wrong job. Above all, preachers should be ahead of the game in this. We should also cheer the idea of storytelling (#2) not for the manipulative reasons Gallo gives, but because so much of Scripture is in story form. It's only as we honor and tell these stories that we can honor the power of biblical stories.

In contrast, I think we should boo what Gallo means by lesson #3—"Practice relentlessly until you can deliver effortlessly." TED talks usually focus on either a single presentation that is once-in-a-lifetime effort or one that is repeated and therefore to be rehearsed. If we are turning out a talk or two every week (like many preachers), there is simply no time to do this, even if we "should."

There's another fundamental difference between a TED talk and our preaching. As preachers, we can and must trust the Lord to do the real behind-the-scenes work of our talk. The pressure is not on me to "deliver jaw-dropping moments." The gospel does that. I don't have to strive for effect or impact, or stake everything on being so outstandingly memorable that everything else in the week seems bland. The gospel does its work, and it does it through the authentic weakness of the preacher. So much of Gallo's book is about being impressive and memorable. It's important for us to clarify that we steer in the opposite direction.

Now don't hear me wrongly. We shouldn't strive to be boring, unmemorable, humorless, and long! I have been challenged deeply by the best of these presenters to be gripping and clear. But our speaking is in the service of a much greater cause, and for the honor of a Master who is jealous for his reputation, not ours.

And if we ask, "What is this work the gospel does?"' we find it in words like "persuade," "teach," "rebuke," "prove," "refute," and "argue." TED aims that its speakers make one simple point, and the battery of Gallo's "top nine list" is designed to get around people's critical faculties. Now I want to be interesting and worth listening to, but I also want to change my hearers' minds on the basis of truth, not on the basis of a powerful story or a moving picture. I do use powerful stories (at least, I think they are powerful), but they are designed to demonstrate the proof of the truth, and foster proper self-critical thinking, under God's Word. I don't want to get around, or disarm people's distrust by sneaky ways. I'd rather follow the Apostle Paul's example in 2 Corinthians 4:1-2 when he wrote:

Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.

Sometimes we might sound like we're giving a TED talk. At its most benign, any of these nine elements on Gallo's list might simply be common sense. Gallo may be giving us the contemporary marks of good style, just as previous generations quoted Latin. But cultural values are never sinless and they need to be corrected in the light of the gospel. Preach persuasive, engaging sermons, but never confuse style with substance, never lose sight of the logic of the gospel, and never lose trust in the Word to do its work.

This article was originally published on Chris Green's blog Ministry Nuts and Bolts.

Chris Green is the Vicar of St. James Church in London, England and the author of 2 Timothy: Finishing the Race. He blogs regularly at ministrynutsandbolts.com. He is the author of Cutting to the Heart: Applying the Bible in Teaching and Preaching.

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