Isn’t this a fairly typical TED talk?

Vic Berger is calling this the cringiest TED talk of all time. He should have just said “this is a TED talk by Benny Johnson of Turning Points USA” to lower my expectations.

I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of students are really shy — even terrified — of in-class presentations. Especially now, when it’s so easy to hide behind a black screen on zoom. Maybe I should preface any presentation assignment with this video, and tell them that all they have to do is do better than this guy. That should boost their confidence.

By the way, one of my courses is all about writing and presenting scientific information, and our strategy there is to give them a highly structured format to start with — we do a 5-slide PowerPoint with strict time limits and tell them what kind of information has to go on each one: Title-Background-Method-Data-Conclusion. It’s basically an exercise in old-timey rhetoric with technology.

Mr Johnson would not pass my course. But then, he’d probably brag about not learning anything in a liberal university, anyway.


  1. ANB says

    I’d give that an “F” for a beginning seventh grade presentation, but then again, I’d have prepared my students so that they would know none of that was appropriate. What was the POINT of that talk, anyway? Seriously. Did his emotional maturity get arrested at seven years old?

  2. Bernard Bumner says

    There are some strong lessons here:
    – Respect your audience, but don’t imagine that they owe you any respect.
    – Don’t enjoy yourself unless you’re sure that your audience is enjoying themselves: entertainment is a serious business.
    – If you don’t have content, memes are not an adequate substitute.
    – Do have content, otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time.
    – If you do need to talk about memes, then your intellectual framework needs to be rigorous to avoid seeming as shallow as those memes.
    – Always practice your talks to the point that you can deliver them as if they are unrehearsed (so that you can roll with forgetting the script and still convey messages).
    – Don’t try to be a comedian if you aren’t one (just because a friend once told you you’re the funniest person they know, doesn’t mean you can perform on stage).
    – Really. Don’t present an entire slide set of scripted jokes unless you really are a very skilled comedian or don’t mind dying on your arse once you lose your audience.
    – “The secret to comedy is
    – Always test new material with a sympathetic but critical audience before high profile gigs.
    – timing.”
    – The best talks are narratives, not domino rallies of setups and pay-offs.
    – Pop culture loses resonance extremely quickly (see also, “fifteen minutes of fame” and “today’s headlines are tomorrow’s chip wrappers”).
    – If you are discussing pop culture as a historical or cultural phenomenon, then treat it as history and culture. Don’t expect the thing to make your points for you.
    – Pointing at a slide and delivering a wink and a nudge is unlikely to be a worthwhile use of anyone’s time.
    – “Timing!” (If it wasn’t funny the first time, it is unlikely to get any funnier the second time you say it.)

  3. JoeBuddha says

    I just see that as Sturgeon’s Law. I used to watch a lot of them, and some were pretty good. Haven’t been back for a while.

  4. says

    Some of them are pretty good. Then you discover that admission to a TED talk (not TEDx) costs between $5000 and $10000, and you realize that these are events intended to make rich people feel smug, and that the speakers cater to that audience.

  5. Bernard Bumner says

    …between $5000 and $10000…

    What? So commodified intellectualism in a similar vein to any other guruism? I presume that is mainly to cover the costs of high profile speakers, not there exactly to do public good? It can’t be infrastructure costs, because I have organised conferences and don’t recognise those expenses.

    Why am I even surprised?

  6. PaulBC says

    I used to try to stand up and present stuff to people without doing adequate preparation. Many years back as a grad student and postdoc I even taught a few courses this way, and let’s not discuss conference talks. I think this is part of why I will now avoid presenting anything unless it’s an absolute requirement of my job. Preparing to speak is a lot of work, and there’s really no substitute (for most people anyway). The other thing is that even when I put in all the preparation I know I need to do, and a talk goes well enough that a few people say some nice things to me, all I ever feel is “Whew! Dodged that bullet.”

    On the point about humor. I agree that you shouldn’t try to be funny if you’re not, but I usually add at least one slightly offbeat slide because it came to mind and I think it’s funny and relevant. I have no idea if this helps, and it runs the risk of derailing things. What I don’t like is when the attempt at humor is purely a matter of going through the motions. There should be no requirement to get a laugh as long as you’re not putting your audience to sleep.

    It amazes me that people actually like give presentations. I do not get better at it with exposure. All that has happened is that I understand the failure modes better and I identify more weaknesses than when I was younger and astonishingly thickskinned about making an ass of myself in front of people.

  7. Bernard Bumner says


    I agree. Some people have an amazing ability for public speaking, including seemingly speaking off the cuff with wit, charm and elegance. It is a special skill, but I’d be amazed if it wasn’t also 90% experience and preparation. Most really good speakers I know have spent so much time talking about a specialism which is their passion, that they also essentially have a modular narrative and language on hand. That is what I meant about practice to the point of appearing unrehearsed: eventually it becomes less forced if people can internalise the message and flexible descriptions, rather than the very specific order and form of words.

    Having said that, of course lots of people don’t feel comfortable standing in front of crowds and don’t have that ready fluency. But they can still convey passion and interest and coherent information, with suitable preparation. Most audiences are actually very sympathetic to the idea that public speaking is difficult and brave, unless they have paid large ticket prices and/or the speaker is a comedian, journalist or commentator.

    And there’s definitely nothing wrong with an occasional joke or injection of levity. As long as one doesn’t make it the entire content and punchline, unless the material and delivery are both very good.

  8. PaulBC says

    Bernard Bumner@8 One thing that strikes me as a paradox of getting good at speaking is that you’re going to have to say the same thing a lot once you’ve polished your delivery. As much as you’d like it to sound spontaneous, there are just so many ways of making the same point. If you vary it, you are more likely to make it worse than better.

    This is fine assuming you have a new audience each time, which you might if you’re teaching an introductory class. But how do you turn off the little voice in your head that says “There he goes again. I’ve heard this a thousand times. Enough already!” I mean, this must be a skill of any performer, and I suppose it is teachable. It is just not possible to be spontaneous all the time without making things worse just to keep them different.

    This would probably be less of a concern, say, if I were presenting a mathematical proof. People expect you to know what you’re going to say next and don’t demand originality as long as the logic follows. But in many other cases, particularly when telling a joke or even providing political analysis, I just don’t know how people manage the repetition without getting annoyed at themselves.

  9. chrislawson says

    I must have been unluckier than everyone else here because my experience with TED talks on YouTube is that 50% of them were not very good and 10% of them were terrible. I abandoned TED outright after watching some malignant pop psychologist give a talk about ‘how the police know you’re lying’, presenting long-bunked hypotheses about body language and verbal cues with unwarranted and unmoderated conviction. This isn’t just bad science, it’s dangerous. When police think they can just know when suspects are lying, at best it leads to wasted investigative effort, at worst it leads to evidence tampering and forced confessions.

  10. captainjack says

    PZ @ #4
    I’ve never seen an interesting TED talk that had information or explanations that weren’t presented better elsewhere. They were all cannibalized from other sources to give the illusion of intellectual stimulation. Reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell. Yechh.

  11. PaulBC says

    I finally watched the video. Pretty bad, yes, but I would need to know what he was trying to do in order to figure out if he accomplished it. It reminded me a little of Krusty the Clown bombing with jokes about TV dinner and then resorting to the flapping dickie. (Simpsons season 9, episode 15)

    “I tell ya, these kids today… with their ‘memes’. Amiright?” If it was intended as self-parody, maybe it was effective.

    I rate it cringy but I’ve seen cringier.

  12. jrkrideau says

    we do a 5-slide PowerPoint
    In second year I was told to buy a copy of the American Psychological Manual. Millions have been traumatized by APA Style. Sounds like biologists have it easy.