“TED Tuesday” is our recurring series on public speaking, specifically breaking down TED talks. This week, we examine Keith Bellows in 2008 discussing the camel as an engineering phenomenon, an animal he dubs the “SUV of the desert”.
The video has garnered some criticism; on YouTube as of today, it has 51 likes and 47 dislikes. Let’s take a look at where Mr. Bellows went wrong.
The biggest problem with Bellows’ talk is its lack of focus. For example, 1 minute into the talk, he still has not mentioned his subject, the camel. Statistics show that most folks make a decision in the first 30 secs as to whether a video is worth watching or not. In this case, he provides no real indication of what he’s going to discuss (relative to his chosen title) and therefore makes it very easy for viewers to move on.
He begins with a premise that the “back-end” of most animals’ design is “SHIT”. Attention-getting in its language, but what’s the point? Most animals are designed poorly? How so? Or, poorly for what? And what does “back-end” mean in this case? Their insides? Is it just a joke about fecal matter? He has the formula right – opening point, then story digression for support, but he doesn’t use that process to his advantage in any way.
Part of public speaking is being an authority on your topic. This is where confidence in content comes in. You must believe in what you’re saying because, in this moment, you are in sales. All you may be selling is a viewpoint or an experience, but it’s sales nonetheless. One of the easiest ways to back away from this is to hedge your assertion through soft language. Here, Bellow says that the “Hyena is probably one of the most perfectly designed scavenging animals in the world.” Probably? Well, Is it or isn’t it? Is this a judgment or a guess? Using “probably”, along with “sort of” and “kind of” chips away at your authority. You’re not building a case when you say these types of words, you’re shrinking away from your main points. Or, it sounds like you never bothered to check if what you said is true.
1:44 “That’s not what I’m here to talk about”
Never say this, or at least not in the first 20% of your talk. If you do, you’ll fail. You’re leading with that which is not relevant? If the story you’re opting to tell instead is that great, why isn’t it what you’re here to talk about?
1:50 “What’s I’m here to talk about today is the camel”
Finally. This should have been the second sentence of his talk. Then, a digression to the Hyena makes more sense and is easier to follow and process. Flip the camel remark and the story, and you have context. Leave it as it is, and you have chaos.
1:55 Body language
2 hands in his pockets and looking at the floor. Bellows isn’t opening himself to the audience at all, he’s more wrapped up in his thoughts and it shows. he needs to have his hands at the ready in front of him and be making eye contact early in the talk to establish connection and rapport. See my next point.
2:00 Show, don’t tell
Still with his hands in his pockets and looking at his shoes, his statement feels insular: “I had an amazing experience with a camel”. “I” had this. This story is about “me.” The audience doesn’t want a story about the speaker, they want a story from the speaker. Something they care about. But we still don’t know the why of this talk: why should we care? Show don’t tell. The moment someone tells me what I’m about to hear is “amazing”, I immediately think they don’t trust my judgement. It’s up to me what I find “amazing”. Or, they can’t show me “amazing”, so they need to tell me. SHOW don’t TELL. (Often times, the “amazing” is fairly common stuff. Things like cupcakes are described as “amazing” on a daily basis.)
2:20 Take us there
Bellows sets the scene: “105 degree, 1 water bottle. They told us this was their best jeep.” This is good. Clear, succinct. Very simple, yet effective. Unfortunately, he goes on another 15 secs on the jeep. The point was already made. Additional details yield diminishing returns.
4:17 Taken for a ride
We are 4(!) minutes in and all that’s happened is, he’s taken a ride on a camel and the camel is “mean”. We have not celebrated the camel in any way. Remember, one of the keys to a great talk is that it shouldn’t be longer than it needs to be.
5:22 The ultimate desert machine
Bellows goes to video, which you would think would be a relief at this point. He’s spent 5 minutes avoiding his topic, so maybe showing us some compelling camel footage will be a welcomed change of pace. But what does this video show?
- A camel eating
- Saliva around its mouth
- How it breathes
- It has extra hair above eyes because of wind and sand
That’s 3 minutes of the footage, which goes until this 10:27 mark. We are halfway through overall and here’s what we don’t know:
- What are the engineering marvels of the camel that make it the SUV of the desert?
- Why is the back-end design of most animals “shit”?
These two points are Bellow’s title and open statement of this talk. And he’s ignored them.
- Your title and opening statement define your talk.
- Get to the point quicker than this. Frame your talk from the outset so people have expectations. Digressions, unless employed to illustrate a main point are distracting.
- Your body language needs to engage the audience. You talk is a conversation, even if you are the only one “talking”
- Show, don’t tell. Take us there, set the scene. Don’t expect that labelling something “amazing” means it is to the audience.-Edit. Your talk should take a moment longer than it needs to. If you need to fill 16 minutes, make sure you have 16 minutes of content. Stretching 8 minutes to 16 is painful to listen to.
- Edit. Your talk should not take a moment longer than it needs to. If you need to fill 16 minutes, make sure you have 16 minutes of content. Stretching 8 minutes to 16 is painful to listen to.