“TED Tuesdays” is our recurring series on public speaking, specifically breaking down TED talks. This week, we take a look at a talk from TED2005 by Larry Burns, Vice President of Research and Development at General Motors. Burns discusses the future of cars, specifically design and functionality. The talk is one of the lower-rated talks on the TED site. Let’s examine why:
As I noted in my Public Speaking 101 class earlier this year, the three main areas of a successful speech are motivation, content, and performance. At most TED talks, the motivation is to enchant the audience with something inspiring and/or impressive. To some extent, Burns has this, as automobiles are an integral part of both the aspirations of modern American society and the world’s growing industrial economies. His subject matter lends itself to that ingredient. But where Burns fails is in the other two areas: his content lacks basic elements of structure and organization, while his performance falls short of any form of audience captivation.
From the outset, it appears Burns has some idea of structure, but the execution is clumsy. “People love their automobiles” is his opening salvo. He backs this up by making a few quick allusions to decades-old songs about cars, and tries to personalize it with a line from a song about his college car. But, he quickly abandons these in favor of a few citations of market research and worldwide automobile growth. This opening section feels tacked on.
The meat of the talk begins when Burns asks a very convoluted question, which is supposed to be his central premise:
If we are going to reinvent the automobile today, rather than 100 years ago, knowing what we know about the issues associated with our product and about the technologies that exist today, what would we do?
Do you know what this means exactly? Why would be reinvent the automobile 100 years ago? If we do it today, wouldn’t we take into account technologies that exist today? How could we take the unknowns of the future into account even if we wanted to? This is Burns’ mission statement for his talk. And its long, confusing, and almost unanswerable. It should be the first sentence he wrote in preparation. It sounds more like a combination of sentence fragments that came later.
In the body of Burns’ talk, he surveys a few key topics: fuel cells, hydrogen, home fueling stations, idle-time power generation, and something called “swarm networks” which he never explains and I’ve never heard of. While there are important ideas here, there’s little else to back them up. No context, no stories, no identification of what problems these advances solve. Take a look at this passage:
What we’ve targeted for ourselves — and we’re making great progress for this goal — is to have a propulsion system based on hydrogen and fuel cells, designed and validated, that can go head-to-head with the internal combustion engine — we’re talking about obsoleting the internal combustion engine — and do it in terms of its affordability, add skill volumes, its performance and its durability. So that’s what we’re driving to for 2010. We haven’t seen anything yet in our development work that says that isn’t possible. We actually think the future’s going to be event-driven. So since we can’t predict the future, we want to spend a lot of our time trying to create that future.
There’s no real “why” in this section. Why should I care about this pursuit, why is GM doing it, or why am I being told about this. It feels like a bit of a commercial for GM and not a particularly good one at that. A couple cliches – we haven’t seen its not possible and “create the future” – round out the probable low point of the talk, located right where the wow factors should be.
Two other things that happen: Burns shows an altogether boring video that adds zero and then there is an incredibly phony-feeling Q&A as Chris Anderson returns, a move that was certainly designed to combat Burns’ avoidance of GM’s business intentions, but only accentuates the crassness of the move in the first place. Watch at your own risk, unless you like symbolic car crashes.
The first thing you’ll notice about Larry Burns is his voice: flat and monotone. It does not modulate much at all for the entirety of his presentation. While some members of the “wonky nation” may like the Data delivery, by and large the speech drags because of his lack of inflection. It surprises me that people who rise to the level of Vice President, even if it’s in research-heavy positions, haven’t learned how to use the natural range of their voices to engage audiences. Unless you appreciate the mechanics of oratory, you can’t emphasize points through pacing, pausing, and pitch. It absolutely floors me to see it from TED speakers.
If he’s going to be making future presentations, I would suggest that a speaker like Burns use vocal inflection exercises to get comfortable with what his voice can and can’t do. Not everyone has to have the emotive capability of the world’s greatest soul singer to be an effective presenter, but a handful of drills could yield considerable returns. (I’d hold off on the Meisner Technique until Burns wants to tour the country.)
The other major downfall of Burns’ talk from a performance standpoint is his physical presence. He also starts off standing at what looks like a 45-60 degree turn away from the audience. Dressed in a gray sweater and black pants (against a black lower background no less), Burns has exactly one body motion and that is to hold his hands together in front of him and occasionally move have hands out, palms up, in a tentative fashion that says “I don’t know, I guess” if it says anything, before they every quickly return to their resting position. Its comes across as an abbreviated shrug.
Overall, there’s not much to learn from him, in a positive sense, but plenty to watch here if you’re looking for what mistakes to avoid.
- Establish a position that addresses the audience. Don’t start not facing the crowd. Is there something in the room more important than them?
- If you’re going to write out any part of your talk, make it your central premise. While folks may love a well-executed loose-feeling talk, they will forgive you if you take care to get your main point across in surgical fashion.
- Boring with visuals is still boring the audience. Showing video doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. Don’t warp us back to 6th grade film strips and mid-afternoon naps in a dark classroom.
- Learn to move on stage. When rehearsing your speech at home, pick two points on the floor and simply walk back and forth as you read through your notes to get used to moving while talking.
- Record your voice and become familiar with its intonation, speed and range capabilities. practice adding small touches to phrases and sentences, even if its in the car listening to the radio.