What TED talks teach the preacher

You have been under a rock too long if you have not watched a TED talk or two. In this paper, first presented at the Preaching Seminars run by EFAC Canberra and Goulburn, Jonathan Holt, Senior Minister at Lanyon Valley Anglican Church, summarises what makes TED talks tick, and what we might learn from them in preparing to preach.

Last year I was in Frankfurt airport coming back from a holiday in Austria. My wife had been at a work conference and we had visited our Church’s Mission Partners, who are serving the Lord in Linz. While waiting for a connecting flight, we browsed in the airport bookshop and I saw the book: Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, by Carmine Gallo, published in 2014.

One of the reasons why I picked it up was the thought I had, not long after encountering TED talks online, that the TED talk format was, in many ways, a secular sermon. In an age when the sustained monologue is regularly derided as no longer relevant, engaging or useful, TED talks stood out as an example of one place, one popular venue, where that sort of critique of the monologue might not hold up.

In the TED talk we can hear one person deliver an uninterrupted monologue, moving in the world of ideas; aiming to change attitudes and behavior; seeking to engage and inspire listeners. It sounds a whole lot like what I am trying to do in my sermons. I had wondered whether what was going on in the TED talk might be worth studying for the insights it could yield into how I might give a Christian TED talk at church on Sunday.

And now, in the airport bookstore in Frankfurt, I held in my hand the book that promised it had done all the research for me – and what’s more, it was in English, and not German – which was going to save me heaps of time. Gallo writes in the Introduction: “After analyzing more than 500 TED presentations (more than 150 hours) and speaking directly to successful TED speakers, I’ve discovered that the most popular TED presentations share nine common elements.”

Gallo is saying that there are transferable lessons from TED talks, you don’t have to be Bono or Bill Gates, you don’t have to have recovered from a massive brain injury or some equally inspiring story – if we join Gallo in his analysis we can dissect the great secular sermon and maybe learn something we can use Sunday by Sunday.

You have been under a rock too long if you have not watched a TED talk or two. In this paper, first presented at the Preaching Seminars run by EFAC Canberra and Goulburn, Jonathan Holt, Senior Minister at Lanyon Valley Anglican Church, summarises what makes TED talks tick, and what we might learn from them in preparing to preach.

A Brief History of TED 1

The first TED event was in 1984. The brain-child of Richard Saul Wurman, that very first, one-off event included a demonstration of the compact disc and the e-book. The event lost money and Wurman and his partner Harry Marks waited until 1990 to have another go. Back at the beginning not only were the speakers invited, the attendees were invitation only – and they still paid to attend.

The conference became an annual event and 2001 Chris Anderson, founder of the Sapling Foundation, bought the whole TED package. He continued what had grown up: a four-day event with 50 speakers giving nothing longer than an 18 minute presentation. In 2005 they went global with sister conferences around the world. One year on, TED got a dot-com domain and posted six talks as a trial to see if there was any interest. There was, and six month later 40 talks were available to watch, garnering over three million views. In 2009 The TED organization began granting licenses to third parties to run local, community-level TEDx events. By 2012 the website had hit one billion views and TEDx events are run in over 130 countries.

Purpose for TED and for Gallo

TED, as a not-for-profit, devoted itself to the spreading of ideas. Gallo argues, at the opening of his book, that ideas are the currency of the twenty-first century. Gallo writes that: “Ideas, effectively packaged and delivered, can change the world.” TED envisions itself as a place for learning that leads to change.

Gallo references the 1915, Dale Carnegie book, The Art of Public Speaking, as a touchstone for this present work. He recognizes that much of the advice Carnegie gave is still the same (keep it short, use stories, etc) but now we have science to back it up. Gallo’s claim is that: “The secrets revealed in this book are supported by the latest science from the best minds on the planet, and they work.” Gallo reveals his benchmarks: science and pragmatism.

The Three Big Ideas

The TED talk and the Bible talk have this common goal: taking an idea in the heart and head of the speaker and transferring it into the heart and head of the listener. What will make my idea, found there in the Bible, be most likely to stick for the person who listens to me?

Gallo follows the ‘Rule of Three’ (p191) – that we humans can remember three things better than we can four or five things – and he groups his nine key elements into three groups of three. So let’s consider the three big headings to see how Gallo answers the “what makes the talk stick in the heart and mind of the listener?”

Firstly, he says go for the emotions – aim to touch the heart. In this section Gallo spends time on the power of stories – how turning the idea into its story enables a connection. Gallo argues that this creates a lasting impression, because it is anchored in the emotion-mirroring of the listener. Gallo reports the scientific studies, which point to listeners experiencing the same emotions as those of the story-teller (this is why we cry in sad movies). Rather than leave it to chance, Gallo suggests that all speakers need to plan for and include stories – not merely for their illustrative power, but for their emotional strength.

How do we preachers use emotion in our preaching? Do we even show emotion while we preach? The Christian message comes as story – the gospel is a full flesh-and-blood human, with a story and with emotions. If we went to your church website and listened to the last five sermons, what emotion words would we hear? What would we hear in your tone that told us how you felt about the Lord Jesus?

Secondly, Gallo says that something new is more likely to stick. Here we are urged to unleash an emotionally charged event, or a jaw dropping moment. Our brains devour newness. Things that are familiar or commonplace will be quickly ignored by our super-smart brains, which filter out things we’ve already noticed and thought about.

In the TED context, Gallo reports those moments in talks that had the audience spell-bound. Either some fact that seems counter-intuitive or some information presented in a new way. The surprising newness engages the human brain, so that it takes notice, and is perhaps more likely to store that information away.

In this area the weekly work of preparing a Bible study or sermon appears to work against us. We certainly don’t want to present the latest fad in theology, giving itching ears what they want, but we may find something new in the less familiar. It may be new content – like opening up a book of the Bible your listeners are unfamiliar with, or it could be packaged differently – approaching a familiar passage looking to reinvest it with the strangeness or surprising twist that it already has.

Thirdly, we are invited to make it memorable. Here Gallo promotes the use of multi-sensory tools – how we can see, smell, taste or touch the ideas we are hearing. Engaging multiple senses increases the likelihood of an idea sticking for the listener. If you use pictures during your sermon, then you already do this. If you take the time to invoke the smells and experience of the stories you tell, then you are already doing this.

Gallo presents TED talk’s eighteen-minute rule in this section of the book. As with the other tips this one is given some science, the first of which is that listening is draining. The longer the speaker goes for the harder it becomes for the listener to continue processing and staying engaged. We know this experientially when we hear the long-form sermon provide something lighter as a break mid-way through the sermon. On the flipside, Gallo observes that the constraint of eighteen minutes provides “…a focus and a framework for creativity to flourish.” In aiming to avoid the meandering or convoluted presentation, Gallo favours the discipline of taking things out to fit the time constraint.

There is, most likely, a bigger conversation to be had here about the ideal length of the sermon (and whether such an ideal even exists), however it is interesting to apply Gallo’s observations about the benefits of 18 minute talks to the work of preaching, and also the work of listening to the preacher.

Some concluding thoughts

What do you think are your best tools for making your sermon memorable? Is that something you’re even aiming for? You probably know the old analogy that hearing sermons is like eating dinners – lots of them are not super-memorable, but they are nourishing – then there are a few, and because of the setting and meaning they stay in our memory. I wonder if this same analogy works for TED talks as well as it works for sermons?

One of the fundamental differences between the TED talk and the regular preacher is the reality that crafting an individual TED talk for maximum impact is different to regular Bible teaching. If you only had to deliver one sermon you might treat that one talk in the same way that a TED presenter does their talk. And yet Gallo often refers to the reader who is in the business setting, where Gallo coaches people in the art of presentation. In that setting multiple presentations would be expected, se we can presume that Gallo believes his advice is good beyond the one-off TED Talk.

A second significant difference is the level of pastoral relationship between the preacher and congregation compared with the relational expectations of the audience at a TED event. The larger work of discipleship-in-relationship, which takes place for us in and around our preaching is different to how a TED presenter hopes to change the world through ideas. Our goal is community-based formation (rather than event-based formation), and our power for change is the Spirit of Christ (instead of the unrenewed intellect). However there is overlap at the point of presenting the ideas, so let’s learn whatever we can.

The existence of TED Talks is a powerful argument that the sustained monologue is not as dead as we were being told. However, the tools in our toolbox might be limited or under utilised. I know I have benefited from thinking more about the lessons from TED Talks in the development of my preaching.


1. This history has been compiled from Gallo’s book and the TED website.

Last year I was in Frankfurt airport coming back from a holiday in Austria. My wife had been at a work conference and we had visited our Church’s Mission Partners, who are serving the Lord in Linz. While waiting for a connecting flight, we browsed in the airport bookshop and I saw the book: Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, by Carmine Gallo, published in 2014. One of the reasons why I picked it up was the thought I had, not long after encountering TED talks online, that the TED talk format was, in many ways, a secular sermon. In an age when the sustained monologue is regularly derided as no longer relevant, engaging or useful, TED talks stood out as an example of one place, one popular venue, where that sort of critique of the monologue might not hold up. In the TED talk we can hear one person deliver an uninterrupted monologue, moving in the world of ideas; aiming to change attitudes and behavior; seeking to engage and inspire listeners. It sounds a whole lot like what I am trying to do in my sermons. I had wondered whether what was going on in the TED talk might be worth studying for the insights it could yield into how I might give a Christian TED talk at church on Sunday. And now, in the airport bookstore in Frankfurt, I held in my hand the book that promised it had done all the research for me – and what’s more, it was in English, and not German – which was going to save me heaps of time. Gallo writes in the Introduction: “After analyzing more than 500 TED presentations (more than 150 hours) and speaking directly to successful TED speakers, I’ve discovered that the most popular TED presentations share nine common elements.” Gallo is saying that there are transferable lessons from TED talks, you don’t have to be Bono or Bill Gates, you don’t have to have recovered from a massive brain injury or some equally inspiring story – if we join Gallo in his analysis we can dissect the great secular sermon and maybe learn something we can use Sunday by Sunday. What TED talks teach the preacher Jonathan Holt You have been under a rock too long if you have not watched a TED talk or two. In this paper, first presented at the Preaching Seminars run by EFAC Canberra and Goulburn, Jonathan Holt, Senior Minister at Lanyon Valley Anglican Church, summarises what makes TED talks tick, and what we might learn from them in preparing to preach. FEATURES PAGE 7 ESSENTIALS - AUTUMN 2018 A Brief History of TED 1 The first TED event was in 1984. The brain-child of Richard Saul Wurman, that very first, one-off event included a demonstration of the compact disc and the e-book. The event lost money and Wurman and his partner Harry Marks waited until 1990 to have another go. Back at the beginning not only were the speakers invited, the attendees were invitation only – and they still paid to attend. The conference became an annual event and 2001 Chris Anderson, founder of the Sapling Foundation, bought the whole TED package. He continued what had grown up: a four-day event with 50 speakers giving nothing longer than an 18 minute presentation. In 2005 they went global with sister conferences around the world. One year on, TED got a dot-com domain and posted six talks as a trial to see if there was any interest. There was, and six month later 40 talks were available to watch, garnering over three million views. In 2009 The TED organization began granting licenses to third parties to run local, community-level TEDx events. By 2012 the website had hit one billion views and TEDx events are run in over 130 countries. Purpose for TED and for Gallo TED, as a not-for-profit, devoted itself to the spreading of ideas. Gallo argues, at the opening of his book, that ideas are the currency of the twenty-first century. Gallo writes that: “Ideas, effectively packaged and delivered, can change the world.” TED envisions itself as a place for learning that leads to change. Gallo references the 1915, Dale Carnegie book, The Art of Public Speaking, as a touchstone for this present work. He recognizes that much of the advice Carnegie gave is still the same (keep it short, use stories, etc) but now we have science to back it up. Gallo’s claim is that: “The secrets revealed in this book are supported by the latest science from the best minds on the planet, and they work.” Gallo reveals his benchmarks: science and pragmatism. The Three Big Ideas The TED talk and the Bible talk have this common goal: taking an idea in the heart and head of the speaker and transferring it into the heart and head of the listener. What will make my idea, found there in the Bible, be most likely to stick for the person who listens to me? Gallo follows the ‘Rule of Three’ (p191) – that we humans can remember three things better than we can four or five things – and he groups his nine key elements into three groups of three. So let’s consider the three big headings to see how Gallo answers the “what makes the talk stick in the heart and mind of the listener?” Firstly, he says go for the emotions – aim to touch the heart. In this section Gallo spends time on the power of stories – how turning the idea into its story enables a connection. Gallo argues that this creates a lasting impression, because it is anchored in the emotion-mirroring of the listener. Gallo reports the scientific studies, which point to listeners experiencing the same emotions as those of the story-teller (this is why we cry in sad movies). Rather than leave it to chance, Gallo suggests that all speakers need to plan for and include stories – not merely for their illustrative power, but for their emotional strength. How do we preachers use emotion in our preaching? Do we even show emotion while we preach? The Christian message comes as story – the gospel is a full flesh-and-blood human, with a story and with emotions. If we went to your church website and listened to the last five sermons, what emotion words would we hear? What would we hear in your tone that told us how you felt about the Lord Jesus? Secondly, Gallo says that something new is more likely to stick. Here we are urged to unleash an emotionally charged event, or a jaw dropping moment. Our brains devour newness. Things that are familiar or commonplace will be quickly ignored by our super-smart brains, which filter out things we’ve already noticed and thought about. In the TED context, Gallo reports those moments in talks that had the audience spell-bound. Either some fact that seems counter-intuitive or some information presented in a new way. The surprising newness engages the human brain, so that it takes notice, and is perhaps more likely to store that information away. In this area the weekly work of preparing a Bible study or sermon appears to work against us. We certainly don’t want to present the latest fad in theology, giving itching ears what they want, but we may find something new in the less familiar. It may be new content – like opening up a book of the Bible your listeners are unfamiliar with, or it could be packaged differently – approaching a familiar passage looking to reinvest it with the strangeness or surprising twist that it already has. Thirdly, we are invited to make it memorable. Here Gallo promotes the use of multi-sensory tools – how we can see, smell, taste or touch the ideas we are hearing. Engaging multiple senses increases the likelihood of an idea sticking for the listener. If you use pictures during your sermon, then you already do this. If you take the time to invoke the smells and experience of the stories you tell, then you are already doing this. Photo: by urban data, Used under creative commons licence, flickr.com/photos/urban_data/8899256033 Gallo presents TED talk’s eighteen-minute rule in this section of the book. As with the other tips this one is given some science, the first of which is that listening is draining. The longer the speaker goes for the harder it becomes for the listener to continue processing and staying engaged. We know this experientially when we hear the long-form sermon provide something lighter as a break mid-way through the sermon. On the flipside, Gallo observes that the constraint of eighteen minutes provides “…a focus and a framework for creativity to flourish.” In aiming to avoid the meandering or convoluted presentation, Gallo favours the discipline of taking things out to fit the time constraint. There is, most likely, a bigger conversation to be had here about the ideal length of the sermon (and whether such an ideal even exists), however it is interesting to apply Gallo’s observations about the benefits of 18 minute talks to the work of preaching, and also the work of listening to the preacher. Some concluding thoughts What do you think are your best tools for making your sermon memorable? Is that something you’re even aiming for? You probably know the old analogy that hearing sermons is like eating dinners – lots of them are not super-memorable, but they are nourishing – then there are a few, and because of the setting and meaning they stay in our memory. I wonder if this same analogy works for TED talks as well as it works for sermons? One of the fundamental differences between the TED talk and the regular preacher is the reality that crafting an individual TED talk for maximum impact is different to regular Bible teaching. If you only had to deliver one sermon you might treat that one talk in the same way that a TED presenter does their talk. And yet Gallo often refers to the reader who is in the business setting, where Gallo coaches people in the art of presentation. In that setting multiple presentations would be expected, se we can presume that Gallo believes his advice is good beyond the one-off TED Talk. A second significant difference is the level of pastoral relationship between the preacher and congregation compared with the relational expectations of the audience at a TED event. The larger work of discipleship-in-relationship, which takes place for us in and around our preaching is different to how a TED presenter hopes to change the world through ideas. Our goal is community-based formation (rather than event-based formation), and our power for change is the Spirit of Christ (instead of the unrenewed intellect). However there is overlap at the point of presenting the ideas, so let’s learn whatever we can. The existence of TED Talks is a powerful argument that the sustained monologue is not as dead as we were being told. However, the tools in our toolbox might be limited or under utilised. I know I have benefited from thinking more about the lessons from TED Talks in the development of my preaching. 1. This history has been compiled from Gallo’s book and the TED website