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Let them eat ideas

Peddling the usual facile self-help ideology while delivering a solid, predictable mix of communications advice and psychological research, „Talk like TED“ by C. Gallo is more remarkable for what it fails to talk about.

When you offer a course by the name of „Training for TED“, it‘s almost unavoidable to read a book called „Talk like TED“, if only to satisfy your curiosity about how somebody else got away with so shamelessly attaching himself to a popular brand.

Journalist turned communication consultant Carmine Gallo is an old hand when it comes to surfing in the wake of popular brands and people. His oeuvre includes works like: „The Apple Experience – Secrets to building insanely great customer loyalty“, „The presentation secret of Steve Jobs – How to be insanely great in front of any audience“ and „The power of foursquare – 7 innovative ways to get customers to check in wherever they are“.

Like many a self-help book, „Talk like TED“ is more interesting in terms of what it leaves out than what it actually says, not that it is bad when measured against the standards of its genre. It delivers everything one would expect, starting with the conventional, Silicon Valley inspired big picture: „ideas are the currency of the 21st century“ and the cliches that come along with this kind of superficial thinking: „There is nothing more inspiring than a bold idea delivered by a great speaker. Ideas, effectively packaged and delivered can change the world.“

Ideas are the currency of the 21st century. We will, of course, later on be regaled with a passionate lecture about what powerful rhetorical tools metaphors and analogies are, all backed by what Gallo likes to call „deep science“. The naive, philosophically ignorant admiration of science is a typical problem of self-help books. Science is a very poor guide when it comes to the fundamental, ethical questions human beings are faced with.

Sincerity is good because it works, science proves it. If science proved that skillful mendacity was a higher predictor of success, as it actually does in some instances, how would the advice sound like then? It seems unlikely that the many CEOs Gallo likes to talk about as his clients have reached their positions because they are just decent, honest gals and boys who‘ve learned to speak from the heart

Burning with passion

The metaphor of ideas being the currency of the 21st century probably didn‘t originate with Gallo but it warrants some closer examination. What is meant by that, one wonders? Ideas won‘t pay your rent or your health care bills. What Gallo and the great Silicon Valley visionaries mean, of course, that everybody equipped with a smartphone and good helping of passion, (we will hear a lot more about the importance of passion in the chapter „Unleash the Master within“), has the chance to turn his ideas into a life mission and, more importantly for the average person, a livelihood. We only need to identify our „core purpose“ and liberate our passion and we are all set.

I try to avoid being too cynical about the intention and mindset of individuals and prefer to leave it as a question: With half of the United States living either just above or already below the poverty line, with Trump in power, with social unrest in France and the right wing on the ascent all over Europe, how can anybody in their right mind continue to dish out such platitudes?

Not that ideas aren‘t important or beautiful or that being able to communicate them well isn‘t a valuable skill, but it‘s the kind of high end skill and life goal that a growing number of people are light years away from. They are just too busy coming up with creative ideas to make it to the end of the month. Why is that? Have they failed to identify their core purpose?

Not even to mention the pregnant teenager working in the Bangladeshi garment factory or the Thai girl from the countryside working in the Bangkok Go Go bar to feed the family, but much closer to home: the uber driver, the fast food worker, the disposable cubicle soldier. Have they failed to unlock their passion?

Many people who do follow their passion, their passion for helping others, for example, or for doing valuable and meaningful work, like nursing or teaching, are actually punished for their choice. Rather than being richly rewarded for following their passion, they are poorly paid and treated. Since they do what they love and care about what they do, they are easy targets for exploitation.

Let‘s hear what Gallo has to say in his parting piece of wisdom: „ If you are like most people, you‘re capable of so much more than you‘ve imagined in your life.“ Dream big. „You have the ability to educate and electrify, inform and inspire, but only if you believe in your ability do so“. You’ve got to believe. Believe in yourself. Gallo, who later on advises the reader to stay away from empty phrases and worn out cliches, should have taken his own advice.

The Power of You

The myth about the immense power of the individual, its untapped potential, the dormant kernel of greatness that lies in everybody and blossoms once the authentic self, „the core purpose“ has been identified, is probably the most toxic psychological effect of neoliberal ideology. It is so toxic because it is not blatantly wrong or malicious in itself. Who wants to argue against the importance of the quality of individual experience? It is after all the founding ideal and indispensable myth of modern societies.

It is so toxic because it falls on fertile ground, i.e. the unleashed, often almost infantile narcissism of consumer society. If the imagination wasn‘t clouded by the cult of the self, it would be obvious that the kind of world Gallo seems to have in mind is far away from the social reality of most people in both the industrial and the developing word. It is an upper middle class fata morgana with a fair sprinkling of the rich and the super rich. It‘s not that it is an unattractive world; I like TED presentations and Davos is probably lovely in spring, but before it makes ethical sense to get all excited about this kind of world a more fundamental problem needs to be addressed: the problem of how to make this kind of social reality accessible to more than a tiny minority.

In the rich diet of illusions that maintain the status quo, the idea papadums of TED presentation are certainly the tastier and more easily digestible bits. As long as people are encouraged to see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, however, and don‘t understand that in modern mass democracies the fundamental problems are solved through politics and solidarity rather than economics and individualism, the kind of optimism on offer there doesn‘t seem warranted.

The Value of Being Average

There are, of course, other problems with the idea that everybody should be the hero of their own life. What about the value of being average, which, let‘s face it, most of us are? It seems cruel and inhuman to force everybody to release their inner hero in this particular neoliberal fashion. It lays the onus purely on the individual and, unwittingly or not, creates the cruel logic of winner and loser, of form over content, that Donald Trump is such a glorious example of.

Which is not to say that people shouldn‘t educate themselves or try to become better public speakers, on the contrary. There is certainly value in identifying what you really care about and what drives you. Expressing it can be and often is liberation from this very topic, however, rather than turning it into the message on which to base your newfangled entrepreneurial self.

Authenticity in many ways is something that happens when you stop trying so very hard and learn to acknowledge unadorned reality, about yourself and others. It is a slow process and it entails the ability to become aware of the full range of your emotions including the anger, frustration and helplessness that so many feel; especially the ones who are excluded from the neoliberal fantasyland where unemployment, zero hour contracts and unpaid electricity bills are non-issues.

The book abounds with stories of resilient people heroically overcoming the worst of life‘s vicissitudes: a stroke, the amputation of both legs, a brain tumor, are met with the most positive of attitudes. They are presented as role models for the deeply ingrained dogma of „being positive“; to not feel or display anger. Or, if you do, your anger should be entertainingly packaged, for example as exasperation directed at individuals failing „to have a great career“, like in Larry Smith‘s TED presentation.

Political change from below is impossible without the fuel of righteous anger, however. Anger becomes noble and positive only insofar as it becomes a quest for justice; its confrontational character remains unchanged. Significant change in democratic societies only happens if ruling elites feel that they have something to lose in a confrontation; not because of their benevolence. Anger remains dangerous and unpredictable, however and the elites should start to respond before it turns violent. Insofar as the elites are present like TED conferences and Davos, they would do well to start taking their role more seriously and use these platforms to enlighten each other about the social reality for the many that has developed under their watch. They should by all means be exchanging visions but they need to do better than a miserly guaranteed basic income for the obsolescent masses muddling through a burnt out planet.

Success Breeds Success

Gallo, of course, is as far away as you can be from any kind of critical attitude.“Talk like TED“ is an American self-help book, after all, bound by the iron laws of being positive and starry eyed, undignified admiration of success for its own sake. It is this slavish admiration of success for its own sake, of form over content, that is one of the strongest indicators of the paucity of the current public discourse. Whether you are Martin Luther King, Joel Osteen or Ronald Reagan, it doesn‘t matter to Gallo. They are all great, great speakers and successful communicators. It feels very much like the next book in the series is going to be: „Playing with the truth and moving the masses – Donald Trump’s insanely effective communication secrets.“

In terms of its value as as an effective, practical how to guide, „Talk like TED“ is solid average. None of it is completely wrong, it‘s easy to read, Gallo is a fairly skillful writer even though the way he keeps stealing subheadings from the TED presenters is as shameless as the book’s title. „Novel“, „Emotional“ and „Memorable“, behold the „power of three“, is what the presenters should strive for their presentations to be. If I had to give a buying recommendation for this kind of book, however, I would suggest to get „TED Talks“ by TED curator Chris Anderson. (I will review his book in the next article).

It‘s likely that „Talk like TED“ will be helpful on the simple level of imparting some basically sound advice about how to communicate effectively to ambitious middle managers and junior consultants. It will solidify the status of the TED format as the gold standard for how to give presentations. It will help to further alleviate the grim tedium of the old school business presentation, where somebody reads off slides which are later on e-mailed and used as a document. The problem of form over content stays the same, however. As long as there is no viable political vision for society that business can serve and fall in line with, the content will more often than not be cant and skillful mendacity, obfuscating an empty obsession with profit and shareholder value, no matter how glossy and skillful the presentation.

My critical review of „Talk like TED“ begs the question how my „Training for TED“ is different, since I am backpacking on the success of the TED format just as much as he is. My approach doesn‘t differ very much in the skills which the trainees train, human beings need stories and concrete examples, they do prefer new information to old and so on. The difference rather lies in inviting and offering a more critical and challenging view of what means to understand and present an idea.

To fully understand an idea means also to understand its limitations and the context in which it is or can be applied. It means to present it well and with enthusiasm, but without becoming a mindless cheerleader and without deluding oneself that it somehow magically will „change the world“. The role of the trainer needs to cover the whole breadth from being encouraging and supportive to playing devil‘s advocate who encourages honesty and critical thinking. I‘d like my trainees to get better at telling truly fascinating stories, stories that engage with difficulty, ambiguity and contradiction, not simple commercials.

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