In January of 2009, I decided to go to the book signing of an author whose TED talk I had particularly liked.
The talk had been given by a bespectacled British man named Sir Ken Robinson, who had spoken on how schools are killing creativity. I became completely transfixed by this presentation, and wound up watching it again. Then I watched again. And, yet again. By the time of his book signing, I was completely obsessed with the talk. I got to the signing early, but right before it began I took a look around the room. Not only was every seat filled, and not only were there people standing in the back of the room, but there were people flowing out the door and huddled around the other side of the wall.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one fond of that particular TED talk.
After Sir Ken spoke and gave a Q&A, people lined up to get their books signed. As I was about to take my place on line, I noticed a woman with whom I had worked back in my Penguin days. I realized that she had been the publisher of Sir Ken’s book, and I congratulated her on having such a popular author. She then made a comment that he was popular “to the tune of 4 million views.” This was in the days before the TED site accounted for how many views any one video had gotten, so I was taken aback by this information.
Apparently, I really, really wasn’t the only one fond of that particular TED talk.
If you are a fan of the TED conference, then you likely already know of Sir Ken’s talk on how schools are killing creativity. What is more significant than the popularity of his talk in 2009 is that as of this writing it has earned many more millions of views and is the most popular TED talk of all time. But there are tons of talks on that website, many of which are by well-known and highly regarded speakers. Why did Sir Ken’s talk take off as it did?
I’m sure it’s obvious from some of the content on this site that I’m rather fond of the TED conference as a whole. I often watch a talk in the morning before I commence work for the day, as it continues to be enjoyable to learn more about “ideas worth spreading.” But it is also a valuable platform for refining how we communicate. On the morning that I started writing this content, I began watching a TED talk that had been posted only a few months prior to my viewing of it. At eighteen minutes, it was a sizable commitment for that moment in time, and I turned it off after five.
Based on other content on this site, you might think that I turned it off because he didn’t address the question of why his idea existed as it did. The truth is that not only did he account for why within the first two minutes of the talk, but he even used the word “why” in his title.
One could speculate that I wasn’t interested in this particular speaker’s subject, and maybe I would have finished it if it was about something I really cared about. Or maybe that eighteen minutes was too long for an early viewing ritual when there was work to be done; eighteen minutes, after all, is almost as long as an episode of Big Bang Theory. Perhaps I didn’t continue watching because I didn’t agree with his perspective, I didn’t like his personality, or because he wasn’t a gorgeous woman.
And yet, my favorite TED talk is by Sir Ken Robinson, whose talk is even longer than eighteen minutes and who definitely isn’t a gorgeous woman.
The truth is that I and many millions of other people became devotees of Sir Ken’s talk because he kept us engaged throughout its entire execution.
And this other, more recent talk did not.
Consider all of the different things that can distract you in any given moment. Beyond your job, your family, and your home, you have phone calls, errands, text messages, Facebook, and the latest original TV being streamed on Netflix. We may have an idea that has tremendous potential value to others, but in a world of ever-increasing information and ever-diminishing attention spans, it is difficult to keep people focused on what we have to offer. We must therefore take a specific step to ensure that our audience is sharing our wavelength with us.
To engage someone is to meet them where they are at and open them up to something that is unknown to them previously. This is a crucial step in creating an opportunity to serve them, as we are most likely to succeed in helping others to get what they want when they’re actually paying attention to us.
We serve our audience when we engage them with a conscientious use of various devices to draw them in. This can be at the beginning of a presentation, during a class or workshop, while running a meeting, when presenting a written article or essay, while making a sales pitch, while writing a letter or proposal to apply for an opportunity, or, of course, giving a talk like Sir Ken and all of his fellow TED speakers do. One minute, our audience might be thinking about a grocery list or the second season of Downton Abbey. But if we successfully engage them, they will be thinking about the problem our idea solves. Then, once we have successfully engaged them, we can share our content in far greater depth.
The ultimate difference between a message that has been heard and one that has not is whether its audience has been successfully engaged.
However, what would happen if I wrote a web page about engaging others with certain devices and didn’t actually use the devices themselves to teach them to you? WORST. CONTENT. EVER. To test if I’m practicing what I’m preaching, did I start this page talking about the value of engaging others? Or did I start with something else?
And, if I hadn’t started with something else, would you even have read this far down the page?