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blog | November 4, 2016

The Robot Uprising Will Be Awesome — or, How to Write a TED Talk from Someone Who Hasn’t Done It Yet

By David Hopkins

I knew it would happen eventually. I got asked to give a TEDx talk.

You may think this is a great honor — and it is — but at the rate TED churns out these talks (2,248 videos on its YouTube channel), let’s not get too excited. Much like Andy Warhol’s “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” I’m fairly sure we’re all going to get our chance to give a TEDx talk.

TED is an organization devoted to spreading ideas through short talks from experts in a variety of fields. These talks get posted on YouTube, and then the videos make the rounds through your Facebook and Twitter feeds ad infinitum. The topics are always bold, a little weird, and ultimately an opportunity for the person to be concisely profound on his or her pet topic of interest.

Here are some topics from the TED YouTube page:

  • Your company’s data could end world hunger
  • Your smartphone is a civil rights issue
  • Everything you hear on film is a lie
  • Why I fell in love with monster prime numbers
  • The beauty of being a misfit
  • How trees talk to each other
  • Robots will invade our lives

Taken as a whole, these videos make me feel like we are either so close to a grand utopia or a robot uprising. That’s the point of a TED talk, to fill us with hope… and confusion. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s going to be great and possibly terrifying, but definitely interesting. I don’t recommend binge watching TED talks. You’ll become over motivated and directionless. Such people end up as street performers, spoken word artists, and junior members of City Council.

My year to have an opinion

I had a sneaking suspicious this might be my TEDx year. As I blogged about previously, I wrote and published a snarky little essay back in March about the TV show Friends and the downfall of Western Civilization. The essay became wildly popular for about a week. It hit on all the right TED notes: bold claims about the impact of popular culture, the importance of not being an idiot, and a few dumbed-down suggestions on how to smartify your life. After several million page views, I was invited onto a handful of radio shows and even one TV talk show. Next thing you know, TEDx is knocking at my door.

I don’t want to sound falsely modest or dismissive. Truth is I’m incredibly excited about this opportunity. But I have to maintain some perspective to keep from spiraling out. After all, I’m still working on what I’m going to say. I don’t want to simply deliver my Friends essay again, but I know the expectation is that I touch upon some of those themes.

So, what is my idea worth sharing? My robot apocalypse utopian vision of the world?

Step 1. “We’re all doomed.”

The focus of my Friends essay was on how a TV show contributed to the mainstreaming of anti-intellectualism in America, which will ultimately destroy us all. See? Totally TED-worthy. But this type of reductive reasoning can drive you insane.

For example: Yesterday, I tried to convince a co-worker that the persecution of cats during the 1340s (witch hysteria) lead to an increase in the rat population, which caused the Bubonic Plague to spread throughout Europe, which forever changed the sociological and political boundaries of that continent, which lead to Napoleon, the rise of nationalism, World War I, and World War II. (Since my grandparents met and married during World War II, does this mean my whole existence can be traced back to anti-cat rhetoric?) At a certain point, we have to realize how foolish this all sounds.

But for TED? Just roll with it.

Next Friday, I won’t talk about Friends or the Black Death, but I may mention how Benjamin Franklin’s fur cap forever doomed Americans to be viewed as heroic idiots. I’m not even kidding. My talk is titled, “The Unfortunate Appeal of the Heroic Idiot.”

My favorite TED talks swim around in an ocean of hyperbolic prognostications. If the world’s not ending, I’m not listening.

Step 2. “And the future is going to be awesome.”

Of course, a TEDx talk can’t end with doom and gloom. It should always take a sharp turn, veering wildly into “how incredibly amazing the world would be, if you let all the smart, creative people take over and run things.” But say it more eloquently than that. Admittedly, many TED talks exist to make us feel better about being the kind of person who attends a TED talk.

We are simultaneously overwhelmed and comforted with the speaker’s expertise and unique perspective—but did they actually say anything?

Reliable conclusions for a TED talk:

  • Don’t be stupid, be smart!
  • Don’t be conventional, be unique!
  • Don’t be boring, be creative!
  • Don’t be a problem, be a solution!
  • Don’t play it safe, be a risk-taker!
  • Don’t be wrong, be right!

I’m being a tad snarky here. It’s difficult to make a point, any point. Making a point presumes there’s a single answer to the complex problems we face. Which consequently will be the point of my talk: “We face complex problems where a single solution mindset is more damaging than helpful.” (See what I did there?) How I’m going to tie that back to Ben Franklin’s fur cap? I have no frickin’ idea. You’ll have to come see for yourself.

Now that we’re all jaded

I do love TED talks, but I’m no fool. I realize I am exactly the kind of person who would love a TED talk (bleeding heart, smug, self-professed intellectual), which gives me a healthy skepticism of them—even when I’m the person giving the talk! But with complete sincerity, we need a forum like TED. Just like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendental Club in the 1800s, the anxious and the ambitious need a place to ponder the heights and depths of our condition, to dabble in fear and optimism, and to strive for something better. Bonus points if you include math and robots.

Next Friday, you should come hear my TEDxSMU:After Dark talk — November 11th at the Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum. And then, when you get the TED call, I’ll make sure to attend your talk.

All the details and to order tickets:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/tedxsmu-after-dark-tickets-27360018552