Why It Is Important To Treat Communication Seriously As A Skill That Can Be Improved

Another interesting theme at TED was that attendees remembered and liked the speeches given by the most charming, persuasive speakers, even if the underlying idea was less compelling than other speeches.

All of the attendees seemed aware of this bias within themselves, but it didn’t make a difference. They still liked and were more influenced by the speeches with the best delivery, even if the ideas weren’t particularly compelling or new.

For me, this was as a friendly reminder to treat communication as a critical skill that can multiply your effectiveness in life.

Society gives the most articulate and charming people a huge margin of error. If the enlightened folks at TED are subject to this bias, you can imagine how susceptible the rest of us are.

For the love of God, try and become a slightly stronger communicator each day.

An Idea Worth Sharing

In the spirit of TED, here’s an idea worth sharing. 

One of the big criticisms I heard in the hallways about the speeches was that they offered well-articulated problems, but few, if any, practical solutions.

Part of this is isn’t really the speaker’s fault; 15 minutes just isn’t that much time to talk about a complex problem.

But, I’d argue that part of this is because of a core element of human psychology. In general, humans are great at spotting problems, but not as great at identifying realistic solutions that can actually improve the situation as a whole.

It’s not enough to bitch about the evils of capitalism. Capitalism has succeeded in a ton of important ways where other systems have failed, so you must propose a different economic system that would get us the big benefits of capitalism with less downside. (And, spoiler alert: in this example, communism or socialism is not the answer.)

There were a few talks that got standing ovations that kind of surprised me. It was puzzling, really. The speaker had basically just gotten up there and bitched for 15 minutes without providing any way out. It was well-articulated bitching, to be sure, but bitching nonetheless.

Bitching is so easy (I’m doing it right now).

I think the solution is to have more speeches like Hugh Herr’s, who lost both of his legs to frostbite. Instead of giving a 15 minute talk titled “Losing Your Legs Absolutely Sucks,” he laid out a vision of how prosthetic limbs should be built in the future. And he didn’t stop with arms and legs. He wants to eventually build prosthetic wings for humans too. Like bat wings. So humans can fly.

I’ll just go ahead and repeat that: a real person who lost both of his legs decided that instead of bitching and collecting an insurance check, he was going to eventually invent bat wings that humans can install into their bodies so that they can fly like bats. 

So, what’s my idea worth sharing? Complaining without suggesting a solution is just bitching.

Yes, The Human Race Does Tons of Dumb Stuff But We Also Overcome The Impossible All The Time

It’s really hard not to come away from TED inspired. One of the speakers was a blind guy who fell out of a third story window and is now in a wheelchair. Instead of quitting on life, he’s becoming a cyborg and is going to find a cure for paralysis.

Another speaker was an Indian woman who wanted to open up a bank for women in India. After a guy rejected her application, citing the totally-accurate and completely reasonable “fact” that women are illiterate and can’t do math, she laughed in his face and challenged all of his men to solve math problems faster than her women. His guys could even pick the problem and the women wouldn’t use calculators.

She now has her bank.

There were a million stories like this, and a million macro stories about how to solve big, global problems facing the entire human race. From building AI safely, to rethinking our justice system, to inventing our way out of climate change, it was inspiring to see, as clear as day, the human capacity for ingenuity and aspiration.

There were also a few amazing artists, musicians, movie directors, and other creative folks who put together creative pieces that demonstrated just how far the human imagination can reach.

Yes, humans are capable of unspeakable stupidity and cruelty, but we’re also capable of doing pretty great things. Amongst other things, TED is a baseball bat designed to beat an ounce or two of cynicism out of the world.

Photo: TED's Flickr account.

Photo: TED's Flickr account.

A Wildly-Oversimplified Summary Of What The TED Conference Is Like

Most conferences get well-known people to speak and sell tickets to lesser-known people. At TED, the opposite is true. Many of the speakers are undiscovered or super-niche and many of the attendees are famous people.

You’ll be walking around, eating beef jerky, wondering who you’ll chat with next and, boom, one of the Google founders is hanging out, eating the same beef jerky, and basically is not doing shit. He has like $40 Billion in his checking account, but you can just go chat with him like you’re old buddies and you own the island next to his.

There were a bunch of TED talks each day, with breaks and activities in between sessions.

The thing about the breaks, though, is that they weren’t really breaks. When a speaker session would let out, I’d attempt to go grab a Nutella donut (yes, that’s a thing) and sit down to process the previous two hours of mind-stretching speeches. But, what would actually happen is that I’d get sucked into a great conversation with somebody else in the donut line. Very often, that person had invented a thing that I use everyday and they would start telling me about what the future is going to look like in 10 years.

It was wild. There are TED talks in the snack lines at TED. It blew my little mind.

But, Wait, I Have One More Career Update

I'm thrilled to announce the launch of a project I've been working on with two amazing comedy writer friends.

We're sending out a short email each week that makes fun of Silicon Valley. Think: TechCrunch meets The Onion.

We've worked non-stop the past few months to get something hilarious together. If you like Stew’s Letter, I think this will blow you away.

The first email goes out this Tuesday. It’s super short (a few funny headlines, photos, and one article), and, we think, super funny.

If you’d like to receive the first issue, just click the loaf of bread below.