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Odds and Ends: Stage Sage
Odds and Ends: Stage Sage

Chris Anderson, head of TED, wants to help you win the attention war

Rick Tulka

If you "love the idea of strutting the stage and being a TED Talk star," Chris Anderson doesn't want you to pick up his new book, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. Go work on something worth sharing instead, writes the head of the nonprofit organization with a mission to spread ideas. Anderson and his team have worked with more than 1,000 speakers since he took over TED in 2001. And if you've watched any of the nearly 2,200 online talks, which are viewed more than 1 billion times each year, you might think every TED presentation is an inspiring success. Guess again. The flops never make it to the website. But they do inform the advice—part practical instruction, part motivation—that Anderson offers, along with technical tips from some colleagues. From crafting a story to presenting yourself onstage, the book delivers useful and thought-provoking guidance to make you a better speaker. Your future audiences will thank you for reading it.

Public speaking is many people's greatest fear. Assuming that it isn't yours, what is your greatest fear?

I don't know about "greatest fear," but I do worry sometimes that humans are becoming victims of our biology, following some kind of primal psychology rather than a reasoned view of the world. The fact that a few terrorists have captured both global media attention as well as the world's political agenda is a tragedy and completely disproportionate. I worry that we're all sleepwalking into a future that no one will want when we get there. And my email inbox is terrifying.

If you had to give a TED Talk tomorrow—and it couldn't be about anything else you've ever spoken on—what topic would you choose?

I have a wonderful recipe for homemade granola. But if that wasn't enough, then I'd make the case as to why today's media tend to give us a thoroughly misleading picture of what's truly happening in the world.

What interesting idea in a TED Talk has left the strongest impression on you?

There are many! Today I'll go with physicist David Deutsch's argument that knowledge is a force of potentially unlimited reach, even when you're talking about the universe as a whole. It's a brilliant and wholly unexpected argument.

You describe yourself as a dreamer and an optimist. What are you optimistic about right now?

I think of optimists not as people who just feel hopeful but who take the stance that problems are something to be worked on and improved. Yes, it may be hard, and yes, new problems will arise, but that's OK. Two steps forward and one step back will do just fine. As Deutsch says in his talk, we should carve "Problems are Inevitable" on one stone tablet and "Problems are Solvable" on another. I believe that people's natural concerns about the still-growing world population can be allayed by the rapid spread of broadband Internet across the planet. That will soon bring billions of new minds online and—if we think about it carefully together—create an opportunity for us to learn from each other. Technology can connect us across borders like never before, a fact that offers real hope for the future.

If you could choose three to five people from any period in human history to speak at TED, whom would you include in your dream lineup?

How about Johannes Gutenberg, Charles Babbage, Nikola Tesla, and the Prophet Muhammad on the topic "Did you think it would turn out this way?"

You've said that you wish every child could spend time at an international school. How did your years at India's Woodstock School affect you and your worldview?

I am hugely grateful for my international school experience. I credit it for my identity as a "global soul." It helped inspire my push to make TED more global.

—Interview by Theresa Walker




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