TED Talks

TED Talks

George W. Sledge, MD, FASCO

Dec 03, 2010
I give quite a few speeches every year. In the old days (pre-ASCO presidency) those speeches almost always involved some aspect of breast cancer or my other specialty, angiogenesis. At present, I find myself speaking about Health Information Technology, Rapid Learning Oncology Care Systems, and the infrastructure of the clinical trials system, and our organization’s quality initiatives, with occasional forays into arcane and baffling topics involving the funding of the health care system (the ever-delightful Sustainable Growth Rate saga). But the number of speeches remains roughly the same.

As a speaker I have come to appreciate other speakers who are excellent at their craft. There isn't any single stairway to speaker heaven, and great speakers come in many styles. But what they have in common tends to follow fairly simple patterns, or lessons. These include a) know your stuff; b) be able to explain it in an organized, jargon-free fashion; and c) make sure your talk has some identifiable story arc that carries the listener along. Past that, I see little consistency in either duration, use of humor, or subject matter.

For those who love great speakers, I recommend the TED talks. TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design, and TED talks bring together an eclectic and electric group of speakers. The talks are freely downloadable through iTunes or directly from the web (www.ted.com). I have several on my iPad as I compose this. I have learned a lot watching or listening to them. Some are quite short (a few minutes long) and some last 20-25 minutes. The speakers tend to be highly creative types with expertise in their fields, and are all great speakers. TED talks have superb graphics, not the usual Death by PowerPoint that pollutes most public speaking.

My recent favorite is by a Harvard health policy researcher named Nicholas Christakis on using social networks to predict epidemics. He and his colleagues have exploited what is known as the Friend Paradox, which states that "your friends have more friends than you do" (a scientifically demonstrable, if seemingly illogical and counterintuitive, social science observation first described by Feld in 1991*) as a means to performing efficient and timely surveys in the public health arena. I had never heard of the Friend Paradox before, but after watching the Christakis TED talk, I have an urge to apply it to something. Try out the talk—you will find it, and many other TED talks, quite fascinating.

*S. L. Feld (1991). `Why Your Friends Have More Friends Than You Do'. The American Journal of Sociology. 96(6):1464–1477.


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