Speech Analysis by The One Minute Presenter on Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Speech ‘Schools kill creativity’ [long post]

Sir Ken Robinson is a creativity expert and in this talks asks the question, “Why don’t we get the best out of people?” He argues that it’s because we’ve been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Students with restless minds and bodies — far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity — are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences. “We are educating people out of their creativity,” Robinson says. [Source: TED.com]

Here is my breakdown of the speech. The things that are great about the speech are:

  • Engages the audience with humour

  • Peppers the talk with anecdotes and quotes

  • Has a clear message through taglines

  • Uses rule of three

  • Stays on track even when telling jokes

  • Uses checking questions

The areas that could be improved include:

  • Clearer conclusion

  • Humour may not work for ‘larger’ audience

Engages the audience with humour

From the laughter, the audience clearly enjoyed the speech and the jokes. Robinson makes what could be a dry subject – changing the education system – into a humorous experience. Example of humour that worked:

  • Self depreciating joke about being in education (01:10)

Robinson starts an anecdote about being at a dinner party, then says that if you are in education you are not invited to dinner parties or at least not invited back. As he is in education himself, this works as a light hearted look at dull dinner party conversations. He follows this up with an important point, that while you may be bored with other people’s education experience, you loving talking about yours.

  • Famous figure from Stratford to LA (06:55)

He jokes about Shakespeare being seven years old and the trouble he would have caused his teacher and father. While this did not have a strong message, it was a light hearted transition to his next point – moving to LA. Also, he connects himself with the birthplace of Shakespeare which is subtle positioning.

  • Personal experience about son’s girlfriend (07:45)

When telling how his 16 year-old son did not want to go to LA on account of this having a girlfriend, Robinson jokes that he was leaving England because of his son’s girlfriend. Judging from the great laughter this really amused the audience. Perhaps they could relate!

  • Unexpected comment (03:20)

Early in the talk, after a large round of applause, he said “That was it by the way?” which got more laughter. Humour is very much about the unexpected. Some comedians call humour the moment when the train leaves the tracks. This comment is a perfect example. You expect him to move on or perhaps say ‘thank you’ but instead ends the talk. Laughter follows.

Warwick’s coaching tip: While humour is a great way to connect with the audience, it requires some advanced skills. Fundamentally a deep understanding for the audience and what they would find funny. Secondly, great timing in delivering a joke or punch line. The risk in using humour is that you can alienate your audience with an off-colour remark or badly delivered line. Always test your humour before hand on as many people as you can, including those that represent the audience.

Peppers the talk with anecdotes and quotes

Robinson uses anecdotes – which are short observations or stories – and quotations throughout his speech to good effect.

Anecdotes (15:10)

He finishes with a powerful success story about a ballet choreographer who had learning difficulties but because she was directed into dance school became a world famous choreographer of shows like Cats. Robinson notes that if treated today she would be diagnosed with ADHT, given pills and told to calm down. A powerful story that wraps up the urgency for a new way of approaching education.

Quotations ( 06:10)

He uses a Picasso quote ‘all children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up’. Again this is an excellent choice because it accurately sums up his message.

Has a clear message through taglines

Taglines – or soundbites – are short phrases that can be used in public speaking to help the audience understand a key point and remember the message after the talk. Robinson used taglines throughout his talk to convey his message:S

  • All children have tremendous talents and we squander them (02:55)

  • Creativity is as important in education as literacy and should be treated with same status (03:05)

  • We get educated out of creativity (06:20)

  • The purpose of public education is to produce university professors (09:35)

  • They live in their heads (10:10)

  • In the next 30 years, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history (12:10)

  • Need MA instead of a BA …..process of academic inflation (12:50)

  • She isn’t sick, she’s a dancer (16:50)

  • People who had to move to think (17:05)

Warwick’s coaching tip: The speaker has the responsibility to edit down content into a clear message. The more work you do on this part of your content, the more successful you will be in conveying a clear message.

Uses rule of three

The rhythm of three is used to help both the audience and speaker remember key points. Robinson used this technique twice:

In introducing the three themes of his talk: creativity, uncertainty of future and capacity for innovation from children.

At 13:00, Robinson says we know three things about intelligence

  1. Diverse

  2. Dynamic

  3. Distinct

Note how the words are alliterated (all start with the letter ‘d’) which is another memory device.

Warwick’s coaching tip: This is a great way to help organise your material quickly and it will help you memorise your flow.

Stays on track even when telling jokes

A strong part of Robinson’s delivery is that he knows his content so well that in the middle of introducing a list of three, he segues to a joke which gets a big laugh, and then comes back to the third point seamlessly. Although he may look like he is ad-libbing from time to time, I would be fairly certain that he has delivered this speech with these jokes many times before.

Warwick’s coaching tip: Remember to stay on track, especially when you get a good reaction from your audience. It is easy to get excited and get sidetracked.

Uses checking questions

Connecting with an audience can also involve asking short connecting questions. Robinson uses rhetorical questions, which do not require an answer:

…don’t you?

..am I right?

..wasn’t she?

Just by asking such a question, the speaker brings the audience along the path that he is taking in the talk.

Warwick’s coaching tip: Don’t overuse them and have a variety of different questions.

While this was a well received talk, there were a few areas which could have been improved.

Clearer conclusion

Robinson opens his conclusion with the following statement:

I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology one in which we start to reconstitute our conceptions of the richness of human capacity (17:50)

This is too long a sentence (32 words) and is not very clear, alluding to the thinking of an university professor joked about earlier in the speech.

A couple of alternatives might have been:

  • I believe our only hope for the future is to completely change the way we look at education

  • I believe our only hope for the future is to take a much wider, more comprehensive view on learning

Robinson’s next phrase – a simile – was difficult to say and did not come out smoothly:

Our education system has mined our minds in the way we have strip-mined the earth for a particular commodity (18:05)

While the simile is a good one, the wordplay is not smooth, in particular “mined our minds” does not come off the tongue easily.

Humour may not work for ‘larger’ audience

From the audience’s reaction, they loved Robinson’s sense of humour. With a larger audience watching online, I wonder whether some of the more cliche jokes about his wife’s cooking play so well. I was reminded of British comedian Tommy Cooper in some of his joke telling. This distracted me from his main message. Compared to the positives this is a small point, but one worth considering when we face multicultural audiences.

Warwick’s coaching tip: You need to find a balance. Ask yourself does the joke have a point in content or moving the speech along. For example, when joking about moving to LA and his son’s girlfriend, Robinson then connected this to the fact that the hierarchy of subjects in school is the same all around the world. Limit jokes that are irrelevant to a minimum.


This was a well delivered and well received talk which demonstrated a deep understanding for the motivations of the audience in the room. It combined a nice variety of personal anecdotes, well chosen quotations and crafted taglines. While the sense of humour may not work for everyone and the content a little light on substance, it certainly conveyed a simple point well made. I think this was a 7 out of 10.

About the Author

Warwick J Fahy

Warwick helps C-level executives, working in multinational companies based in Greater China, who struggle to get their point across and influence their key stakeholders. Warwick helps the executive project their message with confidence allowing them to express their opinions powerfully and gain respect from senior managers even when under pressure.”  Learn more about who I help here.

Warwick is the author of “The One Minute Presenter: 8 steps to successful business presentations in a short attention span world”.

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