Speech Analysis by The One Minute Presenter on Sir Ken Robinson’s Feb 2010 TED speech: Bring on the learning revolution

In this follow up to his famous 2006 TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson makes the case for a radical shift from standardized schools to personalized learning — creating conditions where kids’ natural talents can flourish.

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:

  • Metaphors help make your big ideas easier to grasp

  • Crafting taglines is a discipline in finding simplicity in your (complex) ideas

  • Telling a story that engages is an advanced skill

  • Closing quote can make your message stick

The areas that could be improved include:

  • Making humour work is a funny thing

  • Do you lose credibility if you use shaky facts?

  • Audience interaction is not only about a show of hands

Type of presentation

This is a follow up talk from his highly acclaimed 2006 TED speech and as such the expectations are higher. While well received by the audience, it is hard to imagine that this talk will have as much impact, as the message is lost among the jokes. Well written taglines are the highlight and although the closing quotation is beautifully chosen and delivered it is not exactly related to the idea of creating a learning revolution.

Metaphors help make your big ideas easier to grasp

Robinson uses three major metaphors in this talk, and they all work well.

1. Compares crisis in natural resource with the crisis in human resources (starts 02:30)

although the set up to this metaphor was not accurately made. Robinson says there is a “second climate crisis” when he actually means “ a second crisis”.

This metaphor is followed up later by saying “Human resource like natural resources are buried deep, you have to go looking for them” (04:15). Good analogy.

2. Comparing the education system with fast food. Results are a similar depleting of spirits and energies as fast food depletes the body. (13:00). This really hits home it’s point.

3. Education is like manufacturing (conformity and batching people) (14:35)

What we need now is one based on agriculture … an “organic process” (14:55)

This is a nice comparison and one that is not only easily understood it catches the zeitgeist as organic food is becoming a growing trend, especially among the typical TED talks viewer.

Warwick’s coaching tip: Finding a metaphor or model to frame your ideas on can be an excellent way to convey your message. Vivid metaphors will help the audience remember your big ideas and overall message.

Crafting taglines is a discipline in finding simplicity in your (complex) ideas

Warwick’s coaching tip: Robinson is a thoughtful speaker (in between the jokes) and this reflects the deeper thinking he has done on his topic. A good tip for every speaker is to leave the audience with the feeling that you know a lot more on your subject that you could possibly cover in your talk.

This depth is shown in the clarity and concisely of his taglines or sound bites. Robinson has helped the audience do the thinking by making the complex really rather simple to understand – a significant asset for everyone who wishes to be influential.

Good examples of taglines include:

this is not a crisis of natural resources…but a crisis of human resources” (02:23)

we make very poor use of our talents” (02:30)

that’s simply improving a broken model” (04:40)

what we need is not an evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.” (04:50)

it’s a single function device” (when talking about a watch) (08:15)

life is not linear, it’s organic” (08:55)

we are obsessed about getting people to college\” (09:15)

human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability” (10:50)

college begins in kindergarten….[pause]… no it doesn’t” (11:15)

a friend of mine once said a 3 year old is not half a six year old” (11:40)

we have built our education system on the model of fast food” (12:45)

Telling a story that engages is an advanced skill

The fireman story (starts 09:20 – 10:40) makes a strong point on the value of having diverse talent in a community.

The example of three year old children being interviewed by “unimpressed panels” with resumes (12:00) hilariously brings out the ludicrous nature of how competitive early education has become.

Warwick’s coaching tip: When selecting appropriate stories and anecdotes ask yourself does the impact part (memorable) of the story align with the main message you want the audience to takeaway.

Closing quote can make your message stick

Choosing a quotation that sums up your message can be powerful technique. Like every tool, it can be misused. The trick is to find as close a match as possible to the quotation’s message and your overall speech message. Robinson chose a WB Yeats quotation (starts 16:40) which was beautifully connected to a powerful closing thought of “tread softly on our children’s dreams”. While a lovely closing, it is a little out of synch with the message of creating a learning revolution.

Overall this was a well received presentation, but there were a few areas which could have been improved.

Making humour work is a funny thing

While some of these jokes got an audience reaction, I did not like them as I felt they were often a shallow attempt at humour that did not develop or carry his ideas forward. Toward the end of the talk, the reaction from the audience dropped.

Example: ‘there is a hunger for videos of me’ (01:00) got a good laugh but really is too self indulgent for my tastes, especially when the set up used shaky facts (see below).

I only had 18 minutes frankly..” – audience did not react, perhaps because all speakers have 18 minutes. (01:38)

so as I was saying” (01:40)- again the audience laughed but it comes across as a little self-indulgent when being invited back to TED was an honour not made to many other speakers.

if you don’t believe there is a major climate crisis, you should get out more” – audience did not react perhaps because the point is not really clear (01:50)

I divide the world into two groups” (02:55) – while this got a good laugh, his follow up point did not come out so clearly. His point was that there are two groups of people in the world, those that “endure” and those that “enjoy” (03:30)

The joke about American history not being taught in Britain (05:50) while getting a laugh does not really add any impact to this message. And the set up referring to his lack of knowledge of what was happening in American at that time could have been cut out.

it’s difficult to know what it is you take for granted. And the reason is you take it for granted” (07:10). Not that funny.

The anecdote about receiving his first guitar at the same time that Eric Clapton did worked well, “…it wouldn’t work no matter how hard I blew into it” (13:30)

This uses the element of surprise, self-deprecating humour and exaggeration to get a good audience response.

Do you lose credibility if you use shaky facts?

In the opening to the talk, Robinson explained that 4 million downloads of his 2006 talk had been made, so if you multiply that by 20 you get the number of people who had seen his previous talk. It seems hard to believe that such large groups of people are sitting around watching online TED videos. This multiplier is a rule of thumb often applied to print media which for example if a newspaper or magazine is placed in a library or office would be read multiple times by different people. I am not so convinced it applies to a world of individual downloads.

Warwick’s coaching tip: The opening of a speech should be about building credibility, and Robinson was doing this by sharing how many people had seen his previous talk. Instead of his comment “there is a hunger for videos of me” which seems bizarre, perhaps a better retort would have been to express surprise, shock or amazement. By bringing in some humbleness he would have come across as credible and not self-aggrandizing.

Audience interaction is not only about a show of hands

In this attempt at audience interaction – always a tricky part to navigate in any large conference talk – Robinson uses the “put your hands up” technique. A trusted – if rather overused staple of conference speakers. The problem with this type of interaction is that it comes across as superficial and many people don’t like engaging in this type of interaction due to its overuse.

The interaction starts by asking who was over the age of 25, and wearing a wristwatch. (07:20). The underlying premise is that people under 25 won’t wear a watch because it is a “single function device” [great tagline] and that everyone over 25 wears a watch to tell the time. But do they? Personally I don’t always wear a watch but when I do its more because I like the feeling of being “dressed up” and other people will wear watches for aesthetic reasons or – if you have spent thousands of dollars on a luxury watch– as a status statement. People over the age of 25 wear watches for many different reasons.

Warwick’s coaching tip: A better approach would have been to ask the audience what they thought his daughter called a watch. The answer of a “single function device” would have got a good laugh (as it did when he used it after this interaction) and would have made a clear point on how younger people view the world differently.


This was a well delivered and generally well received talk. While there are very strong aspects to the talk notably the metaphors and taglines used, a greater impact could have been made by making the big idea more visible. What is the learning revolution that is needed? Besides from being organic, how can it be created? Even high level, inspirational speeches need to suggest a direction for the audience to go following the talk. Not as impactful as the 2006 talk. I think this was a 5 out of 10.

To see Warwick’s analysis of Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk speech, click here.

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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