Analysis of a speech by Sir Ken Robinson

This TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson is one of my favourites. Robinson is an internationally recognized leader in education, innovation, creativity and human resources.

Ken Robinson
Sir Ken Robinson

In his latest book, The Element, Robinson states: “The element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When people arrive at the element, they feel most themselves and most inspired and achieve at their highest levels.” His website is worth a look.

Before you do so, however, watch his talk below. It is 20 minutes, so find some time when you can watch it without interruption. Afterwards, we’ll look at some of the reasons why I think it is so great.

What I liked

  • His talk seemed less a presentation to the audience and more a conversation with the audience.
  • He did not need a single PowerPoint slide or other prop to support his talk.
  • You might have noticed his limp at the beginning as he comes on stage. Robinson contracted polio at the age of 4. Yet he did not hide behind a lectern. He opened himself up to the audience. (He even joked about his limp at 15:30.) It is understandable that he did not move about the stage but he didn’t have to; he filled it with his personality and intelligence.
  • Ken Robinson spoke passionately about the topic.
  • He involved the audience in many ways: his use of the word “we”; his asking several rhetorical questions; his reference to different things that the audience had experienced while at TED (e.g., his mentioning at 2:50, 13.30 and 17:55 other talks that the audience had heard); etc.
  • He let the audience know, early on, what the talk was about, especially at 3:15: “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” In the public speaking business, we call this signposting.
  • His humour was wonderful, understated and well-timed. For example, when he said the words mentioned in the previous point, he spoke with great solemnity and purpose, rousing the audience to applaud. However, instead of continuing with the same heavy theme, he immediately lightened the mood – “That was it by the way. Thank you very much. So, 15 minutes left.” Classic stuff, but clever too because it allowed the audience to recharge for the next serious part. Robinson did this throughout the speech.
  • He used two powerful quotes – by Pablo Picasso and Jonas Salk – at appropriate points in the speech to drive home his points.
  • He told stories. Great ones. Memorable ones. Stories that reinforced his main point. The story about Gillian Lynne (15:20 – 17:45) was especially terrific for this talk.
  • Ken Robinson wasn’t afraid to pursue an extemporaneous idea, especially a humorous one that the audience clearly enjoyed, such as the humour about William Shakespeare as a child (6:50 – 7:50).
  • He ended memorably and passionately with a challenge to the audience.
  • He had a good time out there. You can see that he was enjoying himself. It is fitting that Sir Ken’s latest book is entitled “The Element”, because that it exactly where he was – in his element.
Photo courtesy of Sebastiaan ter Burg

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  1. Excellent analysis, thanks. I watched this video a while ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but never thought to ask, how does he do that? Now that I’m doing some videos – and failing miserably – I realize how important it is to understand the mechanics of a good talk. I’ll be back!

  2. I’ve watched this several times and it inspires me every time. I’ve ordered “The Element” and am looking forward to reading it. I’ve shared a lot of the info from Sir Ken with public school English teachers all over Italy in my seminars and school visits. I believe I have found my “Element” and I hope I’m infectious.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andy. I am 40 pages or so from finishing “The Element” and it is a great read. I am sure that it will add yet another dimension to your talents as a teacher and speaker. Good luck with it!

  3. Wonderful analysis. I found your site looking for Sir Ken Robinson quotes. We have a nine year old son who is learning disabled in public school, but a model student in snowboard school! Sounds like The Element would be a great book for us.
    This is the second time I’ve watched this video hanging on every word. Now I know why! As an ex student of rhetoric at UBC, I’m happy to have stumbled upon your blog and look forward to reading more!

    1. Hi Christine. Many thanks for the kind words. Glad that you enjoyed the post. You definitely should read “The Element”. You will find it very inspirational, for your son and for the rest of the family.
      All the best from a fellow (I think) Canadian.

  4. I have written an extensive critical essay as a rebuttal to Robinson’s TED talk on this subject. I have had many requests for it when I post about it on the TED forum connected to his video. If anyone is interested, you can contact me and I will send it to you.

  5. Thanks for the analysis John. I’ve always found it interesting that this is such a successful speech, and yet he does some things that are frowned on by speaking coaches. For instance, he opens with “Good morning”, and he follows with a joke, neither of which are topic-related.

    I suppose when you can give such a good talk, those little things don’t detract from it much – in fact they add to its humanity.

    You might also be interested in this critique I just published. It’s of Allan Pease’s TEDx talk on body language. He too opened with “Good morning”, and with humour, but the feeling was quite different because he gestured to prompt people to reply to his greeting, and his humour was at the audience’s expense.

    Anyway, any comments or suggestions are always most welcome!

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

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CEO, Proton Technologies

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Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

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National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

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CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

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Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

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Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

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Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International