Guest Post by Yonason Goldson

There’s nothing like a good TED talk, is there? Every once in a while, however, the most important takeaway turns out to be something entirely different from what curators and presenters have in mind.

That’s what happened on March 5, 2018, when TEDxBrussels organizers literally dragged Deborah de Robertis from the stage in the middle of her talk. The mortifying misadventure offers a compelling lesson in leadership.

Lessons from a TEDx Talk that Went Terribly Wrong

The Brussels curators pushed the nuclear button when the Luxembourgian artist’s language turned vivid shades of blue and her nude image lit up the screen. Things got uglier when Ms. de Robertis refused to surrender the stage peacefully. While attempting to pull the presenter from the platform, the TEDx bouncer inadvertently pulled her shirt off in the process.

Needless to say, the curators were way out of line. Onlookers cackled over the irony of shutting down a talk about censorship mid-sentence, and TED officials intervened by revoking the curators’ license forthwith.

But there is more to the story. The real issue here is not censorship – it’s integrity.

Prior Planning Prevents Unpalatable Performances

Freedom of speech does not grant me permission to impose my message on an unwilling audience. As a rule, TED audiences expect neither nudity nor vulgarity as part of the program. The organizers may legitimately have considered it their duty to provide the attendees with a safe space free from offensive imagery and vocabulary.

That being said, by vetting both images and content – as they should have – the Brussels organizers could have averted the whole shameful spectacle. By failing to review the materials ahead of time – as seems likely – they forfeited their prerogative to veto any objectionable materials. If so, it was their own negligence that gave rise to the imbroglio they proceeded to handle so clumsily.

But this does not give Ms. De Robertis a free pass. She bears the guilt for her own lapse of integrity having included in her talk content and images she knew were out of step with the TED brand.

Master of Our Own Mute Button

Responsible presenters rein in self-indulgent impulses using a regimen of disciplined self-evaluation.

The most successful TED talks emerge from dozens, if not hundreds of hours of preparation, editing, revision, and practice involving a whole team of critics and evaluators. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, at least in part because the most difficult lesson for creators to learn is self-censorship.

In her book,“Don’t Tank your TED Talk,” Hayley Foster sums up the critical mindset: “You are there to serve the talk rather than delivering a talk that serves you.” The most engaging talks are given by speakers disciplined enough to ruthlessly cut out what they want to say and include only what the audience needs to hear.

Responsible presenters rein in their self-indulgent impulses through a regimen of disciplined self-evaluation. In order to craft principled talks that project integrity of message, prospective speakers should ask themselves a series of self-reflective questions:

  • Am I expressing myself as clearly and concisely as possible?
  • Will the audience miss this element if I leave it out?
  • Is the audience likely to react the way I want them to?
  • Have I sought out objective critical opinions?
  • Does every element strengthen my message or merely indulge my own agenda?

But what if a speaker lacks the experience or discipline that makes honest self-reflection possible? Organizers and curators can nudge speakers in the right direction by posing questions of their own:

  • What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?
  • Have you tried to look at your presentation from someone else’s perspective?
  • Is there anything you can cut that won’t be missed?
  • Are you confident this will be received the way you intend it to be?
  • What do you think about getting someone else’s input on this?

This formula applies far beyond the speaker’s stage, and it frames the ultimate challenge for disciplined collaboration.

Can Censorship Lead to Freedom?

Leaders need to give their people freedom to spread their wings without allowing them to fly dangerously high. By doing so, those who lead orchestrate the symphonic balance of independence and interdependence, which characterizes the integrated harmony of a truly successful team.

When leaders practice the art of gentle guidance and trustful oversight, they cultivate a culture of professional integrity in which their people are, paradoxically, both more independent and more willing to be led. The more disciplined a team becomes, the more freedom all its individual members have to find their voice, express their creativity, promote their values, and effectively spread ideas that are truly worth spreading.

Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

Guest Post

Yonason GoldsonYonason Goldson is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC. He’s an ethics coach, strategic storyteller, and TEDx speaker. He is also a community rabbi, recovered hitchhiker and circumnavigator, former newspaper columnist, and retired high school teacher in St. Louis. Visit him at


Can censorship lead to freedom? These lessons drawn from a TEDx talk that went terribly wrong seem to suggest that it can.