I am not a fan of TED talks.

There.  I said it.  I promise, it isn't sour grapes.

 The problem with TED talks isn't with the talks themselves.  It is with the way they are consumed.

You hop on the internet to get a little dose of information and inspiration.  You engage with content (like TED talks and short articles on websites like this one) in between tasks at work or when sitting at home in the evening.  After clicking a link and watching the talk or reading the article, you move on to the next thing.  And the next.  Then, perhaps you cap it off with a kitten video.

Later, you try to tell someone else about the talk.  You realize you remember a little of the opening story and a couple of buzzwords and finish your recommendation with "I'll send you the link."

The problem is that if you can't actually describe the crucial points made in the talk or article back to someone else, you haven't really learned anything from it.  When you want to solve a new problem in a creative way, you can only do that with information that is actually in your brain.  Information someone else has on the internet will not help you at crunch time.

That means you need to hold yourself accountable for the details of what you learn. 

When you do watch a TED talk or read an article like this one, don't click away to something else right away.  Instead, take 30 seconds and explain the content back to yourself.  You'll be amazed to find that you often have difficulty doing that.

Good speakers and good writers allow you to follow along with their chain of reasoning.  Afterward, you come to believe you understand the material, because they were so fluent at presenting it to you.  But, unless you can explain it back to yourself, you don't understand it--only they did.

The gaps in your knowledge come along with an invitation to fill them.  Watch the talk again or re-read the article and see whether there is enough information in that article to actually provide an explanation.  You might also be surprised to discover that some of the gaps in your explanation reflect information in the talk or article that is missing.

If so, you might want to spend a few minutes digging around looking for more information on the topic. 

The internet loves to present bite-sized bits of information that you can consume in 5-10 minutes.  Unfortunately, when it comes to innovation, the devil is in the details.  The really successful innovators are the ones who hold themselves responsible for understanding the details of the things they learn.  In that way, they can both recognize that they have knowledge that might help them to solve a new problem as well as sufficient understanding to use that knowledge when they need it.

Few articles (even this one) have enough detail to provide a complete understanding of a topic.  So, a TED talk or article is really just the visible part of an iceberg.  From that sample, you can decide whether it worth drilling down to learn more. 

And that is where TED talks can be valuable.  There is a natural tendency for most people to focus on topics about which they already have some expertise.  It can be difficult to learn about quite new areas that might ultimately provide insight into a problem you face.  TED talks and brief articles do provide you with exposure to a range of topics that you might choose to learn more about.

So, watch, explain, and learn.

Published on: Mar 1, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.