How to write your TED talk?
These engaging and informative online ‘speeches’ have given public speaking a new lease of life for the 21st century. They’re short enough to absorb easily, but long enough to be intellectually satisfying. And they’re fantastic for sharing and sparking conversations.
We are often asked to help prospective TED (or TED-style) speakers hone their message. And to ensure they avoid some of the pitfalls that can make TED talks fail. Or, worse, go viral for the wrong reasons! So what makes the best TED talks tick?
How did TED begin?
TED started life as a one-off conference in 1984, arising from co-founder Richard Saul Wurman’s prescient observation of ‘a powerful convergence among three fields: technology, entertainment and design’. It’s testament to the success of the resulting viral video phenomenon that few people even remember the meaning of the acronym.
Certainly, many of the most successful talks have little to do with technology, entertainment or design. (Except in the sense that they’re entertaining talks delivered via well-designed technology.) The most popular of all time include my personal favourite, Sir Ken Robinson on how schools undermine creativity, Simon Sinek on what makes a great leader and Bill Gates on ‘the next outbreak’ (recorded five years before Covid).
TED really stands for ‘inspirational’
There’s now a wider TEDx movement of talks organised independently of TED itself but in the same format. And many other TED-style events and videos that are inspired by the phenomenon without being affiliated with the organisation at all. Whether we’re writing for a formal TED talk or something else, though, when people ask us to help with a ‘TED-type speech’, we know exactly what they mean.
It’s going to be a bit longer than the standard ten-minute social speech. But it’s not a lecture or a business presentation. The ideal length will be 15-18 minutes, and it has to be engaging from start to finish. If there are going to be visuals, they need to complement rather than competing with the spoken word. (But then that should be a given anyway!) And the focus has to be on making a direct connection with the audience, both in the room and (potentially) around the world.
The TED risk
The great strength of the TED format is that it’s accessible, easy to follow and involves a blend of intellectual stimulation and emotional intelligence. The weakness is that it can be a little formulaic, which is what makes it eminently spoofable. At their worst, TED speakers can come across as self-satisfied, even messianic. With apologies to readers in the Golden State, there’s a slightly irritating tendency that the rest of us sometimes describe with a wry smile as ‘Californian’!
This is easily avoided, though. The key is humility, and ideally a bit of humour. In general, we advise speakers to ‘know your audience’, which can be tricky when you’re looking to go viral. But no TED talk is going to appeal to everyone, so it’s helpful to have at least a rough ‘ideal listener’ in mind. That way you can focus on what’s relevant to them.
Ask yourself what you have to offer. What are you saying that’s unique to you? And how will it benefit your ideal listener? Once you’ve answered those questions, you can give your talk a laser focus. You’re not there to save the world, or to win millions of followers for the sake of it, but to share a compelling idea. So keep to your point, and make sure all your examples and illustrations reinforce that point. Add a funny – and relevant! – anecdote or two and there’s even more chance your idea will stick in people’s minds.
How to write your TED talk – getting started
Before any TED talk can go viral, it has to make a real impact on at least one person. So don’t imagine you’re talking to the world, or even ‘the internet’. You’re talking to a smart and curious person who’s interested in what you have to say. And who you might be able to help or influence. If that person saw it on a Tuesday, how would you like them to describe your talk on Wednesday? In no more than ten words. That’s a brief that’s not just relevant to a TED talk, but to any speech, anytime, anywhere!