TED curator Chris Anderson speaks during the 2014 TED conference in Vancouver, Canada.
STEVEN ROSENBAUM/GETTY IMAGES
Brilliant minds are not always the best public speakers. But in the TED universe, even the world's biggest nerds are able to strut on stage and tell fiercely compelling stories about incredibly complex subjects. Where does TED find these innovative thinkers, researchers and activists who are also inspiring motivational speakers?
The short answer: It doesn't. TED curator Chris Anderson hand-picks every featured speaker at the twice-yearly TED conferences in Long Beach, California. Some of these individuals are seasoned performers, presenters and storytellers, but most of them are more comfortable in a secluded research lab or behind their laptops.
So, the polished TED talks that we watch online are the result of a months-long process of writing, editing, re-writing and rehearsing under the guidance of TED producers and coaches.
In a 2013 article for the Harvard Business Review, Anderson outlined the process for creating an unforgettable TED talk. It begins six to nine months before the conference with what Anderson calls "framing the story," which means finding a clear starting and ending point for the talk.
It can be tremendously difficult for an expert in a niche field like robotics or prison reform to give a talk that's accessible and engaging to 1,400 conference attendees, let alone a worldwide audience online. But the basics of giving a good TED talk apply to any speech you might have to give. Here are some of them [source: Anderson]:
- Frame your story as a personal journey of discovery. A successful talk should feel like a "little miracle," changing your audience's perspective on the world. Rather than trying to cover everything, focus on one specific issue and give examples of your personal contribution.
- Don't use a teleprompter; instead, memorize your talk. Put key points on note cards if you're afraid of forgetting something.
- Make frequent eye contact. Pick five or six friendly looking people in different parts of the audience and look at them as you speak.
- Don't move around too much. People tend to sway from side to side when they're nervous but it's distracting. Your best bet is to stand still and use hand gestures when impressing a point.
- Use visual aids like slides and videos sparingly and only to demonstrate highly visual concepts that cannot be easily explained.
TED speakers are encouraged to rehearse for the conference by delivering their talks at smaller gatherings before the big day arrives. With lots of preparation and help from TED staffers, even the most nervous speakers can give professional performances. One of the most popular TED talks ever was delivered live in 2012 by Susan Cain, perhaps the world's most famous introvert.
Do TED Talks Have a Real Impact?
With great popularity comes great blowback, and TED is not immune from its critics. One of the loudest cries is that TED is elitist. Not only does TED curate every speaker at its annual conferences, but it curates the audience members as well. Attendance to the two main TED conferences in Long Beach is still invitation-only. TED defends the practice as a way of diversifying the pool of attendees, including those who can't otherwise afford to attend. Plus, most of the talks eventually are made available for free to anyone with Internet access.
Another criticism of TED is that its self-congratulatory conferences and viral online videos promoting "world-changing ideas" have no real impact at all. Instead of fast-tracking truly game-changing reforms or inspiring people to go out and make a difference, the 18-minute videos provide nothing more than "megachurch infotainment" for the middlebrow masses [source: Rose and Schuster]. Anderson's response? "We're not trying to be the be-all and end-all of knowledge. What we're trying to do is make difficult knowledge accessible," he said to "60 Minutes."
While it's hard to measure the global impact of a single TED talk, there are some clear benefits for the roughly 60 people who deliver talks during each weeklong conference. TED conference presenters are not paid for their talks, and you're not allowed to use the TED platform to sell a specific product or book. But that doesn't mean that money isn't a lure for TED speakers. Twice a year, the TED conference hall in Long Beach is filled with deep-pocketed investors, philanthropists and entrepreneurs looking to fund inspiring ideas.
Bryan Stevenson, a prison reform activist, had never heard of TED before he was convinced to give a talk in 2012. After his 18 minutes on stage, which included a touching personal anecdote of an interaction with Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks, Stevenson was approached by people who ended up donating $1 million to his cause [source: Rose and Schuster]. That's one instance where a TED talk was truly life-changing.Author's Note: How TED Talks Work
What is it about someone wearing a wireless microphone that makes me want to slap it off their face? Of all the complaints levied against TED, I don't think we've given enough attention to the crime of wearing one of those clear wireless headsets that run along your jaw and make you look like you're performing at the Super Bowl half-time show instead of delivering a serious talk about the oil crisis. I have no problem with the content of TED talks. In fact, I'm a big fan of the TED Radio Hour podcast and frequently steal tidbits of information to pretend like I'm smart. But please, can we just get rid of those wireless headsets? They're almost as bad as Bluetooth earpieces for cell phones. Maybe I should write a TED talk about this!