What Makes a Great TED Talk Great?
By Alison Whitmire
A great TED talk can attract hundreds of thousands of views in days and millions of views over months. Having attended the TEDActive conference for four years, attended numerous TEDx conferences and curated two TEDx conferences, I’ve developed some pretty clear opinions about what a great TED talk is and what makes it great.
There are great TED videos and then there are great TED talks. And some of the TED videos that have gotten millions of views are not great talks. Some of the most viewed talks have a phenomenal WOW factor that even if presented without words could get millions of views. They show or demonstrate something super cool, hard to believe, that you have to share with your friends and join in a common experience. The Sixth Sense videos (what happened with that anyway?) Dave Gallo’s video on Underworld Astonishments, the magic videos and even Hans Rosling’s videos are all visually sensational. And I believe that the reason they are among the most viewed videos is because of the awe they inspire, not because of the talk. In many ways, any speaker presenting the same content could provoke the same number of views. In these talks, the speaker’s goal is to not get in the way of his content.
Seven of the top twenty talks/videos on the TED site have no supporting slide deck. The speaker is the only visual representation of the story they tell. It’s that compelling?! Though I don’t have the stats, it seems certain that a substantially greater percentage of TED talks have supporting slide decks than is represented in the top twenty.
In the greatest TED talks, the speaker is integral to and inseparable from his talk. No one else could give his talk and get millions of views. The talk represents a sublime fusion of the speaker and his talk. It is as if the speaker is channeling the talk through them. (Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of this in her talk and demonstrates it beautifully.) There is no space between the speaker and the spoken.
It is natural and typical for a speaker to give a talk “about” a topic. And when the speaker is giving an “about” talk, there exists a separation between the speaker and the content. It is as if the speaker is looking out at the content and inviting the audience to look at it with him. There is a self/other relationship between the speaker and his content. The problem is that if the speaker isn’t IN the content, the audience can’t see themselves in it either. They don’t resonate with it in the same way.
Could Jill Bolte Taylor be any more IN her talk? Hers is my favorite TED talk of all time because of how the talk itself is a mini representation of what she actually experienced during her stroke. You might be saying, “But Jill Bolte Taylor is both subject and speaker”. Yes, that’s true. So, let’s move on to Brene Brown. She speaks in her talk about her research and her own experience with vulnerability with such authenticity that she later reported feeling raw and over exposed from it. I don’t know if they maintain statistics at TED on the velocity of views, but if they did, I think Brene’s talk would rank at the top. The manner in which she both spotlighted and channeled the power of vulnerability is what captivated so many people.
In all the great TED talks, the speaker is revealed through the content and the talk itself. There is a uniqueness to the talk that only they can bring to it. It is as if they are showing up as the best version of themselves. And in so doing, the audience is inspired, to do the same.