In recent years, TED has become the gold standard of public speaking, of publicity even. It used to be that having a New York Times bestseller was impressive. Now, people brag about their TED Talks. If you’re wondering what makes a great TED talk, experienced TEDx content producer Helena Bowen shares the five qualities that define the best TED talks.
Advice From an Experienced TEDx Producer
As TEDxMileHigh’s content producer, I review 1,500+ speaker applications, audition 80 speakers, and conduct 150+ speaker interviews each year. In other words, I know about all the coolest sh*t happening in the Rocky Mountain West. I will never run out of good small talk content for cocktail parties and networking events. (Fun fact: did you know that whale vaginas look like a labyrinth? Yeah, I learned that from a TEDx Speaker.)
But, with so much volume, it’s easier to see which ideas have potential and which don’t. So today I’ll give you a behind-the-scenes view of our curation process and answer the question, “What makes a great TED Talk?”
Below are five qualities that define the very best TED and TEDx Talks. To be clear, most talks won’t match all five criteria, but they should meet 2-3. Will your “idea worth spreading” pass the test? Read on.
1. You Have First-Hand, Personal Experience
The best TED and TEDx speakers are the “primary source.” They don’t just talk the talk; they walk the walk. They’re the artist, not the art critic. The player, not the commentator. They’re in the arena (to reference TEDx superstar Brene Brown).
Check out Christian Piccolini’s TEDxMileHigh Talk, “My Descent into America’s Neo-nazi Movement and How I Got Out.” There’s no denying that Christian is the primary source here, right? The man has lived this talk. His “idea worth spreading” was won through hard-earned experience.
Give a talk about your work, not someone else’s.
2. Your Topic is New or Niche
There’s a fine line between being so niche that your topic won’t appeal to a broad audience and being just niche enough that the audience is surprised and fascinated by something they’ve never heard of before. When it comes to TED and TEDx Talks, the old cliché is true: “the riches are in the niches.”
Esther Sullivan’s TEDxMileHigh Talk, “America’s Most Invisible Communities,” is a great example. This talk forced people to look at something ordinary (mobile homes) in an entirely new way. It’s eye-opening! So much so that HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver reached out to Esther for help with their segment on mobile homes. Fun, unrelated fact: John Oliver is my #1 celebrity crush. Like or comment if you agree.
Search “TEDx” + “your topic” on YouTube to see what people are already talking about. How is your idea different or new?
3. You’re Tackling an Old Problem in a Radical, New Way
Most of the applications we receive are for incremental improvements on an existing idea—a slightly better app or a slightly better pedagogy. But the best TED and TEDx Talks present genuinely divergent solutions. In other words, we’re not looking for someone who trains a faster horse: we want the speaker who invented the car (metaphorically speaking, of course. RIP Karl Benz).
Check out Ethan Mann’s TEDxMileHigh Talk, “How Sharks Inspired a New Generation Of Medical Devices.” Most people in his industry fight antimicrobial resistance with more and more potent drugs. Sharklet’s solution is to change the surface energy of medical devices so bacteria can’t stick. It’s an entirely different way of approaching the problem.
So, are you making slight improvements on an existing idea, or are you truly doing something new?
4. You’ve Done Groundbreaking Research
The best TED and TEDx research talks focus on practical, real-world insights. Most academic research is too specialized for a general audience, but if you’re working on a project with broad implications, apply!
Check out Kim Gorgen’s TEDxMileHigh Talk, “A Mental Health Discovery That Could Change Criminal Justice Forever.” Kim does a great job of explaining her neuroscience research and its implications for our criminal justice system through plain language and compelling stories. Did you know that some of the best TED Talks are written at the 8th-grade level? Use the Hemingway App to see how your talk holds up.
5. You’re Solution-Oriented
Last summer, I did a speaking workshop with Harvard’s Marshall Ganz, a civil rights legend and the mastermind behind Camp Obama. So many times, I heard him ask, “Where’s the hope?” And he’s right. That’s what the audience wants to hear. Yes, there are problems. But TED and TEDx audiences want solutions—or a solution, at least.
Check out PJ Parmar’s TEDxMileHigh Talk, “Can We Redesign Healthcare to Profitably Serve The Poor?” A lesser talk would focus on the problem of healthcare access in low-income populations. Instead, PJ offers a roadmap to physicians to solve the problem and make a profit. Win-win.
So, What’s Your “Idea Worth Spreading?”
Here’s my top tip: we reject 90% of applicants solely because of their answer to the question, “What’s your big idea?”
Now that you’ve read this blog post, you’ll have a better sense of what we’re looking for. Put the most effort into that question, and you’ll have a much better chance of being accepted.