How TED Inspired a Whole Generation of Public Speakers

ted talks
Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

TED has been in the business of talking for over 30 years (it began as a one-off conference in 1984), and the massive success of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, as well as myriad other conferences and lecture series have made the talks a must-see (and a must-do) for many designers, musicians, writers, developers, CEOs, and other entrepreneurs. Between Ignite, Creative Mornings, and the various TEDx conferences held around the world, the national and international audience has stepped up to the lectern and packed the auditorium and declared that we are ready to talk and to listen. But why? What is it about talks that compel us to consume them at this magnitude?

In part, the popularity of the talk seems to be driving itself. The sheer volume of information to be gained, almost entirely for free, is part of the draw. As Lifehacker’s Chris Bailey points out, there are just so many talks on so many subjects that it’s impossible not to find one that can teach you something. And because of the prevalence of autodidactism, self-education is practically mandatory for creative individuals. This may also explain the popularity of the TED Radio Hour: By turning lectures which are largely audible — rather than visual — anyway and giving audiences even more ways to engage with them, NPR took hours of existing content, added some context, and made TED Talks accessible both while in front of a screen and during the commute.

Another element seems to be our shifting understand of what makes an expert. In the age of the talk, it’s almost as easy to get up and give a talk as it is to find one to watch. The act of giving a talk can also be really influential; for students in New Jersey, giving TEDx talks was a valuable way to gain confidence, acquire a deeper understanding of subject matter, and learn public speaking skills.

“It was learning in a different way . . . You asked more questions, you got to go deeper. And when you get to go that deep, you learn more and more,” explained one student to radio station KQED. And, indeed, there’s science to back her up; called the Protege Effect, researchers have found that teaching peers can help the teacher better learn and understand a subject — which means that giving talks could be as useful as watching them. Plus, there’s the added bonus of exposure, which is currency in a time when CEOs are a kind of celebrity. Giving a talk can give valuable press to your company or your personal projects, while introducing new audiences to services or ideas they might not have seen or heard of before. Talks, then, are a symbiotic, mutually-beneficial services.

ted talks

“The robust conversation that videos can inspire, both online and off, recognizes a central principle of adult education: We learn best from other people,” explains Annie Murphy Paul in a blog post on the subject of TED Talks and what we learn. “In the discussions, debates, and occasional arguments about the content of the talks they see, video-watchers are deepening their own knowledge and understanding.”

Talks also play into a cultural desire and possible need for inspiration, something that is both positive and, as the late Stella Young pointed out in her talk, sometimes misguided. There’s been some research (and much hand-wringing) about the negative impact of social media on our emotions. Dubbed “the Age of Rage” way back in 2011, the digital era has some internet users feels extra-unhappy — which could explain our clamoring for something to offset the negativity. Inspiration is a science, and TED Talks and Creative Mornings lectures have tapped into it by offering information that is both educational and has a feeling of support and community. The messages, even when they’re about extremely grave or sad subjects, feel hopeful, as if there’s a solution to nearly any problem.

Of course, TED Talks and other lectures aren’t going to solve the world’s problems — in fact, says Benjamin Bratton in, ironically, his TEDx talk, just watching lectures could actually be damaging if it keeps the viewers from acting.

“If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions),” Benjamin explains. “Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation. Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us.”

Researchers, too, have wondered if we actually do learn anything from TED Talks, or if they’re merely a method of hollow inspiration. However, the difference between innovation and motivation isn’t lost of many speakers — and some of the people who give and receive lectures are really doing the hard work and exposing others to it. In her Ignite Seattle talk, astroid miner Caitlin O’Keefe used her unique insight to share why space exploration and investing in non-terrestrial mining could be crucial for the future. Meanwhile, during Creative Mornings Portland, photographer and activist Pete Brook shared his eloquent, heartbreaking work on the needs of prison reform in the United States. And multiple TED speakers have tackled huge issues like the education of girls, particularly in war-torn nations. These are not just people talking and teaching — they are educators who have the potential to change minds and influence legislation.

TED Talks and other lecture series may not save the world, but the popularity of this medium as a method of communication definitely tells us something that we probably already knew, but also tend to forget: That as much as we like to talk, we also really like to listen and learn.

Want to become a better (and funnier) speaker yourself? Check out David Nihill’s course for free on September 15th! 


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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.