How (and Why) Ted Talks Work

We all know TED. Over 1,800 (available) 12-18 minute talks over 34 years. We know the format: conversational, casual dress, few images, a bare stage, a Big Idea.

There’s more. There are no devices allowed in the TED room. That’s why people pay attention.

And it turns out, they have a structure. I’ve made a hobby of Hollywood form, and there’s also TED form.


Of course, I’m not the first to notice this. There are dozens of blogs on how to nail your TED Talk, and like most blogs these are written too fast: embrace mystery and wonder … start and end strong … be yourself … and so on …

More useful — if rather twistingly meta — are some TED Talks on how to give a TED Talk. These get us closer to it.

* June Cohen (a TED producer) emphasizes keeping your personal story in the center, not rushing and staying non-technical

* Gordon Kangas stresses that you want to change the audience: inspire them to do something

* TEDx’s own how-to-give-a-TEDx pounds on the call to action at the end.

TED Talks aren’t meant to inform or entertain so much as inspire action. This is the existential difference between a TED Talk and a corporate speech. Perhaps it should not be.

Think about two of the more memorable TED Talks, ones you’ve heard even if you haven’t, if you follow me. Brene Brown on vulnerability and Amy Cuddy on the “power pose.”

They both had a simple message that could be:

  • Summarized in 2-3 words
  • Inspire positive action

That is:

  • Brown: “Be Vulnerable!”
  • Cuddy: “Stand with Power!”

Imagine casting your corporate talks as 2-3 word action statements. Would it work? How could it?

This leads me to the three reasons I think the TED Talk format is so durable:

  1. They are short
  2. They don’t use slides
  3. They are more pep talk than lecture


So I watched a bunch of popular TED Talks and sketched out their structure. There are seven parts. (I’m being reductive here, since there is variety in 35,000 global multi-lingual talks; but you’ll get the gist.)

These are:

  1. PERSONAL ANECDOTE – start with a personal story that expresses, yes, vulnerability and makes you seem human
  2. STARTLING FACT – make a startling statement that is true but not widely known (e.g., “If you eat a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, you will immediately gain half a pound” – true)
  3. BIG IDEA – this is up to you, amigo
  4. ARGUMENT – present your case in a logical sequence, structure as 3-4 mini challenge-solution narratives – i.e., present a challenge … a solution … another challenge … a solution … rising and falling like Freytag’s pyramid
  5. “IN CONCLUSION …” – summarize what you just said, quickly
  6. HOPEFUL FUTURE – describe a beautiful vision of a better tomorrow if only we could all do something … but what?!
  7. CALL TO ACTION! – one thing you want to inspire the people to do

The key here being to inspire. People aren’t amused into action. They aren’t informed into action. They are inspired. The rest is up to you.

See you back stage at TED.

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