Reading Comprehension. TED Talks, “Ideas Worth Spreading”

man standing in front of people sitting on red chairs

When you think of presentations or conferences, what are the first things that come to mind? Sitting uncomfortably in your chair for hours? Looking at your watch waiting for the break and buffet? Page after page of data that leaves you bored and thinking about what you’re going to do at the weekend?

Well, the art of presenting has changed in the last couple of decades and the staid academics, dull data technicians and heavy-handed salespeople have fallen out of fashion and the stage has been set for the new school of presenters, more like rock stars in their enthusiasm, star profiles and valuable insights.

In recent years one name has come to stand out as an industry leader in the field of conferences and presentations: TED. Perhaps you’ve seen some of their presentations on video platforms like Youtube, perhaps you have even attended (physically or virtually) one of their globally collaborative TEDx events or maybe you’ve listened to their podcast. The TED brand has become synonymous with slick and expertly presented conferences with informative and interesting presentations given by some of the most renowned experts and commentators in their respective disciplines.

TED has grown from humble beginnings to become one of the most recognised forums in the world, attracting such high profile speakers as Pope Francis, Jeff Bezos, Steven Hawking and Bill Clinton and has gained such global popularity that their presentation videos have been watched billions of times by viewers all over the world.

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So what is TED? How does it attract such high profile speakers and what is the secret to a good TED talk?

The TED concept was born in 1984 by graphic designers Harry Marks and Richard Wurman. The two designers wanted to create a new conference that combined their often overlapping interests in technology, education and design, hence the acronymous name; TED. The first conference that they organised perfectly represented the remit of this new venture by presenting the then cutting edge technology of the compact disc and the Apple Macintosh computer. Although these topics were pioneering technologies that made a huge impact in the worlds of technology, entertainment and design, the conference was poorly attended and therefore not a financial success. For this reason some six years would pass before the next TED conference.

When TED resumed in 1990 it was much better received and saw their audience size grow consistently, forcing the organisation to relocate year after year until it found its permanent and current home in British Vancouver, Canada.

Perhaps as a response to (or maybe the reason for) the conference’s growing popularity, its scope was broadened and speakers from fields such as religion, science, visual arts and music were featured. After the dawn of the new millennium, TED continued its expansion by establishing a strong online presence and founding the TED prize. The TED prize is awarded to selected participants or groups based on their wish “to change the world”. Originally awarding $100,000 to each of three annual winners, the bounty has now risen to $1,000,000 for a single individual or group. Past winners have included celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for his work in the area of child nutrition and American President Bill Clinton for his project to develop a healthcare system in rural Rwanda.

TED has continued to expand its portfolio, which currently includes the TED conference, TED talks, Global collaborations known as TEDx and an education oriented project called TED-ED which seeks to create practical learning experiences out of the concepts and ideas that their speakers highlight.

So what is it that makes a TED talk so successful? TED’s current curator, British publicist Chris Anderson defines it as much by what it isn’t as what it is. A TED talk, he explains is not just a presentation on a round red rug (although they invariably are), nor is it a presentation that includes a personal secret or a childhood story, or even one that ends with an inspiring call to action (again, although almost all TED talks do!). Chris believes that these techniques are clichéd and can come across as emotionally manipulative. Rather, he explains, what TED talks all have in common is the transfer of an idea from the presenter’s mind to the audience.

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It isn’t important whether the idea relates to neurology, design, medicine or education, TED aims to make even complex ideas simple and powerful enough to inspire anybody.

TED talks can be about any subject that the organisers believe is worth spreading, but they all have one thing in common (apart from the red rug), they are all 18 minutes long. This number isn’t arbitrary, but chosen by the TED team as long enough to describe an idea while being short enough that the audience can follow and assimilate the concepts imparted without being fatigued or bored.

person holding pizza on white box

Despite its successes, TED has faced criticism from various quarters. One common criticism is that TED talks are often a triumph of “style over content” where superstar presenters dressed in expensive clothes use stylish multimedia presentations to tell us something that is already obvious.

The enthusiasm and manner of each brief TED presentation is quite a contrast with the usually subdued but lengthy presentations that academics are accustomed to and as such can seem more like “infomercials” than serious academic conferences.

The expansion of the TED brand has been subject to ridicule as some of it’s licensed TEDx local events have not had the same level of scrutiny and quality control that the talks are famous for. One such event was 2012’s TEDxValenciaWomen where the audience was subjected to a range of pseudo-scientific presentations of topics such as “rebirthing”, “Egyptian Psychoaromatherapy” and “Plasmatics”. Other notorious TEDx events include Randy Powell’s presentation on “Vortex-Based Mathematics” which was described by an expert in the field as “bullshit”!

Another criticism of TED is that this is an elitist arbiter of information. Commentators have asked to what extent the organisation can truly represent revolutionary thinking and work towards making the world a better place when they are sponsored by some of the most powerful and ethically dubious companies in the world such as Google, Coca Cola and Goldman Sachs. The claims of elitism have also taken aim at the fact that presenters are not paid for their work (although the exposure usually helps to sell whatever book they are currently promoting!) while tickets to attend the conferences are by invitation only and cost $10,000 each.

Whether you see TED as the academic equivalent of fast food or an organisation that is helping to spread important messages, one thing is certain: TED has established itself as the dominant global platform for conferences and presentations and has helped thousands of people spread their message to a truly global audience.

Whatever your interests, there is likely to be a TED talk that will appeal to you and perhaps make you see things from a different perspective, so why not see for yourself?

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