Have you met TED?

TED talks have seemed to become ever present in education over the last decade, as well as growing in popularity all across social media. This is no doubt related to the rise of youtube, and an ever growing access to TED talks on all different subjects and industries. My public speaking class last semester was almost entirely based off of TED talks, learning from the mistakes and more commonly the successful strategies that speakers have used throughout the years. The talks draw attention from people because the main qualifier is that the speaker is interesting, which opens up the stage to many people who would otherwise remain unknown. ted_logo

TED, which stands for Technology, Education, and Design, is a conference that was first held in 1984, and has been held annually since 1990. TED is a non-profit and operates under the slogan of “ideas worth spreading” and with that in mind has grown to include many talks on science and cultural events, as well as those on tech, education and design.

There are not many requirements for those who speak at TED events. The most important requirement is that the speaker presents their topic in at most 18 minutes in as creative and innovative a way as they can to engage the audience. The length of the talk is more important than it might seem. Not only does putting the time limit force speakers to choose the most interesting information to share, but it also allows the audience to be the most attentive it can be. Longer talks have a tendency to lose the interest of those listening and therefore less memorable. The time restriction has also worked very well for TED’s online presence. Most viewers would be wary of videos over 18 minutes long as being tedious and not worth the time, however because of the relatively short lengths more people are willing to take the time to watch talks and expand the reach that they have.


You may be wondering how TED talks have anything to do with social media and digital business, and that is a fair question. However, I would argue that through the topics that speakers present at TED conferences, many of which are about social media or digital business, that TED has helped shape the technology industry by opening up the ideas of established industry leaders with those who are looking to be the future. In addition, TED relies heavily on social media to spread its talks. With only a few thousand people invited to be part of the audience each year, most of those who view the talks do so through the TED website and youtube, and are shared by users across platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

TED is an example of an organization that used technology to its advantage. The change from a conference with a few thousand loyal supporters to nearly 750 million views on youtube, and over a billion total, started taking place in 2006 with the launch of TED.com and TEDs youtube channel. TEDs ability to take advantage of social media and digital media is a model that many companies would be lucky to imitate.

What helps TED find success when other speeches may not get much attention is not only the platform itself, but the desire to spread the talks to the public for free. TED does not pay its speakers, they use the size of their platform to draw the interesting people that they hope to have present, and nothing more. They rely on peoples desire to have their ideas seen and heard by others. It may be this strategy which helps lend itself to being popular on social media. Many TED talks have gone viral over the years, with many viewers exposed to the talks on Facebook and Twitter. TED’s current curator Chris Anderson has talked about the organizations digital strategy stating: “It used to be 800 people getting together once a year; now it’s about a million people a day watching TED Talks online. When we first put up a few of the talks as an experiment, we got such impassioned responses that we decided to flip the organization on its head and think of ourselves not so much as a conference but as “ideas worth spreading,” building a big website around it. The conference is still the engine, but the website is the amplifier that takes the ideas to the world.” (https://www.departures.com/lifestyle/technology-gadgets/ted%E2%80%99s-chris-anderson)

In a world where more information is being shared online each day than in the entire history before 2000, it is amazing to see how TED has developed a digital strategy to compliment its mission of spreading the ideas of those who speak with as many people as possible. Most companies would be smart to try and imitate the strategy that TED has taken and implement it for their digital presence.


  1. diiorion · ·

    First of all, great title. Second, this is a great post that exemplifies a company/event that was able to fully embrace technological change instead of resisting and missing out on an audience. While it’s not surprising that a conference with the word “technology” in its name was open to the changing landscape, it still is a great case study to show how important/beneficial it can be to look ahead and be prepared for technological change. One thing that I find interesting as well is that TED is, at least in my opinion, the most widely known conference/brand in this field. To my knowledge, no other conference really comes close to the amount of views TED talks get even though I’m sure other conferences have speeches online as well. I think everything from the design on the conference talks to the utilization of social media and the Internet have really made TED talks something special.

  2. clinecapen · ·

    It never crossed my mind what TED stood for so thanks for taking me out of my ignorance. The growth of TED you outlined here does seem amazing. Did you come across in your research some of the all time most viewed TED Talks or what topics seem to be the most popular? With that much content being created I often wonder how professors find the perfect TED Talks to highlight class topis- maybe Prof Kane can weigh in on that question.

  3. I agree that a lot of the success of TED talks has been the structure that they’ve provided their speakers. The time limit for speakers certainly helps people feel engaged throughout the talk, as, like you said, it can be easy to lose someone’s attention when you’re just talking at them.

    What I wouldn’t underestimate is the fact that while speakers certainly have their own agendas, the platform is generally agenda-free. People tend to trust platforms that are designed for social good (e.g. mass communication of novel & interesting ideas) that aren’t attempting to make money off of them. While we don’t necessarily think about it that much, we do know that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are attempting to use us to make money, which I believe causes some underlying distrust by its users. Although it’s obviously a completely different type of platform, the TED platform doesn’t have to deal with that issue.

  4. Great post! It surprised me that TED talks had been going on since the past century. I wonder if there’s any scientific research done to confirm that 18 minutes is the optimal presentation length. I also am curious about the selection process for potential speakers… I imagine it must be quite rigorous now given the programs popularity. I’ve seen several TED talks on a variety of subjects, and not one has failed to intrigue me. That fact that these talks have remained (for the most part) politically neutral also helps to establish a sense of trust that seems to be fading away in traditional media sources.

  5. mollyshields44 · ·

    Interesting post! I have always really enjoyed TED talks and have often found myself going down rabbit hole of watching them like I do with YouTube videos. You are right that they have definitely leveraged social media to their advantage. I have seen many TED talks shared by friends and family and that has prompted my binges. With over 9.5 million followers of Twitter they also have a great direct outlet to interested people. TED, with their digital and social strategy, has been able to make a strong brand for themselves among people, many of whom have never attended an actual conference!

  6. jordanpanza29 · ·

    This was very interesting! I did not know all the history behind TED talks. I still find it interesting how some of these videos go viral while others miss the mark. I’m assuming its like any other video; sometimes people enjoy one video more than another.
    While the topics still are key, I wonder if the thought of making a video go viral is thought about when picking the speakers. I bet it is because the viral videos help to spread knowledge, gets the speaker more well known and gets the organization’s name out there. I am surprised that they have not tried to grow it more and have TED talks for younger grades as well. Right now they seem to be targeted at a level of high school or onward so it would be interesting if they decided to have a TED talk junior for the younger kids to get hooked to these videos.

  7. alexisteixeiraa · ·

    Loved this post, I have been watching TED Talks since high school and it’s amazing to watch its success and popularity until now. It is interesting what talks become viral versus which ones become part of the mass. I think TED has really found this niche on the internet as this is a perfect amount of time to gain a large amount of knowledge on a large variety of topics. While you mentioned TED doesn’t pay its speakers, it certainly pays to be a speaker. It boosts their reputation and credibility as well as for the lucky ones such as Amy Cuddy and Simon Sinek it has changed their lives as many of them have gone on to write popular books. Thanks for an awesome post!

  8. duffyfallon · ·

    Great post – very interesting to hear the history/background of TED talks (I had no idea it stood for Technology, Education, and Design) and I totally agree with your point that the platform has helped shape/open up the technology industry. There are few websites you can go to today that give you access to such a broad range of exciting, interesting, important ideas/information – and moreover that’s presented in a way that’s enjoyable to consume. TED Talks have served as the stage for numerous thought leaders to share their knowledge with a global audience – which has undoubtedly led to incredible (yet immeasurable) benefit.

  9. benrmcarthur · ·

    Great HIMYM reference. I think people really like to identify with the topic of discussion in various TED talks. It enables SM users to share and spread a message that hits close to them, and at a scholarly level. And I agree that the platform depends on social media use to spread its content, which matches well with its non-profit desire to simply share ideas worth spreading. I actually bought a ticket to go to a TED seminar, found out I had a prior engagement and took an $80 hit from my wallet as I was not able to sell it. Needless to say, I’m going to keep enjoying my TED talks from my computer for free.

  10. terencenixdorf · ·

    Nice title and nice post. I actually had no clue what a TED talk was before coming to BC but I find them to be really interesting. I didn’t really have much of a clue about the background of the TED talks prior to reading your article, especially the crowd size and stuff like that, so thanks for sharing. I think you make a great point that TED talks have fully capitalized on the digital expansion and social media sharing capabilities. I think something that makes TED talks great is the ability to pause and go back to watch the rest when you can fully focus on the material. While watching a speech in person, it can be easy to lose attention, even if it’s just a 10 minute speech. While watching a TED talk from your computer, you can watch whenever you want to at your own pace.

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