How TED Talks Work

By: Dave Roos

History of TED Talks

The story of TED starts in 1984, five years before the birth of the World Wide Web. It began as a conference in Monterrey, California, organized by architect and iconoclast Richard Saul Wurman.

Wurman wanted TED to be the "ultimate dinner party" with himself as the host [source: Rose and Schuster]. Wurman chose the speakers from the best and brightest of Silicon Valley, Hollywood and academia.


Unlike today's TED conferences, in which talks are carefully scripted and rehearsed, there were no speeches. Wurman's original vision for TED was to create the "anti-conference" — no boring PowerPoint slides and one-hour lectures. At TED, groups of brilliant people took the stage and talked about the things that fascinated them. Wurman was right on stage with them, running the show. In fact, if he felt bored, Wurman had no problem sending the speaker off the stage [source: Rose and Schuster].

The very first TED conference in 1984 featured a demonstration of the compact disc, an e-book reader and a presentation by fractal mathematician Benoit Mandlebrot [source: TED]. Despite the acclaimed speakers, the inaugural conference was a financial flop.

Six years later, Wurman and his business partner tried again, and the TED Conference took off. TED talks eventually took on their 18-minute format — the limit of the human attention span, supposedly — and the invitation-only pow-wow for innovators and power players quickly became one of the most sought-after intellectual tickets of the year [source: Gallo].

Never a fan of stability, Wurman tired of running the conference and sold the rights to TED in 2001. The buyer was a nonprofit called the Sapling Foundation, run by Chris Anderson [source: TED].

Anderson brought a nonprofit sensibility to TED, while maintaining the vision of a conference that brought together world-changing ideas delivered in 18-minute chunks.

Under Anderson's stewardship, the TED audience expanded to include TEDGlobal, a series of worldwide conferences. The organization created the annual TED Prize, a $1 million grant to support the efforts of one particularly inspiring TED speaker each year. And in 2006, a year after YouTube went live, TED made the inspired decision to begin posting videos of select conference talks online [source: TED].

The rest is viral video history. TED superstar Sir Ken Robinson has racked up more than 34 million views for his 2006 talk, Do schools kill creativity? And he's only one of many TED speakers to enter the million-views club. All told, TED videos have attracted more than a billion views [source: Anderson].