How TED Talks Work

By: Dave Roos

Producing a TED Talk

Chris Anderson
TED curator Chris Anderson speaks during the 2014 TED conference in Vancouver, Canada.
Steven Rosenbaum/Getty Images

Brilliant minds are not always the best public speakers. But in the TED universe, even the world's biggest nerds are able to strut on stage and tell fiercely compelling stories about incredibly complex subjects. Where does TED find these innovative thinkers, researchers and activists who are also inspiring motivational speakers?

The short answer: It doesn't. TED curator Chris Anderson hand-picks every featured speaker at the twice-yearly TED conferences in Long Beach, California. Some of these individuals are seasoned performers, presenters and storytellers, but most of them are more comfortable in a secluded research lab or behind their laptops.


So, the polished TED talks that we watch online are the result of a months-long process of writing, editing, re-writing and rehearsing under the guidance of TED producers and coaches.

In a 2013 article for the Harvard Business Review, Anderson outlined the process for creating an unforgettable TED talk. It begins six to nine months before the conference with what Anderson calls "framing the story," which means finding a clear starting and ending point for the talk.

It can be tremendously difficult for an expert in a niche field like robotics or prison reform to give a talk that's accessible and engaging to 1,400 conference attendees, let alone a worldwide audience online. But the basics of giving a good TED talk apply to any speech you might have to give. Here are some of them [source: Anderson]:

  • Frame your story as a personal journey of discovery. A successful talk should feel like a "little miracle," changing your audience's perspective on the world. Rather than trying to cover everything, focus on one specific issue and give examples of your personal contribution.
  • Don't use a teleprompter; instead, memorize your talk. Put key points on note cards if you're afraid of forgetting something.
  • Make frequent eye contact. Pick five or six friendly looking people in different parts of the audience and look at them as you speak.
  • Don't move around too much. People tend to sway from side to side when they're nervous but it's distracting. Your best bet is to stand still and use hand gestures when impressing a point.
  • Use visual aids like slides and videos sparingly and only to demonstrate highly visual concepts that cannot be easily explained.

TED speakers are encouraged to rehearse for the conference by delivering their talks at smaller gatherings before the big day arrives. With lots of preparation and help from TED staffers, even the most nervous speakers can give professional performances. One of the most popular TED talks ever was delivered live in 2012 by Susan Cain, perhaps the world's most famous introvert.