How TED Talks Work

Do TED Talks Have a Real Impact?

With great popularity comes great blowback, and TED is not immune from its critics. One of the loudest cries is that TED is elitist. Not only does TED curate every speaker at its annual conferences, but it curates the audience members as well. Attendance to the two main TED conferences in Long Beach is still invitation-only. TED defends the practice as a way of diversifying the pool of attendees, including those who can't otherwise afford to attend. Plus, most of the talks eventually are made available for free to anyone with Internet access.

Another criticism of TED is that its self-congratulatory conferences and viral online videos promoting "world-changing ideas" have no real impact at all. Instead of fast-tracking truly game-changing reforms or inspiring people to go out and make a difference, the 18-minute videos provide nothing more than "megachurch infotainment" for the middlebrow masses [source: Rose and Schuster]. Anderson's response? "We're not trying to be the be-all and end-all of knowledge. What we're trying to do is make difficult knowledge accessible," he said to "60 Minutes."

While it's hard to measure the global impact of a single TED talk, there are some clear benefits for the roughly 60 people who deliver talks during each weeklong conference. TED conference presenters are not paid for their talks, and you're not allowed to use the TED platform to sell a specific product or book. But that doesn't mean that money isn't a lure for TED speakers. Twice a year, the TED conference hall in Long Beach is filled with deep-pocketed investors, philanthropists and entrepreneurs looking to fund inspiring ideas.

Bryan Stevenson, a prison reform activist, had never heard of TED before he was convinced to give a talk in 2012. After his 18 minutes on stage, which included a touching personal anecdote of an interaction with Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks, Stevenson was approached by people who ended up donating $1 million to his cause [source: Rose and Schuster]. That's one instance where a TED talk was truly life-changing.

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