The other day, I went to a company thing and the day started off with us watching a TED talk. I enjoyed it—to be honest, there are few TED talks I have seen over the years that I have not enjoyed. But that got me started—why do I (like so many other people) like TED talks? TED (or the nonprofit Technology, Information and Design) is a group that was formed in 1984 to (as they put it) spread ideas through powerful short talks of 18 minutes or less. And the ideas are hugely diverse, ranging from the economics of terrorism to whether genes should be patented to how your body language changes your attitudes. Whatever it is you’re interested in (and a bunch of stuff you probably didn’t even know you were interested in) is probably available in a TED talk. All you have to do is browse their library. And once you click on a presentation, you will be hooked. Because these talks are addictive for (in my opinion) three main reasons: the people presenting them know their stuff, are passionate about it, and tell stories.
Perhaps the least important part of what makes TED talks so addictive is that the people giving them are very knowledgeable about their subjects. You know this because the speakers can explain their (very complicated) subjects really simply, in a short amount of time (18 minutes or less), and they generally do it without using PowerPoints. There is a really great quote (usually attributed to Einstein) which goes “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well.” The people who present TED talks really understand what they’re talking about.
More importantly, the people who give their talks are really passionate about and really understand what they do. Someone who is passionate about a subject is likely to “infect” you with that same passion. Or, as psychologist Sigal Barsade put it “emotions, both positive and negative, spread among employees like viruses. People routinely ‘catch’ each other’s feelings.” So when you hear people who are really passionate about their topic, you are likely to become passionate about it too.
And finally (and most importantly), I think TED talks are so popular (and powerful) because they tell startling and original stories. Each and every single TED talk I listened to had a personal story at its core. They tell stories. Loretta Napoleoni started he talk on economics of terrorism by telling us that a member of the terrorist group, the Red Brigades, was a childhood friend of hers; In her talk about how your body language changes your attitudes, Amy Cuddy tells a personal story of being in a really bad car accident and as a result, having her IQ dropping by two standard deviations; and Tania Simoncelli starts her talk about the fight to stop human genes from being patented by recounting the day it all started—one of those days when she was feeling a bit discouraged. And every TED talk I have ever seen is like that. And that is probably the main reason they are so addictive.
We love stories. Scientists (in their ever-so-winsome way) say it’s because “stories are central to the human cognitive system because they capture the essence of social interaction, the structure of human action.” In other words (in case you didn’t get all that after reading it three times), we tell stories to make sense of our world, to exists in groups, even to survive. Stories tap into our emotions and into our reasoning at the same time and so help us make sense of the chaos around us. And really good stories are startling too. It’s startling to see a world-famous economist tell about her childhood friend, the terrorist; startling to hear about a frustrating day in the office turn into a decades-old legal case with profound implications for our health; startling to hear a world-renowned professor talk about a time when no-one thought she would finish school. Those kinds of stories make us sit up and pay attention.
They’re the kind of stories TED talks are made of. And if you haven’t had a chance to hear a TED talk lately you should head on over to https://www.ted.com/ and check them out. Great stories await you.