Q&A

TEDTalks at 5: Speakers tell their stories

Posted by: Emily McManus

TED.com video exists to celebrate great speakers, thinkers, doers — people with ideas that are passionately held and clearly put. For our speakers, putting their videos online has, in many cases, amplified their work beyond imagination, provoking new connections and directions to their careers and even their lives.

As we approached the fifth anniversary of TEDtalks online, we asked our speakers: “How did your TEDTalk impact you?”

Read a few of their answers below. And if you’re curious, download a text doc with all the speakers’ replies, an amazing document.

Several speakers told us that having their TEDTalk online caused a major shift in their work and goals. Like Hans Rosling:

It is not a feeling, it is a fact, that my TED talks are more important than the rest of my professional life.

My TED talks have been seen by about 7 millions. That is on average 12 min x 7,000,000 persons = 80 million person-minutes = about 1 million person-hours.

Compare that to an average of 20 one-hour lectures per week for 40 weeks per year to a class of on average 50 students and you get 20 x 40 x 50 = 40,000 person-hours of attention per year. I did that for 30 years, so it is a total of 1.2 million person-hours of attention in lecture.

Add 100 scientific papers, each read by 100 persons during one hour, that is 10,000 person-hours of attention.

Add a textbook written with three others that requires 20 hours to read and it has been read by 5,000 giving a total of 100,000 person-hours of attention.

Add 40 year of team work with 5 persons during 40 hours per week during 40 weeks a year. A total of about 60 000 person-hours of attention.

Pre-TED professional life reaches 1.37 million.

TED-life gave five-fold more attention

Hope there will never be a post-TED life.

TED Prize winner Neil Turok writes:

The talk I gave at TED2008 was simply transformative. I spoke about the importance of mathematical skills in modern society and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). I expressed the wish that the next Einstein be African.

The talk gave huge and immediate visibility to our then-small AIMS project, which was struggling from one funding crisis to the next. When I proposed a plan to create 15 AIMS centres all over Africa, this generated enthusiasm and, ultimately, funding.

And our alumni, many of whom saw the talk online, were inspired by the thought that an organisation like TED, representing the most forward-looking thinkers, creators and entrepreneurs in the world, cared about them.

Alain de Botton writes:

I can honestly say that doing a TED talk changed my life. Though I’ve been writing books for a decade, it brought me a whole new audience, a different but compatible sort of audience, and a truly global one.

The quality of the debate around a talk is also mind-boggling. People look to TED not just for information, but also for guidance, for a source of wisdom and direction in a confusing world. I never do blurbs, but this is an honest gush.

Sunitha Krishnan writes:

The publication of my TED talk was the greatest boost for the anti-trafficking mission. Thousands of individuals were inspired to respond in their own personal capacities in their countries against human trafficking.

For me personally, the most humbling times were when I got mails from men and women who have been sexually abused disclosing for the first time.

The impact on my organizational growth cannot be described in words. Today, if Prajwala has a huge global following, it is the result of the publication of my TED talk.

Aaron Huey writes:

My TED talk lead to a huge chain reaction that continues to this day and will extend well into 2012.

My talk was on American POW camps (Indian reservations), and my TED wish was this: “Give back the Black Hills.”

For this TEDx event in Denver, I’d originally been asked to talk about my work as a National Geographic photographer. But I knew that with a platform like TED, I had to do more than just a slideshow of pretty images. The TED platform inspired me to move into new territory and to choose a side on an issue I had been documenting for years.

After the TEDx talk the emails and phone calls started coming in … Everyone wanted to know what to do, and how to take it to the next level.

The Lakota began using the talk to educate people about the treaty issues. Teachers in high schools and universities around the country contacted me to say that they have started using it as curriculum.

And at least one large project has began as a direct result: A collaborative street art project that will appear in over a dozen American cities with art from Shepard Fairey (the most prolific street artist in America who also designed Obama’s HOPE campaign image) and Ernesto Yerena (activist artist known for his work on the Alto Arizona campaign). Find out more >>

The poster/billboard campaign was all funded through crowdsourcing.

More radical collaborations will continue into 2012.

Erin McKean writes:

In short, because of my TED talk:

– I went from being a traditional lexicographer to a startup founder

– Every day, more people visit Wordnik.com than ever bought most of the print books I ever worked on

— There are 10x more words on Wordnik than are in the OED

— We’ve built a huge word graph and a meaning discovery engine that takes the static knowledge about words and makes it a real dynamic tool for connecting people to relevant content

… and so much more!

Gever Tulley writes:

Impact of my TEDTalks?

Imagine never having to make a cold-call for anything, ever again. Imagine putting your best ideas out into the world and having the world help you make them better. To say that TED changed my life would be an understatement. Thank you all for the opportunity.

Alison Carr-Chellman writes:

My talk on boys and gaming to re-engage learning went live from the TEDxPSU event to the global TED website in January. It dramatically changed my work overnight.

My work prior to TED was generally split into several ongoing projects, but almost all of my time now has moved into the boy culture space, with an invitation to participate on the commission for a White House Council on Boys to Men, and appointment to the advisory board of the Boy’s Initiative. I have spoken on the radio and delivered several parent-and-teacher-education seminars; talking more with these populations has helpde me evolve my ideas on boys, schools and games. I have a book proposal under consideration for a popular-press book, something I never imagined as an academic.

It is thrilling and humbling to realize that the one thing I probably will ever do in my career that will reach more people than any article, or conference presentation, academic book, or research study I may publish, that one thing is my TED talk. It was a talk of a lifetime, and I hope it will move people into deep consideration for the issues boys face and into action on behalf of young boys in schools.

Steven Pinker writes:

My TED talk on the decline of violence led to something much, much bigger. In response to the interest aroused by the talk, I put my research on language and social relationships on the back burner, devoted the following four years of my life to the topic, and ended up with an 850-page book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which will be published this fall.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

On a professional level, speaking at TED brought an entirely new audience to me and my writing. After the publication of Eat, Pray, Love, I had been rather firmly pigeonholed into the category of Chick Lit Author, and while that isn’t anything to complain about (as any pigeon can tell you, some holes are quite cozy), that categorization certainly drove away some readers from my work. My TED talk brought those readers back, almost offering them up a badge of intellectual legitimacy, or permission to consider me anew. I always smile when I see those people at my speaking events. They’re the ones who say, “I never imagined I would like your writing, but then…” (I can always fill in the rest of the sentence without fail: “…but then I saw your TED talk.”)

On a more personal level, the opportunity to speak at TED gave me a chance to refine an idea I’d been quietly brewing for years. With the deadline for the talk approaching, I was forced to tumble down my idea from something scattered and instinctive and inarticulate into something smooth and brief and firm, which I could then toss into the audience. That clarion moment — the moment in the middle of my TED talk, when I felt my idea actually leave my hands and go flying out into the world — was one of the most gratifying and powerful experiences of my life. Thank you for giving me that chance.”

David S. Rose writes:

I have been blown away by the number of entrepreneurs from around the world who have emailed, tweeted and come up to me in person to tell me that my TEDTalk on “How to Pitch a VC” was instrumental in helping them raise funding to bring their vision to life. Without question the posting of that video has, to date, resulted in a greater direct impact on more people than anything else I have ever done, in any context.

Sophal Ear writes:

I can’t count the ways in which my TEDTalk about Escaping the Khmer Rouge has had an impact. I get messages and meet people who constantly tell me what it means to them on a deep, personal level. It’s simply been transformative.

For me, the talk itself was an incredible opportunity to honor my mother in person, while she was still alive, for saving my four siblings and I from the Killing Fields.

As you may know, my mom passed away eight months after I gave my talk (four months after my TEDTalk went online) very unexpectedly. I know that when she was alive, she was terribly proud of having had the opportunity to stand up in that auditorium in Long Beach to take a bow and receive a standing ovation. She watched the TEDTalk with me and it was really our TEDTalk.

Jennifer 8. Lee writes:

I’ve been recognized on the streets of Vancouver during the Olympics, at a banquet in Sydney and by my bank teller in New York City’s Koreatown — all because of a talk I gave on General Tso and his chicken on TED.com.

Wade Davis writes:

The TED talks that I have been fortunate to have posted by you have been indescribably helpful for my work. The success of the TED talks has only gone to show that the Beatles were right in that last refrain on Abbey Road, What was it? Something like the more you give, the more you take.

Becky Blanton writes:

People want to belong and be counted, not as statistics, but as human beings. I had no idea that speaking out about my being homeless would not only touch so many people, but inspire them. The response I’ve received since my TEDTalk was released moved me to totally re-evaluate and reinvent my perception of how stories connect storytellers and viewers/readers. I learned the most powerful stories, ideas and dreams don’t just inform, enlighten or educate us — they touch us at our very core about what it means to be alive. TEDTalks — like all stories that convey ideas, concepts and possibilities through the lens of human experience — truly are the most powerful stories of all.

Luca Turin writes:

Any scientist who watches TED lectures must surely feel that a] nothing is too difficult to convey in 12 minutes if you put your mind to it and b] we scientists owe it to the people who feed and water us to give it a try.

Kiran Sethi writes:

Once the talk went live — the idea literally traveled and infecTED the world!

As shown by this lovely reader response from Susann Meyer:

TED has changed my life, it really has. When I first discovered TED I was fascinated and I couldn’t stop watching the videos. One day, I saw Kiran Bir Sethi’s talk about how she teaches kids to take charge. I was blown away and I wanted to meet this woman. I emailed her instantly and asked if I could do an internship at Riverside School. She replied with the words: “when can you come?” and I was blown away a second time. I arranged everything and I actually went to Ahmedabad in September 2010. I got the chance to soak up the energy at Riverside, meet lots of very interesting people, and redefine my idea of education.

Since then, I am changed and I keep on changing. My vision was reshaped and I rediscovered my passion for education, which was in hibernation due to the often too uninspiring and dull routine of a university student. I know again why I have always wanted to be a teacher or work in the field of education. I want to be part of “bringing on the learning revolution!”

Rives writes:

I do sometimes wonder if I hold the record for fan tattoos based on a TEDTalk.

But for me, the most charming and unpredictable result of my first TEDTalk going online is hearing cover versions of it from young people.

At first I was a bit vexed. When I performed my poem “Mockingbird” in the final session of TED2006 I included a “freestyle” section where I quoted about 20 speakers from the previous four days. That’s the gimmick — the poem is designed to be a live performance and I’ve never spoken it the same way twice. When my talk went up on the new TED.com later that year I figured: How the heck is this relevant if you haven’t sat in on the talks I’m tipping my hat to?

But high school speech and debate competitors like to tackle it. And when they do, they sometimes like to send me videos of them tackling it — from the US, from Australia, from Ireland. And since they’ve memorized the TEDTalk version of “Mockingbird,” when they get to the freestyle section — where they really should be quoting their fellow speakers — I hear “my” codified lines coming back at me in the words of Al Gore or Burt Rutan or Sirena Huang or Matt Groening.

Imagine — somewhere there is a video of an Irish teen quoting a video of a poet quoting a scientist who is paraphrasing the inscription on a clock tower bell from his student days: “It is the voice of life that calls us to come and learn.” And so it all makes perfect, lyrical sense somehow.

And TED speaker Sebastian Wernicke updated his legendary stats-based analysis of what makes a great TEDTalk. See his findings …

Read many more speaker responses here >>