What speakers can learn from 11 of the funniest TED Talk spoofs

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RejectTED Talks. Onion Talks. DED Talks. Here in the TED office, you often hear chuckles as someone watches one of the quickly growing crop of TED spoofs floating in the ether. And surprisingly, there are some pretty good lessons for speakers embedded in these spoofs. See what I mean below.

The spoof: Stephen Colbert’s RejecTED Talks
Created by: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
The lesson: Pudding and summer vacation sound like crowd-pleasers. But if there isn’t an idea, it isn’t a TED Talk.

Never heard of TED Talks? “Congratulations on quitting Facebook in 2005,” says Stephen Colbert at the top of this new segment, in which he opens the vault — err, cardboard box — to share rejected talks. First, a kilt-clad Angus MacDougal speaks passionately about meat and pudding, then a young Cayden R. talks about his summer vacation. The problem with both of these talks is one we see often. The speakers had a topic, but not really an idea. We’d encourage them to dig further to find the point — that valuable insight they can share with the audience.

The spoof: Menstruation Orientation
Created by: Key and Peele
The lesson: Talks with two speakers are hard to pull off.

“What if we told you that once a month, half the human race is in pain,” says Shaboots Michaels. “And the other half don’t want to hear s*** about it,” responds T-Ray Tombstone. These two attempt to make men more sympathetic to women who have their period — but all the synchronized yelling gets in the way of their point. We suggest they watch Arunachalam Muruganantham’s “How I started a sanitary napkin revolution” for a more quietly-compelling take on a similar topic.

The spoof: Paul Scheer’s (faux) TED Talk
Created by: Team Coco
The lesson: Don’t fall victim to idea sprawl.

Paul Scheer loads up his talk with insights on everything from dreams to the appropriate dipping sauce for chicken wings. But wouldn’t it have been more effective if he’d shared one single, cohesive idea? This is what we tell speakers: Consider the idea you want to share with the world. And include only the essentials to pop that idea into focus.

The spoof: Onion Talks: Compost-Fueled Cars: Wouldn’t That Be Great?
Created by: The Onion
The lesson: Don’t share an idea you don’t believe in enough to follow through on.

In the inaugural episode of The Onion’s spoof series, a man shares an idea for cars that run on compost as if it were gas. Intriguing. Only, he says, “Feasibility deals with implementation—and I’m not involved with that.” This … isn’t good. When it comes to your big idea, you have to walk the walk as much as you talk the talk.

The spoof: Onion Talks: Ducks Go Quack, Chickens Go Cluck
Created by: The Onion
The lesson: Don’t bother sharing an idea that isn’t new.

Here, a man gives a talk about the noises made by your favorite barnyard animals. And while his Old MacDonald presentation style is compelling, his substance is nil. We look for ideas that surprise and change perceptions — whether it’s a talk that flips your thinking on a scientific phenomenon or one that makes you see something subtly different in your relationships.

The spoof: DED Talk: A TED Talk for Zombies
Created by: Official Comedy
The lesson: Beware of taking too sharp a left turn in your talk … and, please, only kill metaphorically.

This zombie’s talk is almost standing O–worthy. And then — there’s a twist that goes horribly wrong. While surprising talks are great, nothing should ever go this fully off the rails. A good talk takes the audience on a journey step by step. Also, literally killing the audience? Well, that’s no way to make sure your idea spreads. (That note also goes out to the speaker of Onion Talks: Stabbing Ignorance With Glass Ceiling Shards.)

The spoof: Patton Oswalt’s (fake) TED Talk
Created by: Team Coco
The lesson: Don’t let stern faces in the audience get you down.

At 1:08 in this talk, Patton Oswalt gets into a brawl with an audience member. Why? Because the guy in the audience had a sour expression on his face. The truth of talking to a big audience: not everyone will be engaged. So why focus on them? Instead, talk to the people who are clearly with you. Find a few friendly-looking people in different parts of the audience and speak to them as if they were old friends.

The spoof: Onion Talks: A Future Where All Robots Have Penises
Created by: Onion Talks
The lesson: Don’t rely on your demo.

This speaker shares the strange idea that household robots would catch on only if they had realistic genitalia; his talk goes all to hell when his robot malfunctions and falls off the stage onto an audience member. Of course, robots, animals, flying machines — they’re all a little unpredictable. So if your talk includes a demo, make sure you lay out the framework of your idea enough that you’re not fully betting on the unknown.

The spoof: High TED Talks
Created by: College Humor
The lesson: Neither mind-altering substance, nor the munchies, will help you feel more prepared to give your talk.

It’s completely natural to be nervous before speaking in public. (Watch the TED-Ed lesson “The Science of Stage Fright” to see how it isn’t so much a mental challenge to be overcome, as a physical reaction to be adapted to.) But walking onstage drunk or high, or overeating from the snack table backstage, is not how you conquer your nerves. The only way to fight the feeling: practice, practice, practice. Know your talk forwards and backwards to the point where the flow of words becomes second nature.

The spoof
: Very Mary-Kate: SoHobo
Created by: College Humor
The lesson: Don’t do that thing where a bulleted list appears on your slides just as you say the very same words.

During a talk, the audience processes what they see on a slide and what they’re hearing in two separate channels. So if you type it in your slide, people aren’t fully paying attention when you say it. In general, we ask speakers to use as little text as possible on their slides, and to be especially wary of unnecessary bulleted lists. Our motto, which I just made up: Say it, don’t display it. (A sub-lesson for this spoof: Don’t steal ideas from Zoolander. As hilarious as this video is, “SoHobo” reminds us a bit of Derelicte.)

The spoof: Onion Talks: Loudness Equals Power
Created by: The Onion
The lessons: Don’t yell, and definitely don’t over-promise.

Every now and then, a speaker strides on the stage and uses a forceful tone that leaves the audience … disconcerted. The reason for the microphone: so you can talk normally, as if you’re having an engaged conversation with a friend. But this talk hits a bigger speed-bump when the speaker says of his invention, “In a few years, there’s no question [it] will transform our lives.” This kind of big promise just raises skepticism and smacks of inauthenticity. Keep promises realistic. Always.


Some other what-not-to-dos represented in these spoofs: don’t whisper, don’t nervously pace, watch the “jazz hands,” and don’t cling to your props for dear life. Don’t talk about your talk, introduce too much specialized vocabulary, fail to admit controversy, or paint a picture that’s either too utopian or too dystopian. And of course: Don’t offer up purely anecdotal evidence. You can read many more speaker tips in our comprehensive TEDx Speaker Guide (PDF).

But perhaps the biggest do: Be willing to laugh at yourself and learn. It’s something we try to do too. :)

Note: This post was originally published on October 29, 2013. It was updated on October 13, 2015. Because Stephen Colbert.