How This Talk Came To Be

An audition tape leads to one of our most powerful talks of all time. And our first TED Book in print.

Posted by:
Zak Ebrahim stands before an image of him with his father. He spoke so eloquently at our audition event in New York City that we invited him to speak at the main TED conference. Photo: Ryan Lash

Zak Ebrahim stands before an photo snapped of him and his father when he was a child. Zak spoke so eloquently at our audition event in New York City that we invited him to speak at the main TED conference. Photo: Ryan Lash

“Hi. My name is Zak Ebrahim and I’m the son of a convicted terrorist,” said a soft-spoken man in a checkered button-down shirt, sitting in your average white-walled room. “With my story, I hope to show that if I can choose a peaceful, non-violent path that anyone can.”

Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here's how I chose peace. Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here's how I chose peace. This was my formal introduction to Zak Ebrahim, whose profoundly compelling TED Talk went live today.

It was September 2013. Two months earlier, we had put out an open call for submissions to our annual talent search event in New York. Exactly two minutes and forty-nine seconds before the midnight deadline, Zak sent in a one-minute video that shared the most basic version of his story. It was powerful—easily one of the most intriguing submissions I’d ever seen. “This story is incredible,” I thought as I sent the video around to the rest of the team (at roughly 12:05am).

We knew this story was extraordinary. We just needed to know a little more. In the written portion of his submission, Zak shared his story of growing up with a father who shot and killed Rabbi Meir Kahane, the head of the Jewish Defense League, and who was also charged for his involvement in the planning of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Zak chose to shed the bigoted ideology he was taught and embrace a tolerant, peaceful life that celebrated differences. With a short email invitation to Zak, he was confirmed for TED@NYC, as our talent search event is known.

Speakers at TED@NYC share their idea in front of a live audience in six minutes or less. Some of the talks from the evening are selected to appear on while two or three speakers are invited to give longer talks at our main TED conference. We work with all the speakers ahead of time to help them condense their ideas into such a short talk. It was a tall order for Zak, who had a lifetime to share in just a few minutes. It took some tweaks and cuts to his outline, but Zak came in ready for an in-person rehearsal the day before the event.

Zak later told me that stepping into the TED office for his rehearsal was surreal.When I came out of elevator, I saw the TED logo hanging in the entryway and got excited to be at headquarters. I took pictures of it, actually,” he says. “But at the same time, I wasn’t feeling very well. I had food poisoning for the very first time the night before. I was sweating buckets.”

As a result, his practice was good, though not great. But Zak pushed through. He stayed at the rehearsal late into the day, listening to feedback given to other speakers, and preparing himself for the occasion—which held special meaning for him. It was the TED audition, yes. But the location also mattered. “I had never had the chance to speak in New York City,” Zak explained. “Being that my father’s actions had taken place there, it was a very special occasion for me.”

The next night, Zak walked onto the TED@NYC stage, stepped onto the red circular carpet and shared his story calmly and eloquently. The audience was on the edge of their seats.

Zak was rated the top speaker of the night.

After the event, the curation team debated whether the talk should be posted to or whether we should invite Zak to our next conference to give a longer, more in-depth talk. The question we always ask ourselves: Did we capture this speaker’s talk on camera or is there more to be said? In this case, the answer was clear. There was more to be said. We invited Zak to speak at TED2014 and gave him nine minutes to share his story.

Zak went through our standard speaker preparation process. He sent over a detailed script for us to review. As a team, we worked with him to find places where we could both cut extraneous details, and also add more depth to his story. The biggest change we made together was inverting the structure of his talk, opening with the description of the assassination and the subsequent World Trade Center bombings and only then revealing that the man in question was his father.

After two months of emails, phones calls, video rehearsals and an onsite run-through, Zak was ready for what we call the “main stage.” He was slated to speak in “Session 4: Wish” alongside Bill and Melinda Gates, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, TED Prize winner Charmian Gooch and Sting. Zak kept his cool.

“As I was backstage, the stage manager started a 15-second countdown,” he recalls. “Only then did I get nervous.”

Zak stood in front of 1200 attendees in Vancouver, with 700 more people watching live at TEDActive in Whistler, and more online. With hands gently clasped in front of him, he spoke with the same gentle eloquence he’d shown at TED@NYC six months earlier. For nine minutes, Zak took the audience on his journey. He had both rooms in Vancouver and Whistler rapt with attention. By the end, I could feel chills down my spine. The audience jumped to their feet with tears and applause.

Sitting in the crowd was Michelle Quint, the editor of TED Books. “I was blown away by his talk,” she says. “It was clear he had a powerful story to tell, an urgent idea to spread. I approached him right after to discuss a potential book.”

The rest of the TED Books team, scattered through different theaters, had the same response. In a followup meeting, they came to a surprising consensus: Zak Ebrahim should not only write a TED Book; he should write the very first TED Book in print—the book that would re-launch the imprint, in partnership with Simon & Schuster. The book needed to be written in less than two months time.

Co-author Jeff Giles was brought in to write with Zak. In partnership with Michelle, they began to imagine the book. How would it be structured? What was the main idea Zak wanted to share? After many meetings, the focus emerged: Zak’s story is ultimately one about choice. And so, the title: The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice.

A year after I first encountered Zak’s short video submission, he has both a TED Talk and a TED Book to share his story—and his powerful ideas about tolerance and choice—with the world.  I can’t imagine a better way to introduce him to you.

The Terrorist’s Son is available in bookstores today. Buy a hardcover copy of the book, or read more about it.