TED Talks: 1,400 videos designed to give you an "aha!" moment

A ticket to the annual TED conference, which features astounding 18-minute talks by scientists, artists, entertainers, activists, engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs, is very expensive and limited to a couple of thousand people. But in 2006, June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, led the decision to put TED Talks online for free. Today, the 1,400+ TED Talk videos have been viewed over one billion times, and every day they gain another 1.5 million views. Their reach is global, thanks to the 8,000 volunteer translators who make the talks available in over 90 different languages.

I interviewed June (we worked together at Wired in the mid-90s) to find out why TED Talks are so popular.

1. What is it about TED talks that have made them such sensation?

Well, we've thought about this question a lot! When we first launched, we never imagined that they would become so popular. After all, they are, essentially, taped lectures! But it turns out: people love to learn. Over the years, we’ve seen a global hunger for knowledge that transcends borders and demographics. And that's kind of thrilling!

A big part of the equation is the content itself: TED Talks have spread primarily by word of mouth (we've never had a marketing budget) and we believe this is driven by the connection between the speaker and the audience. This has a bit to do with production values: Our video team sweats every detail -- from camera angles to audio levels -- in an attempt to give the viewer the best seat in the house. But more importantly, each TED speaker shares an idea that's new, original, fascinating... the kind of content that gives you an "aha!" moment. And when people are inspired that way, they want to share it.

We've also tried to make TED talks as easy as possible to share as widely as possible. We've followed what we call a philosophy of radical openness: we released the talks under a Creative Commons license (allowing non-commercial use) and launched the Open Translation Project, in which more than 8,000 volunteer translators have made talks available in more than 90 languages. We’ve also cultivated innovative media partnerships with iTunes, NPR, China's YouKu, Netflix, Huffington Post, and many others who have helped us reach new audiences in new ways.

In combination, TED Talks are now seen more than 1.5 million times every day. That’s 17 new viewings starting every second! It’s thrilling to think that around the world, there's an insatiable interest in experiencing and sharing great ideas.

2. Can you tell me about a talk that surprised you?

This is tough -- there are so many of them! Do I have to choose just one? There's the moment in Bonnie Bassler's talk when you suddenly understand that bacteria -- these incredibly simple, and sort of vilified creatures -- actually communicate with each other in sophisticated ways: such an intellectual surprise! And then there's Bahia Shehab: She's an Egyptian artist and a TED Fellow who publicly reveals in her TED Talk that she's a dissident graffiti artist. That revelation was so risky to her has a person. I was amazed by her courage. And Julia Bacha is a Brazilian filmmaker who's documenting non-violent resistance among Palestinians. This is gaining tremendous traction on the ground, but has been utterly ignored by the news media. That surprised and appalled me. More people need to watch her talk!

On a completely different level, there's Ron Eglash's talk from TEDGlobal in Tanzania. He's a mathematician who studied the design of traditional African villages and found -- astonishingly -- that the layout of the towns consistently mapped precisely into the pattern of a fractal! I know: Not the kind of thing you ever thought you'd read in a sentence, much less watch a lecture on, but I promise you: It's amazing and anyone would find it interesting.

Then there's a talk we're releasing this week about... traffic congestion. It's by Jonas Eliasson, who spoke at TEDxStockholm, and he explains the tiny changes that city planners can make to help relieve pressure on congested roadways. I was so surprised by the impact that a tiny shift -- like adding a small toll -- could have.

Oh, and I must say that when Hans Rosling swallowed a sword on stage in his second TED Talk -- while wearing quite the revealing tank top -- THAT surprised me. I knew he was going to do it. I actually had to pack his sword in my own suitcase on the way to the conference. But I was still surprised.

3. How can anybody learn to tell stories that are as enthralling as a TED Talk?

The first thing to know is that there's no one formula or way to give a TED Talk. They're as unique as the speakers themselves. The real key is authenticity. TED Talks work when speakers share both their personality and their original ideas with the audience. You can't just lecture. You have to be passionate; you have to be willing to be vulnerable. This doesn't mean giving the audience jazz hands or shedding crocodile tears. It means sharing your curiosity and your excitement, your failures along with your successes. It’s also about telling stories that take the audience on a journey. And allowing your own contagious enthusiasm to inspire the audience in their own work. And helping the audience to see the world through your eyes. If you can get people to see the world differently, then that’s a talk that will be truly memorable.

All that said, a great TED Talk also takes PRACTICE. With very limited time (only 18 minutes or less), you have to know your material inside and out, so you can present in a way that feels polished but -- importantly -- not rehearsed. You have to practice with real audiences so you get the feel for the rhythm of a talk: When are they riveted? When do you lose them? It's only by test-driving a talk that you can learn what works and what doesn't.

In the end, TED Talks are about great, old-fashioned human storytelling.

The 20 most-watched TED Talks to date