What’s wrong with TED?  There’s no question it has been an extraordinarily successful venture.  It has transformed the world of public speaking in a number of ways, most of them obviously for the better.  But it has had some subtler negative effects too, and that’s what this post covers.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time, before TED, when it was difficult to get the measure of a professional speaker.  Some had websites, to be sure, but not many put an entire speech online.  YouTube itself dates only from 2005.  Speeches were something you had to see in person.  Or perhaps on a tape or a DVD.

Now the whole world is online, and so too its speeches.  Every speaker has at the least a sizzle reel on his or her website, and often a good deal more.  Everyone either has a TEDx talk or will have one soon.

And let me be clear before I start criticizing TED:  it has done the world an enormous service.  It has raised the level of public discourse.  It has made ideas both sexy and worthy of discussion.  It has made a flat, didactic data dump of a speech an unacceptable form of public torment – at least in many places around the world.  It has upped the ante on authenticity and personal disclosure, mostly for the better.  It has provided a platform for ideas, many of them important and world-changing.  It has brought new talent to the world’s attention and created careers – richly deserved – for some wonderful speakers and thinkers.  It has re-introduced the idea of storytelling as more than just a nice thing we do for pre-schoolers along with milk and cookies and a blanket.

I am a huge fan of TED as a result.  It is like a never-ending round of Christmas-present opening for me, a (busman’s) holiday every day of the year.  I watch TED while having my coffee in the morning, while on lunch break, regularly for professional reasons with clients during the day, while working out, and while falling asleep.

And yet.  What has TED wrought?  I’ve got two problems with the results of the TED invasion of the world of public speaking.  Both are fairly subtle, so bear with me.

First, by sheer force of example, TED has greatly increased the likelihood that your keynote speech will be 30 minutes, or 20, or even 15, not 60 (or 90 minutes – 90 minutes was typical a decade ago).

And second, TED has greatly increased the likelihood that your keynote speech will tie the personal revelation of a life story or a piece of it to the idea the speaker wants to get across.

What’s wrong with shorter, personal speeches?

What’s wrong with shorter speeches is that you can’t persuade people to change in 15 minutes, because you can’t make them emotionally uncomfortable enough with the status quo to be ready to embrace something new.

That decision is made at the unconscious level, and the unconscious mind works slowly.  It takes it 15-20 minutes to get uncomfortable, then another 15-20 minutes to embrace the new idea.  Emotionally, not logically.

So the success of TED means shorter speeches, and shorter speeches means speeches we can – for the most part – hear and forget.  We will not be changed by them.

What’s wrong with personal speeches?  Nothing at all.  I’m a big fan of them.  Except when the idea is not best served by personal revelation.  Sometimes the idea – the point — can become a sideshow, with the audience distracted by the personal story because it’s so heartbreaking or graphic or even funny.

TED then becomes an exercise in sharing our personal stories, with the ideas coming in a distant second place.

To get people to act on ideas, you have to make them uncomfortable with the status quo, then give them a path forward to act on that discomfort.  You have to leave them incomplete unless they act.  Too often, we feel complete after hearing that wonderful personal TED story.  We’re done.  The TED speaker lives happily ever after.  We’re satisfied.

A great world-changing speech should only the beginning.  President Kennedy’s speech on “Urgent National Needs,” given on May 25, 1961, propelled the U.S. to the moon.  As wonderful as TED is, my fear is that its particular format makes it too easy for us to watch TED and stop there.

We need TED.  Now that we have it, it’s hard to imagine life without it.  But we still need longer, thoughtful, world-changing speeches too.






  1. A good point. Enjoyed your idea

    Though I think TED clearly understands what it’s stakeholders want (raise profile, be entertained)

    It is difficult to change what they already feel hits the mark (ie hits/views, attendance, ability to attract speakers)

    I think you idea of a longer event would fit on a more specific ‘change to world’ agenda/event.

    I think TED has evolved to fit a particular nice as have the RSA talks which I think better fit your model.

    Many thanks for an excellent site

    1. Thanks, Manoj, for the comment. As you say, TED has a model that works brilliantly and they’re sticking with it.

  2. Maybe because I have ADHD (and I do) but I can’t even imagine 90 minutes. Bill Clinton’s speech to the 1988 democratic convention maybe?? 60 minutes is still way too long (any state of the union speech?? ZZZzzzzzz) Arguments to the Supreme Court only take 30 minutes, and that’s 15 minutes per side.

    Stories don’t take that long to tell. Some data. Scenarios to illustrate consequences, *why* something is important. But illustrate, not list. Detailed proof… should be in writing.

    1. Thanks, Dinos — I can always count on you for a good argument. I certainly wasn’t yearning for 90-minute talks again. The (subtle) difference here, what I’m talking about, is between intellectual argument (the Supremes) v actually changing people’s mind to get them to act differently. That’s what takes longer than one attention span, or 15-20 minutes. Some stories take longer, some shorter, to tell, but persuasion is emotional, and long.

  3. Nick,

    I really enjoyed your post and agree with you! I reposted this as the first thing many of our clients ask us when they onboard is; “Can you get us on TED?” I too believe it’s a great conference and has become quite a brand, but we also need additional speech options to continue to make real change.

  4. What a thought provoking and interesting post Nick. I can’t but agree with you that TED has brought more attention to the power of the spoken world than any other source in this “online” world.

    While a longer speech does achieve what you desire in emotional change, it can also be the opposite benefit in that a shorter speech forces the speaker to think more about the limited words. You know I’m sure of many speeches that have taken 90 mins but actually could have said the same message in 20 mins!

    (Between yawns)

    I think the world we now live in is perhaps a time when people’s attention spans to listen to a speaker are far shorter, maybe an evolutionary progress ☺? In previous generations it was more common for people to attend church for example and regularly listen to the spoken words of a preacher for 30 – 40 mins, now many sermons are even preached TED style with all the accompanying video clips and slides. Even teaching in classrooms is much more “interactive” so people these days people are just not accustomed to sitting there and listening for long periods.

    Maybe TED should be encouraging the EDWARDS (a longer version of TED!) British humour doesn’t always travel that well!

    1. Thanks, Peter — I love the idea of EDWARDS talks. From your mouth to God’s ear, as the saying goes. Longer, more substantive talks. Talks that lead to action. Bring it on!

  5. You have explained why I’ve never given a TED talk, and why I don’t get as many opportunities as I would like.

    Two years ago I was signed up to keynote the annual mgmt meeting for REI. Signed contract, and half the money paid. Three weeks before the event a conf call was scheduled with the CEO and 3 other C execs. She wanted to know my “personal story” in the presentation. I told her I didn’t have one, and this wasn’t a presentation about me. It was about innovation, REI’s market, changes in the market and what REI mgmt needed to do to be successful vis-a-vis competitors. She asked if I couldn’t weave in some drastic life failure or success I had to the story. I told her that it would not augment the presentation, and would be a tremendous distraction. So she cancelled my presentation, and sent her event team on a mad race to find a replacement. As they told me, she wanted a TED talk. Oh, and they wanted there to for sure be some pithy jokes in it.

    Unfortunately, for me, I find most TED talks completely uninteresting, and overly personal in ways that do not benefit me at all. TED has not served the public speaking market well, and I would say it has created a disservice by leading far too many buyers to approach public speakers with Twitter as their model.

    It also has crammed onto us far too many public speakers who are physically attractive to look at, dress well, love to talk about themselves, and offer breezy thoughts on how to succeed built upon some ridiculous life event – thoughts which frequently have no basis in a tested approach to success and often will not improve one’s business, or life, in any meaningful way.

    Twitter has not created any good authors. TED does not create good speakers

  6. Interesting thoughts Nick. I just finished listening to a podcast by Ray Edwards. (If you are not familiar with Ray, his primary topic is on copywriting) He discussed that there was a primary reason most web based sales copy is so long. It is long, because that is what it takes to persuade people.

    1. Thanks, Jon — and I thought about sales copy like that when I was writing the piece. Remember direct (junk) mail pieces that went on for pages? Same idea.

  7. Thanks for the perspective. But in his book “In Search of Memory,” Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel gives a rather racy anecdote (related to a jejune romantic encounter with the family housekeeper, Mitzi) that changes can be “burned in” to the mind in but a fraction of a second. Certainly people who pay big bucks for 30-second superbowl commercials believe that. Why should it take 60 minutes to “change the world” ? I would have thought 18 minutes would be enough. As for the compulsory personal angle, I agree that this should not be a prerequisite and indeed some TED talk don’t take that angle. For example there’s a nice talk on TED about why x is the unknown in algebra https://www.ted.com/talks/terry_moore_why_is_x_the_unknown . Terry Moore doesn’t cave in to the TED pressure to make his story personal.

    1. Thanks, Colin — as I said, these are subtle points. Yes, changes can be burned in the mind in seconds, but that’s the end of the process. What we’re trying to get a handle on is the entire process. And since decision-making is performed in the unconscious mind, to rely on the conscious mind as evidence is like joining the train when it reaches its destination and thinking you understand the journey. The process has already taken longer.

      Further, you’re talking about individuals in isolation. We’re talking about an audience and a speech. The speaker is trying to bring the entire audience (at least 80 % anyway) along on that decision-making journey. So it’s as important to get everyone on the same page for the problem as it is to get to the solution and action. A speech is a group activity, and that’s the other point you’re missing when you want (quite understandably) to get decision-making down to a few minutes.

  8. “What’s wrong with shorter speeches is that you can’t persuade people to change in 15 minutes, because you can’t make them emotionally uncomfortable enough with the status quo to be ready to embrace something new.”

    Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”: 16 minutes.
    Gettysburg Address: 3 minutes.
    Sermon on the Mount: 13 minutes.
    Pearl Harbor Address: 7 minutes
    Give Me Liberty or Give me Death: 10 minutes.
    Ronald Reagan’s remarks at Brandenberg Gate: 5 minutes

    1. Hi, Andrew, and thanks, as always, for your insightful and invigorating comments. Alas, you haven’t quite hit the mark:

      Gettysburg Address — virtually forgotten in its day, and far outshone by the 3-hour speech from the famous orator of the day, Edward Everett. The GA only took on iconic status after Lincoln’s death.

      Sermon on the Mount — we have no idea if it moved audiences to (positive) action in its day. The resulting actions by twenty centuries of Christians seems to indicate the contrary.

      Pearl Harbor Address — ratifying a decision the American public had already made.

      Give Me Liberty or — apparently much longer, just not well reported on in its day. We actually know very little about the speech; we only have a reporter’s account (which were well known to be highly summarized and unreliable) of the ending.

      Brandenberg Gate — the collapse of the wall had very little to do with Reagan and everything to do with the Soviet Union and the people of Germany.

      I Have a Dream — I’ll grant you this one as an exception that proves the rule, because it’s my favorite speech ever, but a picky fact-obsessed person might note that there’s still a lot to be done on realizing that dream. Are “little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers?” And was that a result of the speech? Sometimes, and sort of.

      The larger point is not that specific, history-making speeches can’t resonate down the years and inspire people well beyond the moment and the immediate audience. The point is that to actually get an audience to act on something, to change its mind — and I mean the audience in the room (or on the Washington Mall) — you need time to get the to reject the status quo. And in MLK’s speech, he wasn’t actually asking the audience in front of him to change. They were already with him. He was addressing the larger audience of the American people, hoping to change segregation and unequal opportunity. That’s a different strategy and a different thing.

      1. Thoughtful response. That list was the top six speeches from my google search for “speeches that changed the world”.

        I would certainly concede plenty of counter examples, like Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, which (at least) demonstrated the value of a longer format in presenting a complicated issue to which relatively few were previously exposed.

        But I am surprised you take this position, since it seems proscriptive, like saying how long a song should be, or how long a novel should be.

        A world changing speech needs to be long enough to make ones case, which depends on:

        1) the current state of the status quo
        2) the evidence needed to sway opinion
        3) the receptivity of the audience to an argument.

        “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

        1. Thanks, Andrew! I always like to agree with Mr. Churchill, but the issue is getting clear about the purpose of the speech. IF the purpose is to change the minds of the audience in the room, then you need time. IF the purpose is something else (the media, making a point, announcing the incarnate God) then other rules apply!

  9. Nick:

    It is very curious that the 50-minute class length we got used to at university turns out to be slightly more than long enough for a speech to persuade people to change.

    I’d assumed it just was so they could leave ten minutes to get to the next class, which started right on the hour.


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