Earlier this year, therapist Michele Weiner-Davis spent hours in front of a camera, her husband patiently hitting the record button as she rehearsed for what she believed could be the most important 18 minutes of her professional career: her first TED talk.
An author of seven books and a popular workshop presenter with countless media appearances behind her, including Oprah and The Today Show, Weiner-Davis was convinced that giving a talk at a TEDx conference in Boulder, Colorado, would make a difference in her career. “I had followed what people were doing on that stage that made them so popular, and I gained an enormous amount of respect for the venue,” she says. “Giving a TED talk became part of my professional bucket list.”
Getting up not only on the TED stage, but on its website, has become a new professional milestone for many therapists in the Digital Age. First conceived in 1984 as a live conference devoted to spreading ideas about technology and design among elite thinkers in Silicon Valley, TED talks exponentially increased their audience and influence beyond the tech crowd in 2006, when they began to address a range of other topics and were uploaded online for free viewing. In 2008, they expanded to locally organized events through the TEDx program, run independently under a license from TED, with the hope of engaging an even larger audience in new ideas.
Today, TED talks have been watched more than 2 billion times, with the brand earning more than $45 million in revenue and hosting events around the globe. Attendees at the annual live TED conference have commented that the process of getting accepted resembles applying to the best Ivy League colleagues, with applicants writing multiple essays and needing stellar recommendations from colleagues. Registration fees for the 2015 conference will reach $8,500.
Speakers are drawn to TED at the prospect of increasing their impact and achieving instant celebrity. For example, more than 12 million people have watched social work professor Brené Brown’s TEDx Houston talk on the power of vulnerability, which sent her career skyrocketing beyond the ivory tower. Brown is now a headliner at venues that range from Facebook’s Global Marketing Summit to Gates Foundation events. With her books as bestsellers, she’s appeared on Oprah, and she’s founded The Daring Way, a training program for helping professionals learn her approach to relationship enhancement.
What accounts for the popularity of the TED phenomenon? One obvious explanation is the care and thought given to making the most of the 18 minutes on stage allotted to any TED speaker. Just go to the TED website to find a detailed manual for TEDx organizers and would-be speakers. Presenters like Weiner-Davis must submit their speech, go through multiple edits, memorize the content verbatim, and confer with both organizers and professional speaking coaches to guarantee quality and conformity with the style of the TED main stage. Combine this intense preparation with a format emphasizing the importance of dramatic storytelling in presenting often complex ideas and you have a Hollywood-level potential to provide a vast worldwide audience with an intellectual high.
Previously delegated to the terse sound bites of morning TV, small professional conferences, or the pages of a book, therapists and other professionals who hope to spread their ideas have begun to realize that TED is a way to leap to the head of the pack. Why restrict yourself to a roomful of several hundred people when you can reach millions at once? Couples therapist Esther Perel’s 2013 Valentine’s Day talk on erotic intelligence at TED@250 in New York City has been viewed by more than five million people and translated into 32 languages. She now receives mail from parts of the world where sexuality, gender, and power are taboo subjects. “TED gives you influence, currency, and credibility,” she says. “It straddles the professional as well as the general public. For me, it was the beginning of speaking for a wider audience, and because it was TED, the influence was exponential.”
For professionals who wish to wet their feet in the TED style, there’s no shortage of bootcamp programs available. Many executive-speaking coaches have capitalized on the phenomenon by offering workshops on how to be a TED talker—a skill that’s caught the attention of other professional conferences that are shortening their time limits for presenters in the style of the venue. For instance, journalist Katy Butler—whose recent book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door reached the New York Times 100 Notable Books list—attends Toastmasters International meetings to hone her public speaking skills. She’s assembled a TED-styled PowerPoint that she uses for her presentations on end-of-life care for older adults. She sees connecting with millions of viewers as a less exhausting option than flying constantly around the country for smaller audiences. “If you really want to have an influence at this point in the culture, I think a TED talk is an incredible boost to the changes you’d like to see. I’d love to have that kind of impact,” she says.
Given its mushrooming growth over the past decade, TED has acquired its share of critics. Some complain that the format oversimplifies complex research into “infotainment,” reducing its ability to educate an audience and leaving little substance to inspire change. Satiric publications like The Onion have poked fun at the overly dramatic style of the presentations. One TED critic, University of San Diego professor Benjamin Bratton, actually gave a talk at TEDx San Diego on why TED talks can be harmful for society. Bratton warns, “If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff—history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions.”
There’s no doubt that TED is a form of theater, its appeal driven largely by each speaker’s personality. But many would argue that 18 minutes of a great idea is intellectually substantial in a world where the alternative is 140 characters on Twitter. “I don’t see any cons,” says anthropologist Helen Fisher who’s given several TED talks on romantic love and the brain. “It’s a much more serious podium than walking on The Today Show, for example. This is not glitzy. I can reach millions of people without getting all dressed up in business clothes and getting on an airplane. As a public educator, for me, this is beautiful.”
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