The TED Talk Juggernaut

Chemistry teacher Ramsey Musallam gives a TED talk.
Speak easy? TED Talks are artfully videotaped after which they enter the eternal slipstream of the Web. Above, chemistry teacher Ramsey Musallam shares three rules to spark learning.
Ryan Lash/TED

Talk is cheap. Except, I should say, if you hope to attend the annual TED Conference — famous for its masterfully crafted Talks — in which case you’ll lay out 8,500 bucks for the privilege. And only if your application is accepted, which it probably won’t be. Because you’re not actually a big-shot global paradigm-shifter, are you? However, should you be among the chosen few, you’ll witness five days of live, mostly brilliant presentations about … well, that’s the whole point. You never know.

All of these performances — er, Talks — are artfully videotaped, after which they enter the eternal slipstream of the World Wide Web. There are some 2,000 of these videos now. Over the last 30 years they have grown into a significant cultural phenomenon.

In principle, the purpose of the Talks is to showcase innovative ideas. Before its mission broadened, TED stood for Technology, Entertainment, Design. All well and good. But many of the Talks nowadays are clearly pitched to astonish audiences as well. Online, you are free to watch any of them, at no charge. Millions do. It takes but a few minutes, for instance, to screen Pamela Meyer’s “How to Spot a Liar,” which has been among the most widely admired Talks ever. Or you could check out “Looks Aren’t Everything. Believe Me, I’m a Model,” which has been another favorite. Among the least popular Talks online is one that explains how to dry your hands with a single paper towel. Some people paid big money to see that in person.

A major Talk, by TED standards, might go 18 minutes. A short one, just three minutes. Three? I’ve gagged on a bad piece of tuna longer than that. (Note to self: Consider developing “A Sea of Trouble: Don’t Let Fish Choke You Up” as a TED Talk.)

Understandably, it’s a big deal if you’re asked to address a TED crowd. A successful Talk can lead to fame, a book contract, even stalkers. Speakers are selected by TED’s curatorial team. “We look for someone who has knowledge to share and can deliver it in a way that resonates,” says Tom Rielly, TED’s community director. Yet no one, no matter how celebrated, gets up on that perfectly lit stage without prior coaching by TED’s staffers. Few risks are taken, though Rielly admits to a few dud Talks (“We’re not perfect”). Oh, and another thing: There’s no compensation. You walk the Talk for the honor of it. Actor Richard Dreyfuss’ handlers were at first dismissive. Thanks for the invite, but no cash?! In the end, they relented. This account was relayed to me by a Californian who’d once been an executive with TEDx. It's a big deal to give a TED Talk. It can lead to fame, a book contract, even stalkers.

TEDx gatherings are licensed offshoots of the high-voltage annual conference. If less expensive to attend and less star-studded, they can be equally life-altering. Take Jack Abbott, a San Diego ad-agency executive who was so knocked over by TEDx Talks (“a vacation for my mind, heart, and soul”) that he ditched his career to begin anew. Today, he’s CEO of Intelligent Light Source, which markets high-tech illumination for indoor plants.

“It was an evolution from thinking to doing,” he told me. “I saw that I could effect change by getting off my ass.”

In Australia, an Internet retailer of retro merchandise has made a practice of watching one Talk every morning of the year — “before I get out of bed” — and analyzing it in her well-read blog. “I love the age we live in, but let’s face it, we’re being spoon-fed how to think,” Vanessa Rose, the blogger, said in an email to me. “TED Talks present new ideas that can be really beneficial to the world.”

Dispensing novel ideas as if they were M&Ms has predictably drawn plenty of critics, mostly among the chattering classes. There’s been lots of good-natured ribbing, too. The Onion, which specializes in snarky satire, has produced a killer send-up of a TED Talk, titled “Ducks Go Quack, Chickens Say Cluck.”

Meanwhile, I notice that’s Talk of the Day, as I write this, is “Got a Wicked Problem? First, Tell Me How You Make Toast.” Seriously. Okay, I’m game.