1,000 TED talks later… here are some of their QUIRKS

I’m working on titles for my next book proposal – on storytelling. My would-be editor says I should look at TED talks, to see how their titles draw viewers in. Scanning a database of over 1,000 TED talks (titles and short blurb), I’ve spotted some themes. I’ll call them TED’s QUIRKS.

Questions (and answers). How many question marks would you find in the titles/blurb for 1,000+ TED talks? Answer: over 300. For example; “Is this our final century?”, “Is anatomy destiny?” or “Medicine’s future?” You’ll also find 207 whats, 128 whys, 78 whens, 68 wheres, but just wait til you see how many hows

Useful info. There are far more hows (84 in titles, 581 in blurb) than questions. This reflects TED’s “ideas worth sharing” mission: nothing says “here lies useful information” than a handy how. “How technology will transform us” has come a bit of a TED trope by now. Also striving for usefulness are talks about habits (for happiness), laws (that choke creativity) and rules (for editing your life). TEDsters are also fond of calls to useful action: unlock (the intelligence), pay attention (to penguins), or embrace (your inner girl).

Ironies. Many talks grab your attention by suggesting a situation opposite to what you’d expect: “schools kill creativity” (TED’s top talk, by Sir Ken Robinson), “the opportunity of adversity”, “Black Men Ski”, or dedicating a whole TED talk to “how to tie your shoes.” Irony here acts like a puzzle – and you have to watch the talk to resolve it.

Relatable. You is the most used word in popular talks. The commonest pronouns in titles are our, we and us. The second and third most used words in TED talks are happiness and brain. Successful talks deal with topics which can be easily and deeply understood, according to an analysis by Sebastian Wernicke. Similar “let’s look closer at stuff we all take for granted” topics include psychology, food, ethics, anatomy, choices, strategies, beliefs and emotions.

Knowledgeable. The beauty of TED is experts sharing their knowledge for free. The hook goes like this: “[name of expert] on, makes, shows, helps, takes, explains [subject]” This way, you know what knowledge you’re going to get in five to eight words. But no matter how clever the speaker is, the text is short, clear and simple with no polysyllabic academic waffle.

Scale: greatest, deepest, newest or fastest are all meant to inspire wonder, like my personal favourite TED talk “Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen.” Human, world and global – all regulars in top TED titles – carry out the same task: making us feel connected to something bigger.

More tips on how to write well in my new free course Write Stuff or check out these learning tools.

And when it came to likes, shares and comments on TED talks, this was Sebastian Wernicke’s breakdown:

Most emailed: informative and persuasive ideas

Most favourited: fascinating, ingenious, funny, jaw-dropping, emotional.

Most commented: courageous, inspiring actions, beautiful


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