5 surprising lessons from the world’s most watched TED talks

Yesterday I watched 10 of the world’s most watched TED talks.

These talks have been watched by 364 million people in total. That’s more than the entire population of the US. The beautiful thing about TED talks is that they are designed to be of interest and relevance to almost everyone. That means that if we analyze the most-watched TED talks, we can learn a lot about what captures and retains people’s attention.

What gets people to watch a simple video of a person speaking on stage without any fancy graphics, animation or music?

These are the 5 surprising things I learned when I analyzed what got us all watching these TED talks:

1. If you can name it, you can claim it.

poking the moon 5 surprising lessons from the world's most watched TED talks

Despite TED’s claim that it spreads new ideas worth sharing, a number of talks had concepts that we’ve heard of but with another name.

I see ​Tim Urban’s Rational Decision-Maker and Instant Gratification Monkey​ and they remind me of Freud’s id and super ego. But that didn’t stop Tim from creating his own names for these concepts – and they became his claim to fame.

2. Boldness grabs attention – but not for the reasons you think!

TED talks must be great, big and bold

Many speakers are tempted to do something “original” and “bold” to capture the audience’s attention right at the start.

And in the top 10 talks, we see ​Cameron Russell changing her outfit on stage​, ​Apollo Robbins doing a live trick with an audience member​ and ​Josh Kaufman playing the ukulele live in the middle of his talk​.

So boldness works.

But it’s not that simple.

Josh Kaufman’s performance wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary if he hadn’t shared a secret with us afterwards: that he had only been learning the ukulele for 20 hours. This lesson was at the heart of his talk- and that’s why he got applause when he linked the bold performance with the explanation.

When you’re bold on stage, you impress only for a split second. But if your bold action can link to the key takeaway that you have, that’s when it transcends from a stunt to a story.

3. None of the top 10 talks are one-way lectures

two way traffic ahead 5 surprising lessons from the world's most watched TED talks

What was the one thing each speaker did to appeal to anyone watching, at any time?

They turned the talk into a dialogue.

​Mel Robbins​ coached an audience volunteer. Apollo Robbins did interactive exercises. ​Julian Treasure did live demos​ with his voice.

This interaction signaled to the audience that the speakers were treating them as a participant in their talk.

4. Personality is everything

moon 5 surprising lessons from the world's most watched TED talks

​Lara Boyd isn’t a flashy, theatrical speaker​. She comes across as a quiet force.

And yet her talk got 40 million views.

This proves that you don’t need to mimic the energy of Tony Robbins to be memorable on stage. Lean into your natural personality and amplify your passion for the subject you’re speaking about.

The audience will feel your authenticity shining through.

5. Starting with “I”, ending with “you”

its not me 5 surprising lessons from the world's most watched TED talks

The one thing that every single speaker on the top 10 list did was make a beautiful transition from themselves to the audience.

This is how a typical high performing talk was structured:

  • Starting with a personal story.
  • Using the story to illustrate a problem the audience can relate to.
  • Suggesting a solution for the problem.
  • Showing how the audience’s lives will change if they try the recommended idea.
  • Ending with clear actionable steps the audience can take next.

The most-watched TED talks started with “I” and ended with “you”. The speakers didn’t just want to share how amazing their lives and stories were. They wanted to motivate clear action.

These speakers delivered talks that went on to get millions of views. But when they were standing on stage, they didn’t know how much their talk would appeal to people watching them from far away.

Take a lesson from these 5 and implement it in your next talk and note how the audience’s attention and engagement increases.

Do you have a TED talk dream? I have a surprise for you.

P.S. If you’re interested, here are the talks I watched:

​Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator | Tim Urban ​


​How to speak so that people want to listen | Julian Treasure​


​After watching this, your brain will not be the same | Lara Boyd​


​The first 20 hours — how to learn anything | Josh Kaufman​


​The next outbreak? We’re not ready | Bill Gates ​


​How to learn any language in six months | Chris Lonsdale ​


​How to stop screwing yourself over | Mel Robbins ​


​Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model. | Cameron Russell ​


​The skill of self confidence | Dr. Ivan Joseph​


​The art of misdirection | Apollo Robbins | TED​


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