I am a statistician by training, so for my TED talk I did a tongue-in-cheek data analysis of about 600 other TED talks. I found that the most loved talks typically evoke emotion—for example, through using words like “happiness,” “the brain,” and “coffee.” So you might want to try talking about “how drinking coffee spreads happiness in the brain.” Also, don’t talk about oxygen, aircraft, or computers—statistically, technical terms are associated with less popular talks. These also cite the New York Times much more than the best-rated ones. The more successful speakers tend to use fewer slides and more props. About half of the most popular TED talks don’t even use slides at all. And for some reason, talks that people rank as “fascinating” employ a lot of purple, and ones that are “ingenious” emphasize the color green. It is statistically significant, but I haven’t found anyone who can explain that to me.
The maximum time you are given for a TED talk is 18 minutes. This really forces the speakers to make just one point, and get to it immediately. You don’t have any time for diversions. When you prepare your talk, there are always certain phrases or slides that you think are incredible. Then you start showing them to other people, and they tell you different. You have to be really brutal about cutting them out. For my TED talk, there was tons of stuff I had to throw out. It was the right thing to do, but I’m still sad for some of that material.
At your typical conference, people there are basically forced to endure the talks—it’s happening at you. Looking at the TED speakers, many of them talk about very serious or fascinating topics, yet they don’t flaunt their ego. At TED, it’s more about contributing to the conference.