The Top TED Talks: What’s The Key to Their Popularity?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talk Like TED" by Carmine Gallo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to speak like a TED Talk pro? What are some of the top TED talks to learn the art of public speaking?

From Bill Gates’ legendary mosquito speech to Jill Taylor’s stroke story, there is a ton of great TED talks out there about pretty much anything you can think of. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, watching the top TED talks is a great place to start.

Keep reading for 10 top TED talks of all time.

The Top 10 TED Talks of All Time

Are schools stifling creativity? Why do people make irrational decisions? How can I find happiness? Here are 10 Top TED talks that answer it all and more.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

In 2008, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor gave a TED talk about a severe stroke she’d suffered 12 years earlier. She described in detail how she slowly felt her brain function deteriorating as the stroke progressed. Taylor also discussed the spiritual awakening that her stroke triggered. 

The response to Taylor’s TED talk was overwhelmingly positive. It was the first TED talk to go “viral” online, quickly accumulating millions of views. It is still one of the top TED talks in terms of views. In the aftermath of the talk, Taylor’s book detailing her stroke and recovery process became a bestseller and was translated into 30 languages. TIME magazine named her as one of the top 100 most influential people of 2008. 

The key to Taylor’s talk’s success lay in her true passion for her subject. She was fascinated by and enthusiastic about the topic, not only because it related to a transformative experience in her life, but also because she was a trained neuroanatomist. Even before her stroke, Taylor’s life’s work and passion had been studying the brain and its workings. 

This passion shone through as Taylor gave her TED talk. Her enthusiasm and energy were infectious, and the result was a speech that captivated millions of people worldwide.

Dan Ariely

In 2009, professor and author Dan Ariely gave a memorable TED talk on why people predictably and consistently make irrational decisions. He began his talk with a gripping personal story about his experience in a hospital burn unit. 

As a teenager, Ariely suffered severe burns to 70% of his body. When the time came for the nurses to remove his bandages, they decided to rip them off quickly, theorizing that this would minimize his discomfort. Ariely begged the nurses to go slower, as he felt it would make the pain less intense. However, the nurses argued that since they were medically trained and Ariely wasn’t, they knew better than him. Years later, Ariely discovered that taking the bandages off slowly would have reduced the intensity of his pain. The nurses’ decision had been totally illogical—yet they’d persisted with it anyway.

Ariely’s story was effective at gripping his audience for two reasons. First, it was detailed—sometimes graphically so, especially when he described the different methods of removing bandages from burns. This immersed Ariely’s audience in his story, keeping them hooked until the very end.

Second, the big reveal of Ariely’s story—the fact that he was right and the nurses wrong—was unexpected. Most people would expect medical professionals to know more about the correct way to remove bandages than their patients. The fact they didn’t in this case shocked Ariely’s audience into paying attention to the rest of his talk. 

Robert Ballard

Robert Ballard is a deep-sea explorer who’s best known for finding the wreckage of the Titanic. In 2008, Ballard gave a TED talk about the oceans, incorporating the things he’d learned from more than 100 deep-sea explorations. 

During his talk, Ballard presented the audience with numerous little-known facts about the underwater world—for example, the fact that the Earth’s longest mountain range is under the sea. He also surprised the crowd with the knowledge that the deep seas are teeming with life, despite being cloaked in near-perpetual darkness. 

Ballard challenged people’s perceptions of underwater biology and geography. His talk gripped the audience, who ultimately gave him a standing ovation.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates’s 2009 TED talk is one of the top TED talks of all time. It arguably contained the most shocking moment in TED history. Gates’s speech discussed various global issues, including the threat that malaria-infected mosquitoes posed to some of the world’s poorest communities. Partway through his talk, Gates revealed a surprising prop he’d brought along: a jar of live mosquitoes. He then released the insects into the auditorium. 

The mosquitoes weren’t infected with malaria, and therefore posed no risk to the audience. However, the act of exposing people to these potentially deadly insects was enough to shock both Gates’s audience and the world’s media, who reported on the incident extensively. Gates’s speech quickly went viral, and has now been viewed more than 5 million times on the TED website. 

Sir Ken Robinson

In 2006, author and education expert Sir Ken Robinson gave a TED talk on how the American education system stifles creativity. Despite his topic being fairly heavy, Robinson managed to inject a lot of humor into his talk. He made witty comments about everything from how seriously teenagers treat their romantic relationships, to how—in his eyes—Shakespeare must have been an annoying child. 

Robinson’s talk has been lauded as one of the top TED talks of all time. He received a standing ovation, and his speech has since been viewed more than 66 million times on the TED website.

Janine Shepherd

Janine Shepherd is an Australian former skier whose burgeoning Olympic career was ended by an accident that left her partially paraplegic. Shepherd was biking along a path in the Blue Mountains near Sydney when she was struck by a truck.

In 2012, Shepherd gave a TED talk about the accident and her life since it occured. She described the accident in vivid detail: the beautiful weather that day, the sun shining on her face as she cycled along, the feeling of the cold mountain air in her lungs—and the moment when everything went black. 

Shepherd didn’t use a single visual prompt when describing the incident: She showed her audience no slides or pictures. Instead, she immersed her readers in her story by painting a picture with her words. 

Neil Pasricha

Neil Pasricha is a writer who came to prominence through his popular blog, 1000 Awesome Things. Each blog entry discusses a different simple thing that can make you happy or enrich your life—for example, Christmas Day being snowy, or your birthday being on a Saturday.

When Pasricha was asked to give a TED talk on his blog, he knew he couldn’t mention all 1,000 “awesome things” in 18 minutes. So he limited himself to discussing just three things: having a positive attitude, indulging your inner child, and being authentic. Pasricha’s talk has quickly become one of the top TED talks and has now been watched online by millions of people. 

Amanda Palmer

When musician Amanda Palmer was preparing to give a TED talk in 2013, she practiced relentlessly—especially in front of people who could provide feedback on her progress. She practiced in front of friends, family, students at an art school in Boston, and even a total stranger in a bar. She practiced on the plane on the way to the TED conference and continued to do so right up until the moment she gave her talk. 

As Palmer practiced, she became more and more comfortable and familiar with all elements of her talk—her words, her verbal delivery, her body language, and her gestures. Her talk was the most discussed presentation at the conference. It was praised for being both gripping and authentic. 

Hans Rosling

In 2006, Hans Rosling gave a TED talk that used statistics to debunk various myths about the developing world. The talk ultimately went viral, with everyone from Ben Affleck to Bill Gates lauding Rosling’s ideas. 

At the heart of Rosling’s TED success was the fact that he presented statistics in a novel way. For example, when discussing population trends in the developing world, he decided to present his statistics on an animated graph. On the graph, each country was represented by a “bubble” that grew and shrank according to changes in life expectancy and birth rates over time. This novel approach put a new spin on the old discipline of statistics, enthusing both its original audience and online viewers.

Al Gore

In 2006, former vice president Al Gore gave a powerful TED talk about climate change and the risk it poses to the planet. As Gore spoke, he frequently displayed relevant pictures on his presentation slides. For instance, when discussing pollution, he showed a photo of plumes of smoke being released from factories. When discussing the light waves emitted by the sun, he displayed a graphic of the earth, the sun, and arrows representing the transfer of light waves from the latter to the former.

By displaying images during his talk, Gore triggered a winning multisensory combination: seeing pictures as well as listening to words. Gallo believes that this is one of the reasons why Gore’s talk was so memorable.

The Top TED Talks: What’s The Key to Their Popularity?

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  • The 9 key principles to good public speaking
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  • How storytelling enhances your appeal to audiences

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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