How Has TED Changed The Speaking Industry?

Nick Gold 9 April 2018

I regularly heard the phrase ‘seminal moment’ in both informal chatter and in business meetings with people from all realms of life. From these conversations, I understood that it was defined as a single moment that changed the way they thought, shifted the way they worked, or fundamentally altered the way their industry or sector functioned.

But, for me, it was something I never envisaged happening to the speaking industry. After all, a keynote speaker  simply stands up, speaks, and aims to deliver a unique live experience which will engage the audience.  The audience would be listening to the speech because they wanted to learn about the topic, or had a particular interest in the subject matter. This is understood and accepted as the common exchange between the orator and audience.  So, I assumed the speaking industry was immune to such ‘seminal moments’.

Al Gore

Nonetheless, in 2006, an organisation that had been around since 1996, which I must admit I was only faintly aware of, posted its first 6 videos online. TED uploaded six speeches, of which the longest was 21 minutes, of Al Gore, Hans Rosling, Tony Robbins, Majora Carter, Ken Robinson  and David Pogue, and then, of course, the magic happened. Against my naïve judgement, this was truly a seminal moment in the speaking industry. By 2009, TED videos had been watched over 100 million times. By 2017, the 10 most popular TED talks had between them been watched over 250 million times.

However, the realisation of the gravitas of this moment didn’t come for me until I was in a Starbucks. I looked up from my coffee to realise that everyone was glued to their computers watching various TED videos.  Later that evening, I was part of a conversation (not instigated by myself I hasten to add) discussing which TED videos my peers had been watching. The subject matters were far and wide and my friends freely admitted these were not topics they knew anything about, or had even considered previously.

"I looked up from my coffee to realise that everyone was glued to their computers watching various TED videos."

Speaking was no longer about delivering news to a mass audience. It was a conversation starter, a memorable event, it was an experience. TED challenged the institutionalized perceptions of a speech. We were no longer interested in listening to subjects that related to us, we wanted to learn about abstract concepts, we wanted our opinions to be challenged not just augmented, and crucially, we wanted our horizons broadened. The combination of the power of the internet and TED truly understanding the need for tightly focused content meant that a speech became the modern-day pop song. It was something that was discussed, it was generating unknown emotions, it encouraged debate and highlighted our communal desire to learn something new.

TED bought speaking to everyone and continues to do so. The two main TED conferences are benchmarks for the speaking world. They deliver amazing content, but understand the conference is as much to do with the discussions, as it is with the speeches. TEDx has broadened this so that everyone can create a TED-style conference for themselves. This, in my view, has meant TED has reached a whole new audience and the TED brand has gone through a transformation again because of it. However, TED continues to deliver a platform which has become ubiquitous with the world of speaking and has helped turn some of the foremost speakers in today’s society into the rock stars of the speaking world.

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