If you look at the official TED Talk website, they have an ongoing playlist of the top 25 most-watched TED Talks of all time.
The playlist runs seven hours, and the transcripts are a combined 70,000 words. That's like a 200-page book. It would take a while to watch them all.
Still, I wondered if analyzing the language across all 25 talks might yield some takeaways. With nearly 1 billion total views, even though they're about different subjects, do these TED Talks have anything in common?
So, I took some time, and I copied and pasted the transcripts of all 25 TED Talks into a single text document. Then, I ran the text through a word cloud generator.
Sure enough, there was a word that popped out. That word was: “laughter.”
Across 25 talks, there were 380 instances of laughter, which works out to .948 laughs every 60 seconds—just shy of a literal “laugh a minute."
Now, I don’t think any of the speakers ever actually says the word in their TED Talks. Instead, it's inserted into the transcripts every time the audiences chuckles or laughs, with parenthesis around it: “(Laughter.)"
And frankly, barring a few exceptions, these TED Talks aren’t exactly uproariously funny. Instead, the "laughter" in the transcripts seems more like the audience communicating with the speaker: giving auditory feedback when things are funny, sure, but also more often to express agreement, or out of politeness.
It's related to "applause," which appeared 95 times throughout the transcripts. Combine both words, and we reach an average of 1.2 verbal audience reactions per minute.
Or, for that matter the sheer number of question marks: 579 in total.
That's compared to 3,910 “periods” used to end sentences, which means that fully 15 percent of the time, the speakers weren't giving information. Instead, they were inviting their audiences to ponder a question and stay engaged.
OK, here's my big takeaway, which I think has implications for anyone who ever has to communicate anything to anyone else. (I think that’s everybody.)
Calling these top TED Talks, "talks," is a bit of a misnomer. They're more like guided conversations, with the speakers giving the audience prompt after prompt after prompt—practically begging and cajoling them, in fact, to stay engaged.
Combine my admittedly unusual metrics, and you find that there are a total of 1,061 instances across 25 talks during which the speaker either asks the audience a question or delivers a line inducing laughter or applause.
That works out to about once every 21 seconds.
No matter what they're talking about—from Pamela Meyer's "How to Spot a Liar," to Amy Cuddy's, "Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are," to Elizabeth Gilbert's, "Your Elusive Creative Genius"—they keep doing the same thing: continuously prompting the audience to engage, connect, and stay interested.
So, maybe think about this exercise the next time you have to sit through a not-so-great presentation, or if you want to explore or explain something to someone.
Maybe the secret is realizing that your goal isn’t just to share information. It's to prompt engagement. Because anybody can give a presentation. It's another level entirely to have a conversation.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
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7 other things worth knowing today
My former boss (Bob Woodward of The Washington Post) and Robert Costa of CBS News broke the story that there is a 7 hour, 30 minute gap in the phone logs for former President Trump on January 6, 2021 that were turned over to Congressional investigators, who are trying to figure out if government officials were using disposable “burner phones” to avoid record-keeping laws. Trump’s statement in reply: "I have no idea what a burner phone is, to the best of my knowledge I have never even heard the term." (CBS News)
Tickets to see Chris Rock perform live are now selling for 10X what they were just before the Academy Awards. At least one online poll says two-thirds of Americans either “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that Will Smith should face a criminal charge for his “sucker-slap” of Rock during the Oscars. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had one of the best takes I’ve seen on this. (WashPost, StudyFinds, Kareem)
A former Yale University administrator pleaded guilty to federal tax and wire fraud charges, admitting that she stole $40 million worth of electronics from the prestigious university. How? She apparently had authority to sign off on purchases up to $10,000—and so she just kept purchasing thousands of computers and iPads, over and over and over. (NPR)
Nice little story here about a man in India whose life was saved after he used the ECG function on his Apple Watch, which led to diagnosis of a blocked artery. He sent a thank-you email to Tim Cook, who replied personally. (Apple Insider)
Honda just built the world’s most advanced wind tunnel in Ohio: a 192 mph tunnel, mostly to be used for road car aerodynamics and aeroacoustics. (ArsTechnica)
I have never been to Singapore, but I’m aware that it’s a highly urbanized modern metropolis, and one of the most densely populated places in the world. That’s what makes the story of Oh Go Seng, 79, who managed to live unnoticed in a forest there for 30 years rather remarkable. (BBC)
Nearly half of all pet owners love their cat or dog more than their other half. It’s a study commissioned by a pet food company, so skepticism is warranted. But it’s not quite as crazy a story to me as, say Oh Go Seng living in a forest in Singapore. (Express)