Create a Viral TED Talk: The 3-stage Formula

Check out the number of views on these 2 TEDx videos. They were filmed at the same TEDx event (TEDxHouston) in the same year (2010). One went viral. The other definitely didn’t.

viral TEDx talk

While 1 talk has had a total of 1,601 views in the last 7 or so years, the other has had 1,000 TIMES THAT AMOUNT (and ended up getting picked up by TED, where the same video got another 31 million views).

What the hell? Don’t all TED Talks go viral?

How did a talk get 32 million views and the other only get 1,600 from the SAME EVENT? And how can you ensure you don’t end up with a TED Talk that flops?

If you believe Brené Brown’s success was all luck, you should stop reading now. This article isn’t for you.

Instead, let’s look at the intentional things you can do to increase the chances your TED Talk will go viral and get you long-term results (paid speaking, book deals, consulting customers and more).

Here are the 3 main  things we’ll explore in this article:

  • Craft your talk for the internet
  • Choose an event that will showcase your talk well
  • Be intentional about spreading your talk.

Seem obvious? It isn’t. Most people think some combination of the following:

  • That, if a talk gets a standing ovation with a live audience, it’ll also do well as a TED Talk (a live audience plays by different rules than an online one, as we’ll see)
  • That all TEDx events are created equal in terms of video and audio quality (they’re not, as you’ll see)
  • That once you do a TED Talk, you just wait and opportunities magically come to you (not the case, as we saw with Brené Brown’s 1000x results)

Let’s take a look at the details of what you can do.

1. Craft a talk for the internet

Most people know how to create a talk for a live audience. This is their main speaking experience.

After all, most talks get watched by the live audience of 100 or so people and that’s about it. They don’t get watched by thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions.

Here are the rules that a live audience plays by:

  • If they’re confused or not engaged, you can observe and adjust your approach on the fly
  • You can ask them questions to gauge whether to elaborate or clarify
  • They’ll applaud at the end
  • If a few people at the front (or around them) give a standing ovation, the others will follow suit (hint: if you want a standing ovation for almost anything, scatter a few friends near the front of the room and have them start it off)
  • It’s unlikely anyone will walk out during your talk. If they’re confused or disagree at some points, they’ll stick around and may eventually get the clarification they didn’t have before (eg: if you talk long enough, you don’t need to be precise)
  • Your talk could be a secondary reason they’re in attendance. They could have been told by a boss that they have to attend, they could be there to network with other attendees (eg: a networking luncheon or conference) etc.

But, a TED Talks audience plays by different rules because of one simple factor – the internet. Most of the people that will ever watch your TED Talk are online. The audience is no longer directly in front of you. They’re not worried about offending you (by posting a negative comment or leaving part way through).

Crafting a great topic and angle is much different for the internet.

Your talk can spread MUCH farther and faster on the internet if you’re aware of the rules the audience is playing by, namely:

  • Understanding the idea you’re spreading is the only thing they’re getting value from (eg: nobody gets a free lunch or networking opportunities from watching a YouTube video)
  • They’re all over the world. Is your talk interesting to someone in a different country or culture?
  • They have options – at any given time, they’re shown a dozen or so TED Talks on YouTube to potentially watch. Will they like your title enough to start watching? Will they like it enough to keep watching, or will they be enticed away by another?
  • If they’re confused, disagree with what you’re saying, or aren’t interested initially, they may not continue to watch (especially if it’s longer than a few minutes). They’re not socially pressured to stay until the end (a 50% watch time is “good” for YouTube)
  • Even if they like it, they may not like it enough to share it. Sharing requires “spending” some social capital, which they may not be willing to do. How many TED Talks have you intentionally shared?
  • You can’t ask them questions or observe their reactions to gauge whether they “get it” or you should add more detail. You have to know their objections, their favorite parts, and how to best communicate with them before you step on stage.
  • If your talk DOES deeply connect, they’ll share your talk for years to come. It can get well over a million views or more (people still recommend Brené Brown’s talk to me, even 7 years later)

It’s not a question of whether your talk is good, but whether it will be watched in the first place, watched until the end, and shared, despite the over-crowded and distracting internet.

Here are a few tests you can apply to see how close you are to a talk that spreads itself:

  • If you record a 1-2 min video (or wrote out a 100-200 word Facebook post) talking about your topic, how many people that you don’t know share it? (not just “like” it, but spread it, just like you hope your TED Talk will be spread)
  • Come up with a title for your talk and show it to 10 strangers, alongside 10 other TED Talk titles. How much of the time do they choose yours?
  • Record your entire talk (if it’s ready) and publish it to YouTube. Using YouTube’s analytics, how many people watch it, and how many of those that watch get to the end?

2. Choose an event that will showcase your talk well

If you want people to think of you as a professional speaker with high-quality ideas, it helps to look the part. Take a look at these 2 TEDx videos. Note that they’re from the same speaker.

Surprisingly, this is the smallest factor in the equation. Did you notice the number of views of each of the videos and the date they were published?

Video views comparison same speaker different quality

This screenshot was captured on November 4th, 2017. So, in the last 580 days since the first (good quality) video was filmed, it’s gained an average of 7.6 views per day.

But, the poorer quality video has, over the past 136 days, gained over 33 views per day, and is actually doing BETTER overall. Surprising, right?

Here’s the trick – even though the quality of the videography isn’t as critical as other factors, wouldn’t you rather speak at a great quality event than a poor one? Views aren’t the only “result” that’s important. What about showcasing yourself as a prestigious speaker (which could lead to other opportunities)?

In general, you’re better off speaking at a good quality event, but this isn’t as critical as a great talk (#1) and how you spread the talk afterward (#3).

Don’t rely on a high-quality video to do the work for you, but it certainly helps if your talk and marketing are already on-point.

To find great quality events, check out their past videos for clues as to the quality of future events (do a YouTube search for the event name), or if it’s the first year an event has occurred, look for clues – are they putting a lot of  effort into the production quality of the event (website, graphic design etc.)?

3. Be intentional about spreading your talk

“Build it and they will come” isn’t a thing. As anyone who’s ever built something knows, you have to tell people about it (and keep telling people about it). The same is true for your TED Talk.

You could leave it alone and hope it spreads 100% organically, or you could make sure that people that could benefit from your talk get a chance to hear about it. You did all the work to create the talk and get selected, you may as well tell people about it.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Who can benefit from my talk? (not “anyone” but what types of people? CEOs of B2C companies with more than 25 employees? Mothers with teenage daughters? Adult gymnasts? People with desk jobs?)
  • Where can I find these people? (what sites do they read? What groups are they part of? Which influencers do they follow?)
  • What benefit will they get from watching my talk? (eg: they’ll learn a power pose they can use to get a confidence boost before stressful situations)
  • How can I make it as easy as possible for them to watch and share my talk? (eg: can I write up a blog post and offer it as a guest post on a blog that these people read?)

The next thing, of course, is to execute on this strategy. Develop a talk that deeply resonates with the audience enough that it spreads itself. Get selected for an event with high-quality video production, then intentionally spread your talk to the right audiences that can generate the opportunities for you that you want.

A TED Talk, in and of itself, is not a magic bullet to instant fame and fortune. To get 10x or even 1000x the results most people get, you have to do things most people aren’t willing to do.

Some people just want to do a TED Talk (eg: a TED Talk is the end goal), but others want a talk that spreads, that impacts the world and attracts opportunity for years (eg: a TED Talk is just the beginning).

If you’d like my 1-1 help with this long-term strategy (or you’ve already done a TEDx talk and it’s not getting the results you want), get in touch to schedule a consultation.


Ryan Hildebrandt
Ryan Hildebrandt
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