How to Start a TED Talk

If you can’t get your intro right, people may not even watch the rest of your TED Talk.

This article will show you some ways to begin a TED Talk (with example TED Talks) to help you create an attention-grabbing opener for your talk.

How is a TED Talk Introduction Different than Other Talks?

Imagine if people got up and walked out the door as you delivered your talk.

By the time you were 30 seconds in, less than half of the original audience was still there.

They figured there was something else to do, they left, they didn’t tell you why, and they’re never coming back.

Hopefully, you’ve never experienced this, but this is EXACTLY what happens for TED and TEDx talks because they’re broadcast on YouTube.

Most of the audience isn’t in the room, they’re online.

Every YouTube video suffers from this problem of audience retention, and it can make a huge difference to the number of people that end up seeing your talk all the way to the end:

Why does this happen?

For a live talk, the audience can see each other, and you can see them. You’ll see if they leave, and the other audience members will see them as well.

There is a TON of social pressure to stay in the room.

They may even be expected by their boss to attend your talk and may have friends or colleagues that would see them walk out.

In other words, there are very high social costs to leaving the room, not paying attention, or not applauding at the end.

They may not pay as much attention as possible, but at least they’ll stay in the room. If you lost them at one moment, you can re-engage them at another.

Your Audience Retention for in-person speaking is virtually always 100%.

But online, there are no consequences for leaving.

In fact, there’s a huge opportunity cost to STAYING. 

They could be missing out on another TED Talk, they may remember they really should buy that book they meant to, that email they were supposed to send, etc.

There are also distractions in their environment – their dog, their kids, the dishes that really need to get done, etc.

Audience Retention is NEVER 100% online, and that includes your TED Talk. In fact, according to databox, the average YouTube audience retention is just 30% (i.e., the average viewer of your talk will see the first 30%, then leave).

Even the most entertaining YouTubers in the world with millions of subscribers lose many viewers over the course of a single video.

The better your introduction, the more likely it is that people will stay for the rest of your message.

6 Ways to Start a TED Talk (And Examples of the Best TED Talk Introductions)

Here are a few ways to start a TED or TEDx talk:

  • Make a surprising statement or bold claim
  • Ask a question that the audience wants to know the answer to (that you’ll answer as part of your talk)
  • A question to the audience, to make them realize they are the perfect target audience for your talk
  • Share a story (as a way to humanize yourself, as an indirect way)

Let’s look at some examples of each type.

Make A Surprising Statement or Bold Claim

I bet you one million dollars you can learn piano or any skill in life.

Zach Evans, TEDxOshkosh

This was how my TEDx coaching client Zach opened his talk.

When you make a bold claim, you make the audience excited about all the amazing benefits they can get by watching your talk.

Ask A Question To Let People Self-Identify As The Target Audience For Your Talk

How many of you, at some point in your life, have wanted to learn piano or some other musical instrument?

Zach Evans, TEDxOshkosh

This is the second part of Zach’s TEDx talk intro, but he could have started with this as well. In asking this question, he gets the audience to self-identify as someone who the talk can help.

Regardless of how they answer yes (by show of hands, nodding to themselves, or even thinking “yeah, that’s probably me”), they’re admitting to themselves that they’re the target audience for your message.

You can do this yourself, in the format:

“How many of you want to [solve a problem or get the benefit the talk will deliver upon]?”

Ask A Question That You’ll Answer Later in the Talk

“How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume…or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that defy all the assumptions?”

This is the opening for Simon Sinek’s TEDxPugetSound talk. 

In asking the question, he makes the audience think of the same question. They’ll want to stick around and listen, because it’s the only way they can get the answer.

Share A Story That Indirectly Introduces the Main Idea

Tim Urban’s brilliant and funny TED Talk begins with a funny story about his own procrastination (complete with cartoons).

The title, “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator,” as well as the intro, make you think that the talk is about Tim, and his own funny take on why he procrastinates.

But then, partway through the talk, we’re introduced to the idea that we are all procrastinators.

Narrative is a tool used by marketers to indirectly introduce a problem or idea into the minds of a customer.

For example, this sales letter (in the advertising space, sometimes referred to as “The $2 Billion Sales Letter”) is one such example of this technique:

You’ll notice that the story in this example as well, is used to introduce the offer indirectly. It isn’t simply “buy the Wall Street Journal,” but rather, the story makes the reader realize that success comes down to information, and information is what you’d get by subscribing to the Wall Street Journal.

This is just like Tim Urban’s talk — the story is there to indirectly lead us to the idea that we are all procrastinators. He couldn’t have led with a more direct opener (like Zach Evans or Simon Sinek). Could you imagine Tim starting out with something like “how can we stop procrastinating?” The talk would have been a lot less funny and a lot less interesting instead.

Share A Story That Humanizes The Speaker

“I saw you speak, and I’m going to call you a researcher, I think, but I’m afraid if I call you a researcher, no one will come, because they’ll think you’re boring and irrelevant.

This was the opening for Dr. Brené Brown’s talk at TEDxHouston. 

Even though it doesn’t relate to her topic (vulnerability), it serves as a fun way to humanize her as a speaker. 

Self-deprecation is an effective tool when the speaker is in a high-status role (stand-up comedy, TED Talks, etc), as it serves to make them seem relatable to the audience. 

BONUS: A Non-Vocal Pattern-Interrupt

The audience for your talk just doesn’t hear your words, they see you (and the stage), and can hear other things as well.

So, your introduction for your TED Talk doesn’t have to be only (or at all) with words. It can be a demonstration, a visual, or a rhythm (like Dr. Sean Holden’s talk above).

Andy and Pete do this as well by eating hamburgers (while talking about their talk on veganism) – you don’t often see a TEDx speaker eating a hamburger on stage, and this pattern interrupt makes people pay attention

What do The Best TED Talk Introductions Share In Common?

You’ll notice that all of these TED Talk openings have a few things in common:

  • They aren’t chronological, since the most interesting part of the story is normally NOT the beginning (i.e., typically not “I was born in 1972…” but rather “let me tell you how I made a million dollars selling socks”)
  • They are often logically out-of-order since the most compelling part about an idea is normally NOT the background or b1asics (i.e., they tease the most interesting thing, then back-track and share the basics after attention has been captured)
  • They match the natural style of the speaker (if you’re not funny, your TED Talk is probably not the time to start trying to be funny)
  • They’re out of place in normal conversation. After all, they’re designed to break people out of the cycle of scrolling past videos and the humdrum of their lives, and as a result, all of these intro ideas would sound pretty weird coming out of someone’s mouth normally, which is how they capture attention.

What To Do Now:

  1. If you haven’t already been booked, the next step is to apply to be a TEDx speaker (this tool is by far the easiest way to find events now, with all the info you need to apply). 
  2. If you aren’t ready to apply yet (or want help with the entire process),  you can hire me as a TED Talks speaker coach. I help with the entire process, and I guarantee you’ll get booked.

If you’re already booked, and you’re in the process of writing a TED Talk and want to make sure you’re not missing any steps (like memorization, picking a great title, and so on, check out my guide on how to do a TED Talk here)

Ryan Hildebrandt
Ryan Hildebrandt
Articles: 33

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