How to Title a TED Talk

You may want to get on TEDx, and you need a great title to entice TEDx organizers. 

Or, you may have already delivered your talk and the organizer needs a title before it’s posted on YouTube.

Or, you may be in the process of creating a TED Talk, and need a title as part of that process.

Regardless of where you’re at, this guide will help you generate a title for your TED Talk or TEDx Talk that:

  • Gets you booked at the best TEDx events (if you’re trying to get booked)
  • Maximizes views (once your talk is online)
  • And, gives you tons of confidence your talk is something you’ll be proud of for years

…without sounding like shallow clickbait 😉

Let’s dive in.

What is The Title of a TED Talk For?

The title of a TED Talk is the first impression of your talk — it’s the only information viewers have about what’s inside, and they decide whether to watch your talk or not based on the title.

best ted talk titles
The title of a TED Talk helps the audience discover your TED Talk

Users browsing on YouTube will be presented with a number of videos, and they decide what to watch based on the title.

This may be different than other title formats you’re used to:

  • A book title also includes the cover image, which adds information (and book buyers can see an entire book synopsis and reviews before making a purchase)
  • A workshop or talk title normally includes a short description to add more detail to make people decide to go
  • Some titles are presented to the audience only after they’re in the room (and it’s unlikely they’ll get up and leave once they hear the title)

So, TED Talk titles are a bit of a different beast, simply because the audience for the title doesn’t know you, and is distracted with other TEDx videos, their email, their dog, and so on.

How do you create a title that makes people click?

Title Principle 1: Make a Clear Promise

If people think your talk is about one thing, but they get something else in your introduction, they’ll stop watching very quickly. 

And, the right people may not ever think your talk is for them. 

So, a great title should make a clear promise about what’s in the talk.

Titles for a broad audience can be tricky. On the one hand, the message could be for anyone. On the other, not everyone will want it right now.

Messages and titles are a little like coffee. I like coffee in general, except for the times when I feel like water, tea, wine, and so on. If I picked up a cup of black liquid expecting it (and wanting it) to be Coca-Cola and got coffee, I’d be pretty pissed.

Let’s call this the Coffee Paradox — even if a message could be for everyone, it’s not for everyone right now, and the clearer you can set expectations, the more likely they’ll be happy.

Your title is the same – your title isn’t just to get as many clicks possible (like telling people they’ll get “a mystery drink,” and it ends up being coffee). 

For this reason, the best titles stay away from confusing metaphors (“the hats and apples model”) or broad terms that could be about many things (e.g., “how to be successful”), and instead, make a specific, clear promise about what the message is about.

Title Principle 2: Add Tension

While you want to be clear, you don’t want to be so clear that you give away the entire message in the title.

For example “how eating vegetables 5x a day helped me lose weight” makes a very clear promise, but it gives away the answer too (so there is no reason to click).

Seth Godin coined the term “tension” to describe this phenomenon. Make enough of a promise, but leave a little out so that people need to click and watch your talk to get the answer.

Tension is the experience you get in walking past a bakery, smelling what’s inside, and being drawn in — the scent and look of the pastries is a clear promise but an unfulfilled one.

Tension is the set-up for a joke — “knock-knock” 

Without me asking, you’re compelled to ask, “who’s there?”

This is why so many titles start with question words – why, how, etc. – it opens a question in the viewer’s mind that can only be answered by clicking and watching.

Tension will be LOWEST if:

  • The promise made is something they’ve heard before (e.g., there are a lot of articles, books, and so on written about “how to be a better leader”), so while you could be teaching something new, they’ll be skeptical
  • The promise is confusing (“the hats and apples model”), as the more certainty someone has that a message will be valuable, the better
  • The promise is too vague, so it could be about many things they don’t want right now (“how to be amazing”)
  • The answer seems predictable (“how I lost more weight by eating vegetables”)

Do the opposite of this, and you’ll have a great title.

How to Find The Best TED Talk Titles

Step 1: Start With a Belief-Based Topic

It’s much easier to find an incredible title for your TED Talk or TEDx Talk if you’re starting with a topic that is interesting itself.

But, if you used my guide on the best TED Talks topics, you’ve already got a high-tension, clear idea, which can be the basis for some of the best titles as well.

If you’ve already got a topic in mind (and didn’t follow my process), you may want to read through the topics guide regardless, as it will help you identify the best elements of your topic to focus on, and it’ll make finding a great title much easier.

Step 2: Steal From The Best TED Talk Titles

The best titles are ones that cause people browsing past to click. Thankfully, you don’t have to start from scratch here!

We have a pretty good idea of which title frameworks may work best because it’s easy to see which TED talks have the most views (which indicates they got the most clicks).

The TEDx YouTube channel has almost 2x the subscribers of the TED YouTube channel (and chances are high you’ll be speaking at a TEDx event), so we’ll look there.

To do this, look at the most popular TEDx talks on YouTube, then get their title format.

For instance, “Why people believe they can’t draw – and how to prove they can” is one of the most popular talks, and you could borrow this format for any other topic (i.e., “Why some people believe they can’t lead – and how to prove they can”)

Another one is “The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans,” which could be repurposed for your topic as “The most important lesson from 2,000 divorces” or “The most important lesson from 472 job interviews,” or anything else.

Step 3: Generate 20 Other High-Tension, Clear Titles

Stealing ideas from the most popular talks is good, but it’s just a start.

You can generate other title ideas for your topic as well. With my TEDx clients, we generate sometimes 20 or 30 possible titles. The benefit of generating many ideas is that the most creative ideas generally come after your initial, top-of-mind ideas have been exhausted.

If 20 is hard, go for 30 (you’ll self-edit less).

Step 4: Add Power Words

Some titles are ok.

But sometimes, you can swap out a word or two that make your title come alive, captivate your audience, and are seriously gripping.

the best ted talk titles have power words
The best TED Talk titles have power words

See what I did there?

Once you’ve got some title ideas, you can make them much more powerful by adding power words (you can find a full list of power words here)

This is what I encouraged Roger Frampton to do, one of the speakers at the TEDx event I started. 

The title? “Why Sitting Down Destroys You”

His talk went on to be the 3rd-most-watched TEDx talk of the entire year, and now has almost 5 million views!

Step 5: Check YouTube’s Length Rules

The title for your TED Talk isn’t just for descriptive purposes, it’s used as the title of the video on YouTube after your talk comes online.

And, it can’t be uploaded to YouTube if it’s too long!

There are two YouTube limitations to be aware of.

The Total Video Title Must Be Less Than 100 Characters

The talk title for YouTube will be in the format [Talk Title] | [Your Name] | [Event Name] 

(for example, “Why Sitting Down Destroys You | Roger Frampton | TEDxLeamingtonSpa.” is the full title for the video below:

The title of a TED Talk (including event name and your name) must be less than 100 characters
The title of a TED Talk (including event name and your name) must be less than 100 characters

YouTube has a total character limit of 100 characters, so make sure that your title isn’t too long when plugged into this format. 

Here’s how you can figure out the character limit for your title on YouTube:

Max Title Length = 100 – Number of characters in event name – Number of characters in your name – 6

For example, Roger’s name is 14 characters, “TEDxLeamingtonSpa” is 17 characters, and by the time you add the extra “|” spacers, you’ve got 37 characters used up. So, Roger’s talk title could not have been more than 63 characters, otherwise, it couldn’t be uploaded to YouTube at all.

Max Title Length (for Roger) = 100 – 17 – 14 – 6

Max Title Length (for Roger) = 63

If Roger had a longer name (for example, “Dr. Roger Frampton” adds 4 characters), or had spoken at a TEDx event with a longer name (“T­E­Dx­Coastal­Carolina­University”) he would have only had 46 characters left over for his talk title).

Make Your Talk Title Less Than 57 Characters

See how a few of these titles are cut off? For example, “My descent into America’s neo-Naxi movement and how I got ou…”

best ted talk titles are less than 57 characters
The best TED Talk titles are less than 57 characters

YouTube only shows the first 57 characters of the title in the sidebar.

So, even if you could have a longer title because your name is short and the TEDx event name is short, stick to less than 57 characters so that people browsing on YouTube can see the entire title in the sidebar too. 

Once you’ve got your list of title ideas, you may need to shorten or disqualify a few if they are above the absolute 100-character limit, or (if you like), you may wish to shorten some that are above the 57-character limit so that at least the title of your talk (but perhaps not your name or the event name) are shown on the sidebar.

Step 6: Test Your Titles

By now you’ve got a number of title ideas, you’ve added power words, and you’ve verified that they meet YouTube’s limitations…

…but which of your titles is best?

You could go through the list and simply pick the best, sure, (and you might have a strong sense that one is best) but another way to do it is to ask others. Show them a list of 5 titles at a time, then ask for their favorite.

“Which of these TED talk titles would you be most likely to click on?”

You can do this as a public social media post (the advantage being, that any given comment will show the social media algorithms that the post is popular, so more people will see it), but the disadvantage is that some will be swayed by the opinions of others. 

If you have a very large audience, you may be able to get enough responses with a survey where people can’t see the other responses as well – the best way for you depends on your audience size.

People you ask will most likely ask for more information about the talk itself in order to decide the best title. Don’t tell them! 

Someone browsing online doesn’t know what your talk is yet, but they DO make the decision about whether to click or not, and all they have to go on is the title.

What To Do Now:

  1. If 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 intro, and so on, check out my guide on how to do a TED Talk here)
  2. 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). 

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.

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Ryan Hildebrandt
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