***I downloaded the performance data on more than 100,000 TEDx Talks to learn which title formats get the most views. I’ll share the takeaways in this post (as well as the YouTube title limitations, why TED talks titles are different than book/workshop/live talk titles, and more).***
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 how viewers find you, in one of two places:
- YouTube search (yes, there are certain keywords/topics you can use to help your talk be found in search)
- YouTube browse/suggest
The title 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 alone.
Your audience on YouTube will be presented with a number of videos, and they decide whether to watch your TED Talk 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 different beast because the audience for the title doesn’t know you, doesn’t have any other context about your message (like an image or synopsis), and is distracted with not only other content on YouTube, but their email, their dog barking in the background, and so on.
How do you create a title that makes people click (despite these distractions and lack of context)?
In this post, I’ll go over the main principles for great titles, share insights from analyzing the performance of 100,000 TEDx talks on YouTube (there are some interesting title takeaways), and share some example TED Talk title formats you can steal for your own talk.
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.
The Best TED Talk Title Ideas (For Your Topic)
Step 1: Start With a Belief-Based Topic
You won’t be able to get a good title if your topic sucks (and you certainly can’t do it if you don’t have topic ideas at all),
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 the best TED Talk titles.
Step 2: Use the Best TED Talk Title Formats (Maximize YouTube Views)
I looked at the performance of more than 100,000 TEDx talks to see which titles got the most views. You can DRASTICALLY improve the views on your TEDx talk simply by using the right capitalization, title length (in both words and characters), and including the right keywords (at the start of your title, and within it)
Here are the title formats that tend to get the most YouTube views:
- Don’t capitalize every word (ie: use sentence case, not title case — “How to be a great leader” not “How to be a Great Leader”)
- Use at least 6 words, and at least 20 characters in your title (longer TED Talk titles get more views)
- Don’t use collective words like “we”, “our”, “us” etc. Words like “yourself”, “your”, “you”, and “I” get far more views
- Use terms that people search for (eg: when they search Google or YouTube for “TED talks about….”)
- The first 3 words in your title have EVEN MORE impact than all the other strategies listed above, so start your title with the right words:
I also looked at a few things that didn’t seem to make a difference (you don’t need to worry about these, though you can add it to your title if you want)
- Alliteration has no effect on views (“Leadership lessons” is no better than “Leadership strategies” for example)
- The length of the words in the title (either the average length of word, or the longest word) doesn’t seem to have an effect
- If you have a list of things, using digits vs numbers written out as words doesn’t seem to have a consistent effect either way (“7 ways to have a great relationship” vs “Seven ways to have a great relationship”)
- “how to” vs “how I” vs “why I” has a minimal effect (“how to” and “why I” seem to work SLIGHTLY better, but it’s not nearly as strong as the items above)
Step 3: Generate 20-30 TED Talk Title Ideas
You don’t want to stop at one title idea. Generate as many as you can.
With my TEDx coaching clients, we sometimes generate 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.
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:
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…”
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:
- 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)
- 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.