In order to get booked at a TED or TEDx event, you’ll need to find TED Talk topic ideas (then propose the best). In fact, your topic matters far more than your credentials or presentation skills.
Even if you have WORLD CLASS credentials.
Dr. Mary O’Connor has a Ph.D. from Yale University. She’s a former Olympian and had even met President Carter while he was still in office.
In other words, she’s a rockstar. She has incredible credentials.
But no matter what she tried, she could not get booked at a TEDx event. Zero success. Not so much as a callback.
She had even worked with another TEDx coach for 2 YEARS, and nothing worked.
After she hired me as a TEDx coach, we worked together to tweak her topic and how it was pitched. She got booked in just a few weeks.
There is no difference between TED and TEDx talks when it comes to your topic. Both require something great.
Two Types of People That Struggle to Find The Best TED Talks Topics Ideas
There are two (opposite) reasons you may be struggling to come up with topic ideas for a TED Talk:
- You have too many ideas that ALL get great feedback (your best topic is somewhere inside you)
- None of your ideas get great feedback from others (your best topic is external)
If you find that there are a LOT of things you’ve shared that others resonate with (common with coaches or consultants with a lot of experience, PhDs or anyone who’s done a great deal of research in their field, or anyone with decades of experience in a particular industry), then you may be struggling to identify the best topic idea for a TED Talk from amongst many options. Or, you may be trying to find an all-encompassing idea that brings together all of your experiences.
This is a great problem to have! This article will definitely help point you in the right direction.
Some people, however, struggle with identifying a great topic for a TED Talk because they’re still mostly in “learning mode” in their niche. Confidence in a topic idea generally comes from others resonating with a particular concept and finding it helpful, and this feedback tends to give you confidence that a particular area could be the source for some good ideas for a TED Talk.
If you feel like you don’t have enough expertise in a particular field, keep reading. The steps outlined will speed up your journey in getting this experience because you’ll know what you’re looking for.
Why Do You Have to Find TED Talk Topic Ideas In The First Place?
If you’re like most speakers, you may be used to being approached by an event organizer and invited to speak, then being told which topics the event organizer wants you to speak about.
In other words, you may have never had to decide on the best topic ideas at all.
Or, you may have been given free rein over which topic you chose while knowing that you’d already been booked.
Topics for TED Talks and TEDx Talks are entirely different — you’ll need to propose a topic as part of the application process, and if you choose incorrectly (or frame it in the wrong way), you’ll get turned down, and you may never become a TEDx speaker at all.
Which TED Talk Topics Are NOT Allowed?
Some people know that you’re not allowed to sell directly from the stage (in other words, you can’t ask people to go to your website and buy your program). According to TED, you’re also not allowed topics that have:
- A religious agenda (i.e., you can mention your religion, but your talk can’t aim to convert others to a specific religion)
- A political agenda (your talk cannot aim to gain support for a particular political party)
- Pseudoscience (e.g., if you’re a psychic or want to talk about quantum consciousness, pick something else)
- A commercial agenda (e.g., while you can share your expertise, and while it is very likely people will discover that you do have products or services to sell, you can’t directly sell these things from a stage)
What Are The Best TED Talk Ideas?
You could talk about a number of topics for a TED Talk or TEDx Talk…you probably shouldn’t. Some topics are better than others.
Some that an audience will resonate with, and some they won’t.
Some that an organizer will love, and some that will get you rejected.
Some will encompass all of your best ideas and make you proud that you shared it for years to come, and some will make you feel like you could have done better.
This is true even if the topic has gone over well with other audiences — a great topic for the wrong audience is still the wrong topic.
There are a few reasons we all have so many bad topic ideas for TED Talks:
- Some topics are great for practicing public speaking skills, but there’s no central idea to teach (i.e., “I want to tell my story”)
- Some topics focus on something you discovered through a unique experience (a rare disease), but lots of other people have discovered the same thing through a different experience (a different challenge that led to the same conclusion)
- Even if you have a unique approach to something that’s valuable, some fields (like “how to set goals”) sound like things we all know how to do well (i.e., the bike shed effect or Law of Triviality)
- Some topics are ideas unique to you but don’t add value to anyone else
- Some topics are valuable to a niche group but not to a broad group
- Some topics are ideas that are extremely valuable, but nobody gets it (like the genius professor who nobody understands)
- Some topics are things that apply to a broad audience, but your level of expertise in them isn’t particularly high (i.e., “how to be successful”)
Why You Shouldn’t Copy Popular TED Talks Topics
If a good topic teaches the audience something new, a good TED Talk topic will change the audience.
If that’s the case, delivering the same message to the same audience will be less effective the second time around, since this lesson is no longer new.
This is why searching for topics that have been popular in the past can be a bad idea. The more popular something has been in the past, the less likely it will be popular if delivered now.
For example, the idea “the earth revolves around the sun” was extremely disruptive and completely new hundreds of years ago, but it’s nothing revolutionary today.
Say it then, and you become a world-famous scientist and thinker. Say it now, and it sounds like common knowledge.
So, a great TED Talks topic is somewhat of a moving target.
How to Find the Best Topics for TED Talks
The best TED Talks ideas are topics that:
- You’re an expert in (and you have the credentials to back it up)
- You have a passion for sharing
- Connect to an Outcome that’s valuable for the audience/world (e.g., not “I want to share my story and maybe they’ll get something out of it”)
- Teach the audience something new about how to achieve this outcome
We’ll explore how to find topics for a TED Talk for all of these criteria.
What’s the process for finding these best topic ideas (e.g., things you could say that are unique to you, valuable to others, and understood as valuable to them)?
Step 1: Decide Your Outcome
A TED Talk has something of value for the audience. In other words, the topic isn’t just for you. It’s for them (individually or the world as a whole).
One way to determine this is to decide the Outcome of your talk. What is the new ability/skill the audience will have (that they’re trying to achieve right now), OR the action the audience should take that benefits the world or someone else?
It’s not about sharing your story, your truth, or teaching them about a field. It’s about helping them get somewhere.
For instance, if you’re a leadership coach, the Outcome of your talk could be “the audience will be better at leadership.”
If you’re an environmentalist, the Outcome could be “the audience will start to recycle.” (i.e., an action that will benefit the world).
Don’t overthink this too much. Normally it’s just “what do you do,” rephrased in such a way as to benefit others.
There are a few criteria that make an effective Outcome:
- You have some expertise about it (enough to know how to create this outcome in others)
- You have interest or passion about it (enough to put in the effort to do the talk)
- It is an action the audience will take or an ability they will have (e.g., not “I will share my story about being homeless” but, when you share your story, “they will treat those that are homeless with more respect” or “people that are feeling financially desperate will have a few strategies to earn more money, so they don’t become homeless”)
You know about it, it’s something of interest to you, and it’s an outcome that is valuable to others:
The Outcome defines the spectrum of possible TED Talk topics. These will be the easiest for you to speak about because you have both passion and knowledge about the field.
So, there is no such thing as a universal list of “good topics for a TED Talk.” It really comes down to what topics are best for your TED Talk.
Your expertise is different from mine and is different from other past TEDx and TED speakers.
Step 2: Find Unique Beliefs (The Best TED Talk Topics)
You aren’t the first person in the world to propose a message about your specific Outcome, so a “how to achieve X outcome” topic (like “how to be a great leader,” “the 5 elements of effective leadership” and so on) is likely to make you sound just like everyone else.
The Outcome is important as an anchor point, but we can’t stop there.
If you focus only on the Outcome, your topic will sound like everyone else in your niche, and you’ll get turned down from even the smallest TEDx events, even if you could say something unique about your Outcome.
The best TED Talk ideas make it clear upfront what new thing you will teach the audience about your Outcome.
In journalism, they call this practice of hiding the new thing (which you don’t want to do) “burying the lede.” An Outcome-focused topic (“5 ways to be a better leader”) doesn’t make it clear if any of those 5 ways are new. It sets a bad first impression.
There are many leadership coaches in the world who all have the same Outcome (how to be a better leader), there are potentially millions of different ideas that could help someone become a better leader.
These new ideas are the “lede” (the most interesting/important part), so make them obvious up front.
For instance, Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk was about leadership, but the big idea was “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
Without this, nobody would have paid attention.
How do you find these unique beliefs to set your topic apart?
Some people use acronyms or metaphors or try to make their message feel unique by sharing a story. However, all of these could also be the same dull ideas wrapped in a new name.
TED and TEDx are very competitive platforms, and merely slapping a new metaphor on an idea is likely to get you turned down.
Instead of sounding unique through metaphor or story, my clients do this through belief.
In other words — we find something they believe to be true that others (competitors or the general public) don’t already believe, that, once shifted, will make it easier for others to achieve the outcome.
This isn’t a list of weird things you think are true, but rather, something you believe that others don’t, that prevents them from achieving the Outcome.
An Example Belief-Based TED Talks Topic List
For example, if my Outcome was “how to do a TEDx talk,” some potential beliefs could be:
- Most people believe they have to wait to get “discovered” (or they should wait), but I believe it’s better to apply to events proactively
- Most people believe that public speaking skill is the most important factor in the success of their TEDx talk, but I believe that a poor quality stage will make them seem amateur (and if the event is unfilmed, it doesn’t matter how good of a speaker they are)
- Most people believe they should write an entire talk in order to get confidence in their topic (and that TEDx events want you to write your talk first), but I believe that you can get better feedback by spending time upfront developing the topic/big idea (and an amazing idea makes any talk sound better, and TEDx events specifically do not want you to write your talk first)
Once you see it in this format, it’s easy to see how any of these could be a talk on their own, and title ideas like “The TEDx Events You Should Avoid,” “Why Talking Like TED isn’t Talking AT TED” or “Why Speaking Skill Doesn’t Matter to Get on TEDx” become pretty obvious and easier to generate.
It also becomes apparent how you could brainstorm some of the elements of the structure of a TED talk based on any of these beliefs. For instance, if I was aiming to tackle the second belief about the relative unimportance of speaking skills, I could include some of the following in my talk:
- Statistics about how few Toastmasters Champions have ever done a TEDx talk at all
- Screenshots of messages I’ve received from TEDx speaking coaches asking for help getting booked themselves
- Show TEDx application forms that don’t ask for any video of you speaking
- Show screenshots from TED that say how TED and TEDx events are specifically not for professional speakers
- Show the TED slogan of “ideas worth spreading,” and make the point that it
- Or, I could share stories of clients who have gone from getting rejected for years to getting booked by only changing their topic.
In other words, knowing the core belief that you’re focused on shifting helps you make decisions for the right stories, visuals, and talk details to include in your talk.
Step 3: Test That it Resonates
Once you have a list of possible beliefs, you have some pretty promising topic ideas for your TED Talk.
But, you may still be uncertain how it’ll go over with an audience, especially an audience that doesn’t know you, isn’t coming to the event specifically to learn about this topic, and especially if you’re not a professional speaker.
If you’re delivering a TED-style talk at a low-stakes venue (for example, for school, Toastmasters, and so on), you probably don’t need to go any further. Simply brainstorm some ideas — what do you believe to be true, that you think many others would disagree with you on, that is STILL helpful (i.e., a mistake others are making that prevents progress on this Outcome). Anything more is overkill.
If you don’t validate your topic, you may:
- Aimlessly apply to events and get turned down repeatedly
- Only be able to speak at unfilmed TEDx events or those with unprofessional stages
- Quit your TEDx journey after the first event turns you down
- Struggle to write a talk, because you’re not sure which detail to include that would resonate most with a broad audience
- Or even…drop out of a TEDx event after you’ve been invited!
I’ve seen all these things from people that don’t go through this topic validation process.
Instead, if you DO validate your topic, you’ll:
- Have rock-solid confidence in auditions or interviews with TEDx organizers
- Be able to write a great TED Talk quickly, because you know exactly what people will resonate most with
Here’s how you can validate your topic.
You don’t have to guess how a broad audience will react to your topic! The great thing about beliefs is that you can test them.
There’s no need to guess which beliefs are most disruptive.
When working with clients, I have them do debates and a handful of 1-1 interviews to deeply understand the beliefs of others. We find the places of pushback, and in doing so, we know we’ve found the best topic for their TED Talk.
We make sure it resonates long before a talk is written.
And, of course, since I’ve organized a TEDx event myself and seen the speaker selection process from the inside, I know what things TEDx events are looking for.
This is how I am able to guarantee my coaching results.
If you’ve got a big stage you want to get selected to speak on or a high-stakes message to deliver and you know the topic/angle/messaging is critically important, you can learn more about my TEDx coaching here.
Step 4: Apply to TEDx!
Once you’ve got a topic in mind, you can use the TEDx applications list I put together and apply to be a TEDx speaker!
What To Do Now:
- 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 you 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’ve already been booked and you’re ready to start writing your talk, check out this guide on how to create a TED Talk
Commonly Asked Topic Questions/Clarifications
What About My Story?
Imagine stepping out on the TEDx stage and sharing a story from your own experience. The struggles you endured, how you overcame obstacles, and what you learned along the way.
Would anyone care if this story was about making breakfast that morning?
It’s a strange example, as I’m guessing you’d never think to share a story about making breakfast, but I use it to illustrate a point — TED Talks aren’t about sharing stories. They’re about sharing stories that can benefit the audience.
So, if you have a story to tell that you hope will benefit others, it probably connects to an Outcome (how you achieved something), and probably shares the shifts in belief you made along the way (angles) that you hope the audience will realize too after sharing your story.
Start with the Outcome you want to help the audience achieve, then identify the most compelling belief. In doing so, you can make a story that benefits the audience.
In other words, your story isn’t really about you. It’s about the audience.
The goal isn’t to generate pity or sympathy.
The goal is to make the audience realize that the story’s main character (you, or you can even share a story about someone else) is going through the same journey they are, then generate ah-ha moments and action from this.
What Credentials Do I Need?
You’ve probably figured out that to know how to achieve a particular Outcome that differs from most others in the world, you’d need to have some knowledge of the field.
There’s no way that I could have generated the beliefs listed above for the example outcome of “How to get a TEDx talk” without having helped clients achieve that outcome in the past.
So, you’ll generally see that the best TED Talks topics are shared by experts in their field.
But, simply getting more experience with a particular Outcome doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to share anything new about it.
This is one way that relative newbies to a field can outpace people with decades more experience — by looking for, then discovering, these differences in belief.
There are two great ways to discover these things:
- Helping other people achieve the Outcome (ideally through 1-1 coaching)
- Interviewing other people who have achieved the Outcome (for example, with a podcast)
For example, my TEDx talk (on why you should do your worst) was for an Outcome that is and was highly competitive (design/creativity), and yet, I spoke on a great stage even though I only had an undergraduate degree in Engineering and it was my first talk ever!
The only way I could pull this off was by discovering these unique beliefs (which I discovered through doing a podcast for years and interviewing people who had been successful at creating different things).