In the very beginning, as always, we have a date. A particularly symbolic date in this case: 23 February 1984. Exactly one month earlier, Apple had unveiled its revolutionary Macintosh. Six months later, Sony launched its first CDs.
“When TED was founded in 1984, Richard ‘Ricky’ Wurman and co-founder Harry Marks were convinced of the growing convergence between technology, entertainment and the design industry. They were not mistaken”, comments Chris Anderson.
Apple personal computers and Sony CDs are both rooted in all these areas, and for those with vision and strategic expertise, it was exciting to imagine a future where the oldest technology of the human being, the voice, was combined with the most modern. “It was exciting”, Anderson explains, “to imagine what other possibilities might emerge if these fields could interact with each other”. These are the words of the founder of Wired, who has been at the helm of TED since 2001 through the non-profit organisation of the same name whose mission is to spread ideas through its own medium: TED Talks, lectures of up to eighteen minutes freely broadcast on multi-channel and online platforms. The purpose of TED is all in its motto:
Ideas worth spreading.
TED is an acronym that stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. Anderson has also added a fourth element to this triad: public speaking. Changing the rules of the game forever. After over 5,000 presentations, translated into dozens of languages to render them accessible to a truly global audience, Anderson explains this renewed power, one of speech and discourse: “as important as public speaking skills are today, they will matter even more so in the future. Driven by our increasing interconnectedness, one of mankind’s oldest skills is undergoing a process of reinvention and adaptation to the modern age. I am increasingly convinced that in the future, the ability to present one’s ideas to others will prove to be an essential skill for a whole range of categories of people”.
Learning to present one’s ideas will be increasingly important “for any young person who wants to gain self-confidence”. It will be “for anyone just out of school and looking to start a dazzling career; for anyone who wants to make progress in their work; for anyone interested in defending or promoting a cause; for anyone who wants to build a good reputation; for anyone who wants to build a link with people around the world who share the same passion; for anyone who wants to bring together different forces and put them at the service of a common purpose; for anyone who wants to leave a legacy for posterity; for anyone, full stop”.
This openness to an increasingly global audience accelerated starting in June 2006, when the first six TED talks were posted on ted.com, tallying roughly ten thousand views per day. Anderson was convinced that these numbers would plummet after the initial burst of enthusiasm. Quite the contrary: it was only the first step. A step towards a cultural and social revolution. Anderson puts it this way:
We can all take part in this public speaking revolution. If we can find a way to really listen to and learn from each other, the future will be coloured with a new hope.
In fact, one of the hallmarks of TED is to focus on listening and attention. These are essential elements for gaining the confidence of an audience attracted by the possibility of broadening their knowledge, but also of accessing a wealth of complex skills told with simplicity and, at the same time, depth.
Since then TED Talks have become somewhat of a touchstone. As leadership expert Carmine Gallo, author of the bestseller Talk Like TED (St. Martin’s, 2015), has observed, these days, no public discourse can escape from being measured, evaluated and compared according to TED rules. TED is the yardstick for assessing a talk’s potential effectiveness. The audience will then do the rest.
Alongside the three elements that Aristotle identified as the levers of all genuinely persuasive discourse (logos, pathos, ethos), i.e. the ability to involve, to move and to incite to virtuous action, TED has added a fourth that determines its real effectiveness: the why. So it is no wonder that Simon Sinek’s TED talk on how great leaders inspire change has been the most watched for many years now. They inspire with pathos, logos and ethos. But especially with the why: explaining, motivating, but above all involving others in their ideal aims.
Sinek points out that
People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.
Simon Sinek, writer
One of the changes that TED brought to public speaking was, of course, the control of language not merely for the purpose of capturing attention, but for sharing knowledge and some core values: inclusion, respect, sharing. It is certainly no fluke that, as Anderson himself explains, the success of TED is linked to its being entirely and wholly run by a non-profit, whose mission always resides in a higher purpose than profit (Sinek’s ‘why’).
This allows convergence not only on the means but also on the end goal: inform, raise awareness, share. But above all, we share a common purpose,” Anderson concludes, “it is on this point, which we have called the ‘why’ of our actions and which precedes the ‘how’ and the ‘when’, that we must focus so that every speech is not only beautiful or seductive, but also effective”.