Field Guide: The Research-Based TED Talk

My origin piece, a Michigan Daily article on ECT, was inspired by an academic research paper. For Experiment 2, I’m writing a TED Talk presenting the results of that study, from the perspective of a researcher. I hope to take this experiment further by adding visual elements and actually recording the TED Talk.

In terms of genre exploration, I watched and read the transcripts of few recent TED Talks in which scientists present the results of their research. I watched one by Faith Osier, a researcher working on a malaria vaccine, another by Hasini Jayatilaka, who researches communication between cancer cells during metastasis, and a third by Greg Gage, a scientist looking into whether artificial intelligence can be used to recreate a subject’s thoughts. Comparing and contrasting these three lectures, I identified a few key characteristics of the genre, and put together guidelines for writing a successful research-based TED Talk .


  1. Establish importance

Researchers generally begin their TED Talks by explaining why their topic is important. I think the most successful TED Talks do this is a compelling or humanizing way. For instance, Osier provides startling statistics about the prevalence of malaria. Jayatilaka doesn’t use statistics, but establishes right off the bat that cancer is a devastating disease despite medical advances. Right after they demonstrate the relevance of their subject, all three lecturers have a sort of “thesis statement” explaining what their research is about.

  1. Be concise and straightforward

Looking at the transcripts, I noticed all three researchers kept their paragraphs short. There wasn’t much “fluff” − the lectures got straight to the point and really focused in on the science. Even though the TED Talks were packed with information, I could tell the speakers made an effort to simplify their research for a more general audience, emphasizing just a few key ideas and speaking clearly. Most TED Talks last only 5-15 minutes.

  1. Provide background

A successful TED Talk speaker gives some context for their research, briefly discussing the history of their subject and establishing why more research needs to be done. I think Osier and Jayatilaka did this particularly well by providing some information on past work against malaria/cancer. Giving context helps justify the “why now” aspect of the TED Talk.

  1. Use visuals

Both Oisier and Jayatilaka used background slides, but Gage really took advantage of the visual mode in his TED Talk. Gage described his research while playing a video of the experiment, helping the audience to follow along, step by step. Including visuals, like slides or a video, can make the TED Talk more engaging and can help clarify complicated topics. Also, all three speakers used hand gestures, another visual used to emphasize important points.

  1. Think big-picture

I think a key aspect of the research-based TED Talk is concluding with some forward-looking, big-picture thoughts. For instance, Gage ends his lecture by musing on the future of artificial intelligence, and Osier touches on what malaria research will look like going forward. This aspect of the TED Talk is critical because it shows the audience why they should be interested in the subject, and can even inspire them to get involved. Unlike a research paper, the TED Talk genre allows the researcher to provide a call to action.

2 thoughts to “Field Guide: The Research-Based TED Talk”

  1. Ted Talks do seem to follow a general pattern. The audience is expecting a captivating story establishing the importance of the lecture to begin, as they want to be interested.

    The visual aspect of a ted talk separates it from speeches or even other presentations. As you noted with Gage, the visual mode can be incredibly useful at educating the audience and guiding their understanding of something. This is incredibly important when the general audience isn’t educated on the issue, often times the case in science-heavy talks.

    As you noted, opening the topic up to the big-picture is the most common way these talks conclude, and I think it makes sense. The audience of a ted talk is not only the audience present but also all of us watching on our computers. These speakers are giving these talks because they’ve been impacted or want to impact the world in some way so making it clear to the reader “what happens next” is key to continuing the ted talk long after the speaker stops speaking. If a lasting impression is going to be made, the topic needs to become bigger than just the topic.

  2. These are great tips for a successful TED Talk. I definitely agree with the anecdotal/why this is important introduction that most TED Talk’s start with. I know that even if I find a talk uninteresting or boring, the one thing I always take away is that first piece because it really does set the stage and make the audience decide whether they are tuning in or out for the next 5-15 minutes. The concise and straightforward aspect is something most people probably struggle with when drafting these talks. It can be difficult to decide what information is too much, or too complicated. I personally end up using to much fluff in situations like this, but once I get to editing cutting down always results in more concise work. I think this is something you did a good job of in your draft. There was lots of research presented, so the information was clear but it wasn’t so much that you got lost in the numbers. I agree with the call to action necessity. I wonder how you can make your call to action even clearer in the conclusion of your TED Talk. This is a great list of elements for a talk and I think you’ve done a solid job with your TED Talk draft!

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