The convergence of these three themes into short, influential talks forms the basis of TED conferences – one of the most successful and widespread scientific outreach initiatives in recent decades. As a nonpartisan, non-profit company formed in 1984, TED is dedicated to communicating transformative ideas in highly engaging and accessible formats.

So, what exactly makes a TED Talk? Hosted at TED conferences worldwide, these talks are unique in their design. Invited speakers must formulate a talk which effectively communicates complex ideas and concepts to a broad audience. With a strictly enforced 18-minute window to disseminate one’s best ideas on the TED stage, breaking down these talks into digestible pieces that are intuitive and easy for non-specialists to follow is no easy task. The successful result is an informed and inspired audience with a motivation to further spread those ideas and engage with the world in new, previously unimagined ways.

TED breaks down traditional barriers to accessing information and has transformed the way that knowledge is disseminated. Widely available and free of cost online, these talks can be accessed by anyone regardless of geographic location. To promote global accessibility, a community of TED Translators volunteer to translate and subtitle these talks in up to 115 languages. The creative expansion in the form of TEDx, independently organized events hosted in a similar format to traditional TED conferences, has expanded the influence of these talks to cities around the world. As research has shown that accessible information and effective scientific communication is associated with greater public participation in policymaking, TED plays a large role in creating a more knowledgeable and engaged society.

With an early emphasis on technology and design, the 1984 inaugural TED conference was hosted in Monterey, California and featured one of the first presentations of Apple’s Macintosh computer. TED has since widely diversified its reach, often hosting speakers who are experts in almost all fields – from science to business to global issues. Featuring recipients of the Nobel, Fields, Pulitzer, Oscar, and Grammy awards, the TED stage has attracted some of the world’s best and brightest.

Since the first TED Talks were posted online and shared with the world in 2006, popularity of this initiative has soared to new heights. One of the earliest posted talks titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity” delivered by Sir Ken Robinson, remains the most watched TED Talk to date with over 74 million views. Robinson, previously a British Professor of Arts Education at the University of Warwick, proposed a carefully crafted case for an education system that cultivates creativity through acknowledging multiple types of intelligence. In equal parts entertaining and moving, this talk captured the interest and enthusiasm of a global audience.

What does the power of a successful scientific outreach initiative like TED do? It creates and empowers a community of people who are passionate about scientific discovery and the positive impact it can have on the world. Cultivating a culture of curiosity and innovation will be crucial for advancements in our understanding of the world while addressing the challenges society will face in years to come.


Sugimoto CR, Thelwall M, Larivière V, Tsou A, Mongeon P, et al. (2013) Scientists Popularizing Science: Characteristics and Impact of TED Talk Presenters. PLOS ONE 8(4): e62403.

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