With so many TED talks out there, it’s certainly a challenge to narrow down the top five. What may be appealing to me may be appalling to you. But there are those that have been viewed over and over again and are well-loved for various reasons. Below is a list of the five most popular talks and why they are perceived as the best of the best:
#5: “How I harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba
This six minute presentation documents how at 16, William harnessed his motivation and dedication into creating a life-saving energy source. A native of Malawi, William’s imperfect English didn’t stop him from delivering an enthusiastic presentation on how he built a windmill using junk materials to save his family from famine and starvation. What he lacks in English, he makes up for in images of what he utilized to harness the power of the wind.
Despite the somber story of his life, William managed to add humor to invigorate his presentation. William brilliantly ends his brief but concise presentation with an inspirational message to those who are in a similar situation as he was.
#4: “18 Minutes of an Agile Mind” by Clifford Stoll
You’d expect a highly scientific presentation from someone like Clifford Stoll, who is an astronomer by profession. On the contrary, Stoll begins his presentation by blatantly dismissing topics he knows will be boring for the audience then gradually builds his presentation based on these topics.
He is a quirky and highly upbeat speaker who displays bold gestures and seamlessly shifts from one topic to the next. But as mentioned at the beginning, Stoll doesn’t “talk” about them; he shares anecdotes, observations, data, and even simple-to-understand experiments about his topics to captivate the audience. To some extent, he reminds me of a stand-up comedian who can present anything under the sun—from science and the future to kindergarten teachers and wine bottles.
Indeed, Stoll’s presentation is a testament to his earlier statement that as a scientist, once he does something, he wants to do something else. His message about what the truth is really all about serves as a perfect ending to this unique presentation.
#3: “The Riddle of Experience versus Memory” by Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman’s presentation touches on a popular topic that people both love to attain and hear about: happiness. Daniel adds to the appeal by attempting to “objectify” an extremely subjective topic. This may sound easy to an author who has the liberty to explain this concept in a 200 page book, but it is a bit more difficult to expound on in a 20-minute presentation.
Yet Daniel manages to do so, citing specific examples to help the audience understand the difference between being happy with your life and being happy about your life. He employs visual aids to simplify his theory about the “experiencing self” versus the “remembering self,” which have differing definitions of happiness. He takes this a step further by demonstrating how clinical tests can actually modify one’s perceptions about happiness. Although he concludes his talk by stating that it’s truly difficult to think about well-being, it’s a kind of a “feel good” presentation that leaves you thinking and well, happier.
#2: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (about TED Talks)” by Sebastian Wernicke
What makes this presentation one-of-a-kind is that it’s not just any TED talk but a talk about TED talks. If there’s a “father” of TED talks, this has got to be it because of the way Sebastian humorously looks at what makes or breaks a TED talk in terms of topic, delivery, and visuals. No wonder this is ranked the #1 most popular TED talk on Google.
It’s a witty presentation that lives by what it presents by examining a topic that any TED audience can easily connect with: incorporating basic tables and charts to help the audience grasp statistical data and employing power words which are often a mark of successful TED talks, “et cetera, et cetera.”
Because of the clever manner in which Sebastian infuses humor, interesting tidbits, and analyzes his own TED presentation, you’ll find it hard not to be entertained throughout this less than six minute talk. In fact, the length of the presentation ironically reinforces his own rule that in order to deliver a good TED presentation, you should talk as long (or in this case as little) as you like. And like many effective TED talks, he ends his presentation with a call to action by inviting listeners to use his own TED tool: the tedPAD.
#1: “The Power of Introverts” by Susan Cain
Even before you listen to this presentation, you can instinctively note the irony of the topic with the medium (TED). It’s easy to assume that someone who is outgoing and extroverted is behind a successful TED talk, but through her brilliant TED presentation, Susan Cain proves that she, like all other introverts, can deliver a powerful talk on the wrongful biases against introverts. Hers is clearly an example of “walking the talk.”
Cain’s belief that there is a significant loss of creativity due to the constraints institutions put on individuals’ introverted side is similar to the subject of another TED talk: “Schools Kill Creativity,” by Ted Robinson, which to-date is the most viewed on the TED website.
That she assumes a confident stance throughout her presentation, speaks eloquently and clearly, and keeps the audience interested with a bit of humor proves her point: introverts are not necessarily hermits nor are destined to fail as leaders, as society perceives.
Cain’s analysis is well-developed and her persuasive ideas demonstrate that even if public speaking is not her forte, as with many other introverts, it can be cultivated by balancing the two personality types. She admits to practicing more than a few times beforehand, which is probably why the end result seems quite natural.
She convincingly ends her talk with a call to give more freedom to introverts. And indeed, her presentation is a living example of introverts achieving their full potential, including delivering one of the best TED talks of all time.
There are undoubtedly other impressive TED talks you can think of. Despite the immense variety of topics and presenters, for the most part, they share the common characteristics stated on the TED site itself: inspirational, funny, ingenuous, persuasive, and fascinating.
What are your personal favorite TED talks? Let us know in the comments below.