TED talks – form, content and role of ideas

Ideas worth spreading is the motto behind TED talks. Last week I focused on understanding a bit better how you prepare such a talk, and got insights into some of the implied rules as well as what makes some of the talks special. My goal with this text is to share some insights – as well as of course links – to some of my favourite talks which can hopefully inspire you.


First thing that is to be observed in preparing a TED talk is how crucial form is to successfully delivering an idea. As much as it all starts with the idea to be shared, official TED events observe a set of principles, including the following: don’t pitch or ask anything from the audience, they have to make it all about giving the their idea, as a gift if you will; make it relatable, well explained and useful to the audience.

Some of the techniques to achieve a good talk involve prompting the audience to relate with the speaker, telling compelling stories, explaining concepts and building the idea piece by piece, among others. At the same time, there is room for speakers to adapt the TED talk to their own style. Some will read or at least guide themselves from a piece of paper, others resource a lot on audio-visual material, but ultimately what makes them memorable are often the content that they effectively deliver.

The Idea behind each talk

Ideally, each talk must communicate a single, clear and strong idea. Sure, some take a long and tortuous path to actually get to the point, while others leave you with an awe feeling. In my experience, a good number of them manage to give very interesting perspectives and competently illustrate their point.

The different TED talks are as broad as to include artistic performances, different types of scientific conclusions or arguments, as well as entrepreneurs, politicians and authors from all sorts of backgrounds, as well as personalities from different fields. Some of those fields of expertise are exemplified on the links to the following selection of talks, many of them in Finance.

What role do ideas actually play?

Before jumping into the talks themselves, the bigger discussion around TED talks is: what are ideas capable of? Skeptics will surely doubt that there is almost any value in the idea, when there are enormous efforts in actually getting from the idea to concrete action.

As an optimist, however, I have to disagree. As limited as pure ideas might be, but we need to look beyond them. When well argued, the most inappropriate or untimely of ideas will seem compelling, which underlines the potential that they carry. When translated into concrete action, there is an additional reality-test to the idea, and simultaneously to its implementation. Personally, I find it difficult to picture any meaningful action without at least inspiration from good ideas. Now, of course they can be distorted and misused, but one can also look at this phenomenon as a unique interpretation of diverging ideas whilst implementing them, rather than refute that ideas matter.

Some of the TED talks I reference below have had concrete impact on me, if nothing else by inspiration.

Selection of inspiring talks

Blockchain / Bitcoin:

  • Paul Kemp-Robertson addressing Bitcoin and the future of branded currency. In this amusing talk, the speaker goes from the best performing currency in the world to how brand-trust is meaningful;
  • Don Tapscott and Bettina Warbourg on how the blockchain will radically transform the economy. Enjoyable and clear explanations of how this new technology derives from long-term human aspirations of reducing uncertainty while enabling a range of new secure transactions and record-keeping. Also go through why you should care about blockchain;

The role of the state

  • Mariana Mazzucato and the role of the state in innovation. With her dynamic style, she explains how important the public sector is for innovation. When I was working for BNDES (Brazilian Development Bank), there was significant agreement between developmentalists and dr. Mazzucato, so much so that we even organised an event jointly;
  • Yanis Varoufakis with his warning that capitalism will eat democracy. Dividing humanity’s future prospects between an utopia and a dystopia, he is entertaining and provocative. As much as I empathise with his compassion,, I strongly disagree with two of his points: 1- blaming savers automatically for lack of investment, rather than seeing it as a joint problem; and 2- I wonder who would make the necessary early investing in productive companies in his worker-as-shareholder concept;

Other interesting talks

  • Rachel Botsman argues we’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers. She interestingly describes how trust has evolved in its importance to the economy. From there, the speaker describes how trust shapes new services and change lives – especially on peer-to-peer platforms;
  • Robert Kiyosaki about why the rich are getting richer. In this independently organised TEDx, the author of Rich Dad Poor Dad shares his views on wealth and talks about his work. He probably isn’t among the most polished speakers on TED – getting a grip on his self-promotion for instance would help – but he definitely has intsightful ideas;
  • Salman Khan on teaching for mastery, not for test results. Stepping out of the finance world, this speaker brings insight into some of the problems with current educational practices. He also proposes meaningful changes, which would be both inclusive and far-reaching, even if its implementation depends on technology.
  • Jill Bolte Taylor describes her stroke (of insight). To wrap up the list, I include this top-viewed TED talk mainly because I find it – and our brains the way she describes them – incredible.


Entrepreneurs need to pitch their ideas regularly to push their businesses forward. Looking at how TED talks work can provide powerful tools to communicate with an audience, even if they are fundamentally different in structure and format from a business pitch.

Hopefully this is an additional information channel that can be helpful to you. Get in touch if this prompts any thoughts for you, I would be keen to know what you think.

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