The official TED website includes a list of the top 25 most-watched TED Talks of all time. 

The playlist runs seven hours. The transcripts are a combined 70,000 words. That's like a 200-page book.

Still, I wondered if analyzing all of the language across all 25 talks might yield some takeaways. With 679 million total views, even though they're about different subjects, what makes these TED Talks so popular? Would anything jump out?

So, I did it. I took an hour or so. I copied and pasted. I ran the entire combined transcript through a word cloud generator. And sure enough, a single word popped out at the top -- bringing with it a clear and important lesson.

'Laughter'

None of us has anywhere near enough time to read and watch all the things we want to. So I've been exploring this idea lately: can we find innovative ways to summarize, analyze and learn?

For example, I analyzed the full text of all of Jeff Bezos's annual shareholder letters: 44,000 words in total. The insights were wild, starting with the most commonly occurring word across all the letters: "customer," which appeared 443 times.

Compare that to "competitor," which appeared only 28 times, and you have an interesting insight into Bezos's central strategy of focusing on customer experience, rather than competitor actions.

So would there be an equivalent of "customer" when it comes to TED talks? A single word that tells a much bigger story? It turns out that there is, and when I saw it at the top of the "most often occurring list" I immediately realized the importance.

That word is: "Laughter."

Even more striking than the frequency of "laughter" is the odd fact that none of the speakers actually ever says the word. Instead, it's inserted into the transcript every time the audiences chuckled or laughed, with parenthesis around it, like this: "(Laughter.)"

Across 25 talks, there are 380 instances of laughter, which works out .948 per minute -- just shy of "a laugh a minute." But then I realized something else.

Applause(?)

Look, a lot of TED Talks are amusing and even interesting, but they're not uproariously funny. (One exception is the #5 TED talk on the list, Mary Roach's, "10 Things You Didn't Know About Orgasm." How could it not be?)

Often as not, the audience "laughter" in the combined transcript seems more like the audience communicating with the speaker -- when things are funny, sure, but also just to express agreement, or out of politeness.

It's related to "applause," which appeared 95 times throughout the transcripts. Combine both words, and we reach an average of 1.2 verbal audience reactions per minute.

Of course, there's also a third, very common way that speakers keep prompting audience engagement: by asking questions. So next, I counted the question marks. There were 579 total.

That's compared to 3,910 periods used to end sentences, which means that fully 15 percent of the time, the speakers weren't giving information. Instead, they were inviting the audiences to ponder a question, and stay engaged.

The power of engagement

Here's my big takeaway, which I think has implications for anyone called on to give a speech or presentation.

Calling these super-popular TED Talks "talks," is a bit of a misnomer. They're more like a guided conversations, with the speakers giving the audience prompt after prompt after prompt -- practically begging and cajoling them in fact -- to stay engaged.

Combine my admittedly unusual metrics, and you find that there are a total of 1,061 instances across 25 talks during which the speaker either asks the audience a question or delivers a line inducing either laughter or applause. That works out to about once every 21 seconds.

No matter what they're talking about -- from Pamela Meyer's "How to Spot a Liar," to Amy Cuddy's, "Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are," to Elizabeth Gilbert's, "Your Elusive Creative Genius" -- they keep doing the same thing: prompting the audience to engage, over and over and over.

Think of that the next time you sit through a not-so-great presentation, or you have to prepare and give a talk yourself. The secret isn't just to share information, it's to prompt engagement -- and to keep doing it the whole time you're up there.

Because anybody can give a talk. It's another level entirely to lead an engaged conversation.

Published on: May 16, 2019
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