Are there legendary TED Talks you’ve heard people discussing for years and never got round to watching yourself? Now’s your moment.

Technology. Entertainment. Design. Those are the trio of words that the TED acronym is constructed from. Since these now legendary lectures – or rather short talks, since they are almost always under 20 minutes – began in 1984, they have inspired, enthralled and intrigued millions of people across the world. Why? Because they offer illuminating and frequently surprising insights from a myriad of minds across diverse worlds (science, business, psychology, fashion, sport, education to name but a few).

It is the stuff that, traditionally, you’d have to be at a world-leading university, or at least in some position of privilege, to hear, and yet its archive of thousands of talks is free, no matter where in the world you are. Being able to hear a lecture on, say, Why The Pencil is Perfect or The Strange Politics of Disgust while we do the ironing/ some doodling/ cook dinner/ lie in bed is the stuff the Internet was made for. Here are a few of our favourites, although we must caveat that by saying that we could have gone on and on forever. The beauty? Find one you like, and it will inevitably lead to another. A perfect way to improve our understanding of the world, each other and ourselves while shut away in our homes.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

By Sir Ken Robinson (19 mins)

We couldn’t kick off this must-watch list with anything other than Sir Ken Robinson’s brilliantly engaging and thought-provoking talk on schools and their malign influence on creativity. It is, after all, the most watched TED Talk ever with some 64,805,600 views.

Sir Ken begins in disarmingly self-deprecating style, but moves quickly and with devastating clarity into why school is disastrous for creativity. He says, ‘My contention is that all children have talents and we squander them pretty ruthlessly…. My contention is that creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.’

He has the timing and wit of a seasoned comedian, but then, as Oscar Wilde once quipped, ‘Life is too much important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.’ So is the case here. He discusses how, as children, we are prepared to have a go, to be wrong and yet, as adults most of us have lost that capacity, and thus will struggle to come up with anything original. In society, he says, ‘we stigmatise mistakes’ and that we get ‘educated out of creativity.’ He asks how this came to be, how we can change – and gives some serious belly laughs along the way.

How To Speak So That People Want To Listen

Julian Treasure (9 mins)

Julian Treasure studies sound and advises businesses on how to use it. In this illuminating talk, he runs through a list of reasons why, when you talk, the things you say may not cut through or sit well with your listeners. His seven deadly sins of speaking include gossip and speaking ill of others; judging; negativity; complaining (‘viral misery’ as he puts it); excuses; embroidery and exaggeration which, as he says, demeans our language (‘if I see something that actually is awesome, what do I call it?’); lying; and finally dogmatism – the confusion of fact with opinion. However this talk isn’t just a laundry list of the things we get wrong when we speak; he goes on to shine a light on the four cornerstones for communicating more powerfully to make change in the world. The answer? Honesty. Authenticity. Integrity. Love. Do watch to find out more.

Strange Answers To the Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson (18 mins)

Jon Ronson literally wrote the book on psychopathy. Here, the author of the Psychopath Test illuminates the grey areas that exist between sanity at the one end, and being a psychopath at the other. He recounts his visit to Chainsaw Al Dunlap’s Florida mansion, in which he gamely suggested to the ruthless 1990s asset-stripper that there could be a chance of his being a psychopath (it goes, um, interestingly). And he talks of his visits to a man in Broadmoor who claimed to have faked madness rather too well in order to be granted a softer alternative to the medium term prison sentence he was facing; he ended up with a longer one in the infamous and far-from gentle high-security psychiatric hospital. But he also turns the spotlight inward, asking, whether, in common with all journalists, plucking out and stitching together the most extreme aspects of a subject’s personality, leaving the ‘normal’ on the edit room floor, he – and really all of us – might not be just a little… psychopathic?

The Power Of Vulnerability

By Brené Brown (20 mins)

Brené Brown is a professor, author and podcast host who has conducted extensive research into vulnerability. This, she says, in a nutshell, is what she realised about shame at the outset of her six-years’ worth of focus groups and interviews – and, indeed, at the beginning of a deep dive into issues surrounding her own vulnerability. ‘It's universal; we all have it. The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this ‘I'm not good enough,’ which, we all know that feeling – ‘I'm not blank enough. I'm not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough’? The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.’ This is a truly fascinating, compassionate talk that anyone struggling – and certainly anyone bringing a child into the world – should watch.

Looks Aren’t Everything. Believe Me, I’m A Model

Cameron Russell (9 mins)

Cameron Russell won the genetic lottery of life. She is tall, slender, white and pretty – and was an underwear model for ten years. In this TED talk she unpacks why she is walking proof that having thinner thighs and glossier hair is no ticket to happiness, and how, as a beneficiary of that genetic lottery, she is uncomfortably aware of how others have had to pick up the bill, precisely by not looking the way that society approves of. Candid and thought-provoking.

How To Spot A Liar

Pamela Meyer (18 mins)

Think you know how to spot a liar? Fidgety? Stumbling over words? Avoiding eye contact? Well think again. Pamela Meyer, an author and certified fraud examiner, tells us that liars will typically use formal rather than informal language; freeze their upper bodies; and make a little more eye contact than is comfortable. And yet as she tells the audience in her opening gambit: we are all liars, every last one of us. Not only that, but we are also lied to daily. Sometimes hundreds of times.

This engaging talk delves into why lying is part of the human condition, and how we may sniff out a person who is less than honest (or at least even less honest than the rest of us commonplace liars). This is emphatically not a talk about snitching. Instead it looks at how the lie is a collaborative act. She uses the example of con man Henry Oberlander, who once said. ‘Look, everyone is willing to give you something. They're ready to give you something for whatever it is they're hungry for.’ And that, says Meyer, is the crux of it. ‘If you don't want to be deceived, you have to know, what is it that you're hungry for?’

Behind The Lies Of Holocaust Denial

Deborah Lipstadt (15 mins)

Deborah Lipstadt laughed when she first heard the term ‘Holocaust denier.’ As she says, the victims, the bystanders and the perpetrators, all of whom admitted if not their own culpability then at least that it happened, would have to be wrong. ‘The Holocaust,’ she notes, ‘has the dubious distinction of being the best-documented genocide in the world? Who could believe it didn't happen?’

Years later, she was asked by two senior scholars to conduct some research into Holocaust denial. Flabbergasted, she nonetheless accepted, upon which her studies taught her an important distinction as applicable to the ‘revisionist’ historians that she met. ‘Many of us have been taught to think there are facts and there are opinions – after studying deniers, I think differently. There are facts, there are opinions, and there are lies. And what deniers want to do is take their lies, dress them up as opinions.’

The story that follows became the subject of a movie, Denial, in which Holocaust denier David Irving – a man who once asked a survivor how much money they’d made out of having a number tattooed on their arm – attempted to sue Deborah for labelling him as such.

Crucially, her point applies to what is happening in the world today. She tells the audience – and us at home – ‘When someone makes an outrageous claim, even though they may hold one of the highest offices in the land, if not the world – we must say to them, ‘Where's the proof? Where's the evidence?’ We must hold their feet to the fire. We must not treat it as if their lies are the same as the facts... Truth is not relative. The Earth is not flat. The climate is changing. Elvis is not alive.’ Amen to that.

What Makes A Good Life

Robert Waldinger (12 mins)

Robert Waldinger is the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a 75-year study into true happiness. As such, he is unusually well-placed to answer the question as to what makes a good life (by which we mean a happy and fulfilled one). Not a bad thing to pick up tips for in under a quarter of an hour, eh? A clue, it has nothing to do with how hard we work, what we look like, how much money we earn, whether our houses look like they could feature in a magazine, or even medical markers such as cholesterol levels. Instead, it has everything to do with feeling connected. And it has everything to do with good relationships. Watch him talk to hear the very moving discoveries the study has made.

I Grew Up In the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s Why I Left

Megan Phelps-Roper (15 mins)

Ever see that Louis Theroux documentary where members of America’s most controversial church specialise in demonising gay people, and picketing funerals while chanting offensive slogans to mourners? Megan Phelps-Rogers grew up in that church, a place where ‘life was framed as an epic spiritual battle between good and evil.’ This is her account of how and why she left, and of how suddenly seeing the ‘enemy’ – in her case a Jewish man she’d sparred (albeit civilly) with on Twitter – as a human being, rather than as a symbol of something she stood against, began her journey out.

When Online Shaming Goes Too Far

Jon Ronson (17 mins)

This fascinating talk explores how Twitter is, at one end of the spectrum, a democratic place where all voices can be heard, and at the other, encourages, thrives on and makes money out of a baying mob mentality. Here, Jon Ronson recounts the horrifying story of one woman whose life and career were ruined because of a single, solitary, slightly ill-judged and later misinterpreted, tweet. Sobering.

By Nancy Alsop
April 2020


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Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.