3 things eLearning designers can learn from TED talks


I, like many others, love watching TED talks. One of my bucket list items is to attend a TED conference and listen to the talks.

The reason so many people enjoy these talks is not only because the speakers are inspirational thought leaders and industry celebrities, but also because they structure and deliver the TED talks in a very clever way. In fact, there are some scientific reasons why this format works so well.

I’ll touch on the three standout aspects of the TED talks I’ve watched and what makes them so effective. Then we'll take a look at what eLearning can borrow from the science behind TED talks.

Human brains are naturally hardwired to absorb information through stories. If you don’t believe me, a short Google search or an in-depth read of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall will back up my claim.

This is quite evident when you start watching TED talks, in particular, the really popular ones. The speakers share stories to not only make what they are saying more relatable but to also spark an emotional response within the audience.

Let's look at the most watched TED talk (and also one of my personal favorites).

At the beginning, Sir Ken Robinson tells a story about his 4 year old son and a particularly amusing situation that happened in a play and for the most part, the story seems maybe a bit removed from his topic: Do schools kill creativity? Then, with one sentence he sparks the ‘Aha!’ moment in the audience. They see the relevance of the story and he has their full attention. From that point on, I can relate to everything he has said.

The approach to effective eLearning is no different. The use of stories is not only effective in capturing the interest of the audience, but more importantly, making the information relatable and relevant.

Make an Impression

TED speakers know how to make an impression on their audience. Here is a talk that Bill Gates did in 2009, on the topic of Mosquitos, malaria and education.

During it, he announces that "Malaria is spread by mosquitoes" and immediately opens a jar full of mosquitoes. "I bought some here, I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected." Obviously, the mosquitoes are not infected and the audience is aware of this, so why did he do it? To make an impression on the audience.

Neuroscientists have a name for why that act would make an impression on people. It’s called an ‘emotionally charged event’, or as Camine Gallo coined it in his blog, your "brain’s natural save button."

The scientific basis for this is that a hormone is released during emotional arousal. It primes nerve cells to remember events by increasing their chemical sensitivity at sites where nerves rewire to form new memory circuits.

In a very laymen nutshell, this means that our brains remember emotional events far better than events that are less dramatic. It’s the reason you remember when little Suzy made you drop your ice cream when you were 7 years old, just like it was yesterday. It's also why everything you read in your run-of-the-mill compliance training last month is a distant memory.

The takeaway here for eLearning is that if you want your learners to actually remember what they learn, you need to make the content emotionally engaging. This neatly ties together with the point above about using stories. The story that Ken told about his son made an impression on me because it was funny and happy. Bill Gates made an impression when he released the mosquitoes.

If you want your learner to remember your messages you need to shock them with facts, tell them sad stories and amuse them with humour. Engage them with emotion!

Follow the 18-minute Rule

When I say ‘rule’, it’s more like the ‘Pirate Code’ in Pirates of the Caribbean. To quote Captain Barbossa, "the code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules."

Keep the content around 18 minutes. This is a rule that TED organisers try to enforce on their speakers, regardless of whether they are Bono, Bill Gates or Richard Branson.

So why 18-minutes? TED curator Chris Anderson explains:

"It’s long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline"

It’s particularly interesting that holding the audience’s attention is such a consideration, given that they are already interested in the content before they even they hit the ‘play’ button.

I also like how we talk about how forcing the speaker to cover 45 minutes of material in 18 makes them really think about the key point they want to communicate and being disciplined to do so.

From an eLearning perspective, there are two lessons we can learn from this.

Firstly, that we need to be mindful of keeping a course as short as possible. With eLearning, we usually have an audience that isn't intrinsically motivated to complete the learning. Instead, someone tells them they have to do it. The TED team feel it’s a challenge to hold the attention of their intrinsically motivated audience for longer than 18 minutes. To expect to hold an audience of learners' attention for 30 minutes or longer isn’t plausible.

The second lesson is about discipline to focus on the key message. This discipline is on the part of the Instructional Designer to focus what needs to be said. It's also on the client, who needs to resist the temptation to try fitting every single detail about a topic into a single eLearning course.

As you can see, great TED talks are not a fluke. There is a science to engaging your audience and making your message stick in their minds.

The same goes for eLearning. When you start to design your next eLearning solution, remember to use stories, make an impression and be concise. Apply these concepts correctly and you'll be on the right path to creating a purposeful and engaging experience for your learners.