TED is a global phenomenon. Known for its punchy sub-18-minute talks, high production values and big-picture ideas, it has come to be seen as the zenith of conference formats and public speaking.
The TED conferences themselves are exclusive events, costing as much as $10,000 per ticket. But their influence worldwide has been driven by the decision to make the talks available for free online, and by creating the TEDx series whereby independent organisers can create their own TED-branded event for local audiences.
From science and technology to philosophy and human rights, TED provides a platform for leading thinkers and activists to bring their ideas to a wider audience in the hope of shaping public discourse and driving positive change. And while TED has been criticised for being overly simplistic, it’s hard to deny the influence it has had on the public imagination worldwide.
Indeed, many speakers have been catapulted to global stardom through their TED talk, and ideas that might otherwise have been confined to niche domains have become mainstream.
We examined the data on the most searched-for TED speakers in five English-speaking countries, to see if there are any particular themes that appear to be chiming with the current zeitgeist and whether this varies by geographic region*.
TED speaker popularity by country
The most searched-for TED speaker in the US
Brené Brown is the most searched for speaker in the USA. A research professor at the University of Houston, Brown shot to fame when her talk on the power of vulnerability became a viral hit. Brown’s talk discusses human connection and how vulnerability is key to our understanding of humanity. She later returned to TED to speak about listening to shame. There was an average of 8,300 monthly searches for Brown over the period analysed.
|USA||Avg searches per month||Percentage|
The most searched-for TED speaker in the UK
In the UK, the most searched-for TED talk speaker is Carole Cadwalladr, who talked about her investigation into Facebook’s role in Brexit. The speech questions whether elections can still be free and fair in the age of social media, and what role Silicon Valley played in the UK’s 2016 referendum on its membership of the EU. There was an average of 700 monthly searches for Brown over the period analysed.
|UK||Avg searches per month||Percentage|
The most searched-for TED speaker in New Zealand
New Zealand viewers searched for Simon Sinek more than any other TED speaker during the period analysed, with an average of 80 monthly searches. Sinek is an American author and motivational speaker, and his talk on how great leaders inspire action was widely acclaimed and hugely popular. During the speech, Sinek seeks to learn lessons from the leadership styles of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Wright brothers, as well as global brands like Apple.
|New Zealand||Avg searches per month||Percentage|
In New Zealand, only a ‘top seven’ search list could be identified. This could be for a number of different reasons e.g. because it has a smaller population than the other countries analysed.
The most searched-for TED speaker in Australia
In Australia, the title of the most searched-for TED talk speaker goes, once again, to Simon Sinek with an average of 430 monthly searches. The runner-up was Brené Brown.
|Australia||Avg searches per month||Percentage|
The most searched-for TED speaker in Canada
Canadian viewers searched for the same top two TED speakers as those in Australia and New Zealand. Canada’s number one was again Simon Sinek. He had an average of 500 monthly searches during the analysed period. Sinek was closely followed by Brené Brown, whom Canadian users searched for an average of 470 times per month. Comedian Sam Hyde took the third spot in this region, with his prank talk. Canadian viewers searched for this talk an average of 310 times per month.
|USA||Avg searches per month||Percentage|
What does the data tell us?
- The popularity of TED speakers is fairly consistent across countries, with some regional variation
The data reveals consistency in TED speaker popularity across the countries analysed. Out of a possible 47 slots, only 21 different speakers appear, and three speakers (Brené Brown, Simon Sinek and Sam Hyde) appear on every list. Brené Brown is in the top three on every list, and Simon Sinek is in the top three on every list except the UK.
Only seven speakers appear just the one time. Four of these are on the UK list, making the list with the most unique TED speaker searches. The USA, New Zealand and Australia each have one unique speaker (Maisie Williams, Taika Waititi and Joe Dispenza respectively), while Canada is the only country with no unique speakers in its top 10 searches.
- Human psychology and wellbeing are popular themes
From our data, speakers who discuss human psychology and emotional wellbeing appear to be the most popular, with 13 of the 21 speakers (62%) discussing ideas including vulnerability, shame, fear, happiness, leadership, the mindset for success, motivation, mind control, neuroscience, love and creativity. This is true of the two speakers with the most combined searches across the countries – Brené Brown and Simon Sinek – and is consistent with data from elsewhere: to date there are over 3,500 different psychology-related talks available to view on TED’s website, and these themes also feature heavily in TED’s list of 25 most popular talks of all time.
Perhaps this is a reflection of an eternal desire to try and understand the human condition. Or perhaps it’s because people are seeking solace in a year of COVID-induced anxiety and fraught politics.
If you are suffering from the latter, hopefully the talks on this list will help you find positivity where others have found it too. And if you’re looking for some more inspiration, here are some of VBQ Speakers’ favourite TED talks examining similar themes:
- Controversy can be a driver of popularity
It seems that controversy and infamy can also be a driver of a TED speaker’s popularity. American comedian Sam Hyde, who delivered a prank TED talk on the ‘2070 paradigm shift’, is one of just three speakers to appear on every list, and is the fourth most-searched TED speaker when the lists are combined.
In 2014, Elizabeth Holmes delivered a TED talk about how her company, Theranos, was revolutionising healthcare. However, Theranos was closed down in 2018 amidst multiple accusations of bogus science and fraud. Elizabeth Holmes appears on the list for the USA, Australia and Canada and ranks 10th on the combined list.
Rupert Sheldrake appears on the UK’s list. His 2013 talk was published by TED with a cautionary note, as some of the company’s own scientific advisors were sceptical about its content. The talk argues that science has been based on ten “dogmas”, which have held back the pursuit of knowledge. While TED has shared the talk with a caution, it has also invited other professionals working on the subject to comment.
* All data was found using ahrefs to see the number of times ‘name + TED Talk’ and ‘ted talk + name’ has been searched on Youtube. These searches represent a rolling 12-month average.