Is it possible to predict which TEDx talks will go viral?

Alex merry speaker coach tedxclapham

Last week, I attended a special gathering of TEDx organisers from across the UK to discuss all things… well, TEDx talks and one of the questions that sparked the most¬†debate was whether it was possible to predict which¬†talks will go viral when they get released online. ¬†Many of those in attendance have been responsible for curating talks that have been seen by millions of people across the world, changing not just the lives of the speakers, but the reputations of the TEDx events they organise.

The answer to that question was unanimous¬†–¬†no it’s not (sorry).

However, having been lucky enough to be involved with some ‘viral’ (whatever that even means) talks myself, I do think it is possible to give them a helping hand.¬† So if that floats your boat, read on!

One of the most popular (and non-political) videos to go viral so far this year is actually from a well-known TED speaker, Simon Sinek. Not a speech as such, but an interview about how to keep millennials happy at work. ¬†The video has racked up 10’s of millions of views on Facebook alone; ironically¬†more than the talk that made him famous in the first place. ¬†Whether you agree with what he said or not is irrelevant, a 15-minute video to racking up as many hits as it did is rather impressive.

But here the thing, his¬†rant wasn’t some once in a lifetime stream of consciousness that just fell in place by accident. The content he shared in that interview has been practised, tweaked and refined over years and I know that because I heard those same¬†lines myself at a private book launch he did in¬†November and at other speaking engagements that have been put on YouTube.

And that’s no bad thing by the way.

The point is, creating world class content takes time and practice, just like all the best TED/TEDx talks that appear effortless upon delivery.*

For many, going viral is considered to be the pinnacle¬†of online achievement. The opportunity to have your content reach¬†millions of people can be¬†very¬†lucrative and¬†businesses put¬†serious time and money into creating media¬†that could gain traction, whilst many social media ‘experts’ try to come up with magic formulas¬†to make it happen.

One of the main¬†reasons giving a TED/TEDx talk has become such a bucket list item is because of the exposure their ‘idea worth sharing,’ could get (which has ironically resulted in us¬†TEDx organisers having not spend most of our¬†time weeding out those who want to speak for for personal gain). ¬†That said, while TED doesn’t¬†advertise it as such, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realise that it is a phenomenal brand builder (just ask Simon), not just because both brands are regarded highly¬†across the globe, but also because of the number of subscribers both channels have (over 12 million combined at the time of writing).¬†However, for anyone that is looking to deliver a speech (TED/TEDx or otherwise) that ultimately¬†results in a piece of media that ends up¬†online, know this!

Speaking on a platform that puts you in front of millions of subscribers¬†isn’t a shortcut to global exposure and a high view count,¬†nor does world class content or effortless¬†delivery.

One thing is for sure, writing a talk that is suitable for both an online and offline audience is a completely different ball game. Why? Because regardless of how big your live audience is, it will only ever be a fraction of what your online audience could be if you can manage to generate some traction online.  Let me explain.

When you’re speaking live, if the audience doesn’t want to watch¬†the rest of a¬†talk,¬†they will either play on their phone (and pretend they are ‘engaging’ on Twitter) or walk out of the room. At best they get away with it, at worst they are frowned upon, but basically, their¬†options are pretty limited. ¬†Meanwhile, an online audience is constantly being enticed away from your talk. ¬†The internet is a minefield of distraction. When we use social media; the chances are it’s on a commute, when you wake up, before you go to bed, hiding from your colleagues in the office toilets (guilty as charged). ¬†The point is, it’s normally while we’re doing something else. This means if you can’t capture the viewer instantly you will¬†loose them. How quickly is instantly? Well let me put it this way, YouTube gives advertisers 5 seconds to capture our attention before we have the option of¬†skipping it, so make your first few sentences punchy. If your talk can survive the first 30 seconds, it’s got a chance!

There is a well-known saying in business that turnover is vanity, profit is sanity and in the world of social media, the same goes for likes and sharing. We are far more likely to trust something (and more importantly in this context, give our time) if it comes recommended by a friend and the main reason we share something online is because it resonates with is.  So for that to happen you need two things, a) an online audience to share it to and b) the ability to articulate the problems they experience better than they can themselves; that way they will subconsciously associate you with the solution.**  Shares are the real social media currency so bare that in mind when you write your next online talk.

While going viral might be seen as the holy grail, it certainly isn’t the measure of a successful talk. ¬†I’ve witnessed plenty of speakers change lives whose talks have only been seen by a few thousand¬†people! Surely virality is relative to the number of people that the piece of media can reach directly.¬†i.e. sharing a talk to 1000 friends that¬†gets watched 100,000 times, it’s far more impressive¬†than sharing a video to 1,000,000 subscribers that¬†gets watched 5 million times. ¬†Just to add to the mess, apparently, the optimum length for an online video is 2 minutes 54 seconds (or at least was…that has bound to have changed since Facebook stepped up¬†their video game).*** ¬†Now I’m all for cutting out waffle, but that’s below TED’s shortest ever talk! So as far as I’m concerned a speech is incomparable an ultimate fail compilation. ¬†If you’re going to measure it at all, do it based on your audience and view count!

Now, I mentioned that there are¬†things you can¬†do to increase the likelihood of your talk going viral.¬†I’ve narrowed it down to 3 factors, and as much as it pains me to say it none of them are¬†down to the quality of your speech’s content. Here they are (not in order of importance):

  • Topic
    Social media is all about being on trend. ¬†If you can give a talk about a topic that is already producing a lot of content online, you can add to the conversation. (It’s amazing how many political commentators are cropping up and making their opinions heard at the moment isn’t it?!)
  • Timing
    Many talks in the TEDx world go viral seemingly out of absolutely nowhere, months and sometimes years after being posted online. In fact, Malcolm London, a spoken-word poet who has seen a number of his videos go viral attended our TEDx organiser gathering said that timing the release of your video can play a major part in a talk gaining traction.
  • Audience
    Contrary to belief, sharing your talk with your own network isn’t the most effective way of gaining traction online. Get your talk in front of influencers that actively engage with your subject matter. ¬†That was how Roger Frampton, a model and movement coach from London ended up with one of the most-watched TEDx talks of 2016.
  • Luck
    Arguably the most important ingredient of all and don’t just take my word for it; take Simon Sinek’s! ¬†In an interview he did on London Real last year he said ‘I’m under no illusions, I was very lucky as to the timing… If I had done my talk today, there is no way that my talk would have gained the popularity that it did.’ ****

So there you have it, now you know that chasing virality is almost completely out of your control, get back to writing and delivering talks of substance that create change for the better.

For those of you who are looking to use public speaking to establish your reputation as a leader in your field, click here to find out how you can land your first speaking gig in an hour.

*If you want to speak on a global stage like TED or TEDx, as organisers we don’t care about your delivery (that can be worked on), we care about your idea worth sharing.

**One thing I feel I must mention at this point is that so many are guilty of sharing their talk repeatedly in the hope that it¬†will suddenly take off and go viral. If you’ve got an active audience and it hasn’t gone anywhere, don’t keep sharing it!¬†That is the most effective way to lose followers quickly. ¬†You’re far better off sending your talk to other influencers in your field (privately) that have the same audience as you and asking them to share it if it resonates. ¬†That way you won’t come across like an egotistic, narcissistic knob (there, I said it!).


**** 13 minutes in –¬†



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