TED: The banned talks and what we can learn from them
TED is the abbreviated form of Technology, Entertainment, Design. Founded in 1984, TED has hosted an annual conference for the past 30 years, and the vibrant video platform has an expansive reach, emphasized by its mission: “Ideas worth spreading.”
TED has become a powerhouse of intense, mind-blowing, and paradigm-shifting talks, all under 20 minutes in length.
While once confined to technology, education, and design, over the years the topics have expanded to include politics, entrepreneurship, cosmology, economics, neuroscience, human rights, art, space travel, physics, anthropology, and culture.
And with the rise of the internet, TED has become the gold standard, not only for how to run successful conferences but also how to engage audiences with impactful talks.
The proof is in the statistics.
There have been 4K videos posted to the official TED Talk channel, and nearly 140K videos posted under the TEDx umbrella (the “x” stands for independently organized.) The videos have had collectively 3.5 billion views (as of July 2019).
The world’s most popular TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do schools kill creativity?”, has had 58 million views on the TED site, and 17 million views on YouTube.
Getting on the main stage has become an aspiration for tens of thousands of speakers — and with reason. A viral talk can propel a speaker into book deals, grants, thousands of new followers, and a full calendar of bookings from around the world.
As more and more speakers flood the application process, and as TEDx conferences are more ubiquitous in almost every major city, multiple times a year, there have been a few key shifts, and critics have come out of the woodworks. Some nicknaming the TED Talk Conference “nerd Coachella,” one critiquing that it is an “elitist self-aggrandizement opportunity for gimmick-peddling narcissists.” Others feel that it is has become less a platform for innovative thinking and more a jumble of late-night infomercials and self-help seminars.
Even the model and style of the talks has become somewhat comical, triggering satirical takes on TED Talks, like this one:
But organizational politics and speaking styles aside, one of the major issues TED has had to contend with over the past 10 years is quality control.
No matter how you slice it, sifting through the millions of talks and ensuring the speaker’s content is legitimate, well-researched, and valuable isn’t an easy feat, and sometimes, talks slip through the cracks.
This article explores TED’s review process, what happens when a talk goes wrong, and what other speakers can learn about creating world-class talks.
How the review process works
TED has no formal bans on any topic. However, the TEDx event organizers are warned to stay away from talks that make unsupported claims about science and health. Examples would be perpetual motion and psychic healing.
TEDx's science guidelines clearly state that science and health information shared from the stage must be supported by peer-reviewed research.
Marks of good science:
It makes claims that can be tested and verified.
It has been published in a peer-reviewed, credible journal.
It is based on theories that are discussed and argued for by many experts in the field.
It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy.
Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and the need for further investigation.
It does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge.
The proposed speaker works for a university, or has a PhD or other bona fide high-level scientific qualification.
Marks of bad science:
Has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth.
Is not based on experiments that can be reproduced by others.
Contains experimental flaws or is based on data that does not convincingly corroborate the experimenter’s theoretical claims.
Comes from overconfident fringe experts.
Uses over-simplified interpretations of legitimate studies and may combine with imprecise, spiritual or new age vocabulary, to form new, completely untested hypotheses.
Speaks dismissively of mainstream science.
Includes some of the red flags listed in the sections below.
Red flag topics include:
“Healing,” including reiki, energy fields, alternative health and placebos, crystals, pyramid power.
“Free energy” and perpetual motion machines, alchemy, time travel.
“The neuroscience of [fill in the blank]”: For whatever reason, talks with this start to the title have attracted a lot of bogus speakers. The organizers have been set to high-alert for applications with this title.
The misuse of language about quantum physics. Quantum physics is certainly mysterious. Many other things are mysterious too. Some speakers can’t resist arguing that, somehow, quantum physics has proven the truth of their particular mystery. It’s bad logic and a big red flag.
However, it is up to the event organizer to carefully vet the speaker to ensure that their content and perspectives meet the needs of the audience.
Find out more about TED’s guidelines here.
Is the model rigorous enough?
The TEDx franchise model allows volunteer organizers to set up semi-sanctioned mini-TEDs wherever and whenever they want. This has provided a massive opportunity for speakers from around the world to share their ideas—there are roughly 400 TEDx events held a month globally.
However, the organization puts quality control solely in the hands of a diffuse network of unpaid enthusiasts—the local event organizers.
And while the official TED stage is meticulous, with teams of researchers to support the event organizers, when it comes to local TEDx events, quality depends on the event organizer in question.
Certainly, some less-than-stellar talks have made it to both stages, but there is a difference between a mediocre talk and one that is categorically bad.
For some examples of the talks that have been less successful, see BuzzFeed’s article “The 20 All-Time Worst TED Talks”, (Please note that the list is based on the opinions of the article’s author.)
But what about the categorically terrible talks?
The ones that were so off the mark, they had to be pulled by TED?
Why were they banned?
And what can we, as speakers, learn from them?
The banned talks
With over 4.5K events held every year in more than 100 countries, with dozens of speakers for each event, there are thousands of talks. Not all of the talks get filmed, and only a few will make it online. The review of the talk should happen before the speaker even gets on stage, but sometimes, inappropriate talks make it through.
If a questionable talks make it online, there are three ways it can be pulled:
The talk gets flagged by a viewer (or viewers). As soon as it is flagged, TED organizers will review the talk. The research will be checked, and if it is questionable, it will be reviewed by experts in the field.
The talk can also be pulled by the TED curators if they feel the content is questionable or inflammatory.
The speaker can ask for their talk to be pulled, which was the case when a very controversial talk was posted, and the speaker requested it to be removed because she had concerns about her own safety.
Occasionally, a suspect talk will be left online with a warning about the credibility of the content. Sometimes, TED uses controversial content to ignite a public debate so that the ideas can be clearly reviewed and both sides of the story can be heard.
Here are 5 talks which have been removed or slapped with a warning label, and what we can learn from them.
1. Graham Hancock
The War on Consciousness
Why it was banned
According to TED scientific advisors, the talk suggests a worldview in which the drug DMT can connect users directly to “seemingly intelligent entities which communicate with us telepathically.” Hancock described the transformative impact that ayahuasca (containing DMT) had on him and argued that responsible adult usage of such drugs was a fundamental right.
TED chose to censor Hancock's speech, apparently because of his endorsement of an illegal drug, removing the video from their channels.
The idea of uniting the human race is a good one. However, ayahuasca has been categorized as a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA, and is illegal in many countries, which makes promoting it as a world-wide cure dubious. While the speaker offers anecdotal evidence, it is combined with imprecise, spiritual or new age vocabulary, as well as untested speculation about the existence of higher-powers who wish to communicate with us.
What can we learn from this
Avoid promoting illegal activity.
For a legitimate, credible talk, it is not wise to promote the use of illegal drugs to the general public, even if you disagree that the drug should be illegal.
Avoid promoting a religious belief-system
Be careful when talking about spirituality.
While there are dozens of talks about various aspects of spirituality, religion, faith, and meditation, there is a difference between expressing a perspective and trying to persuade the audience of the correctness of a single religion, deity or belief system, whether through rhetoric or "scientific proof."
This is especially true of new age beliefs, including concepts such as quantum consciousness, Gaia theory, archaeoastronomy, and drug-induced spiritual epiphanies. Speakers can be honest about their beliefs, but should not use the stage to promote them.
2. Rupert Sheldrake
The Science Delusion
Why it was banned
The TED scientific advisors believe there is little evidence for some of Sheldrake’s more radical claims, such as his theory of morphic resonance, and the claim that the speed of light has been changing. They recommended that the talk should not be distributed without being framed with caution.
This particular talk has had a tumultuous path, going from being banned to being the centre of a large debate between the speaker and many leading experts, to being posted again but wrapped up in caution tape.
The talk was positioned to be controversial. Sheldrake suggests that modern science is based on ten dogmas and makes the case that none of them hold up to scrutiny. According to him, these dogmas — including, for example, that nature is mechanical and purposeless, that the laws and constants of nature are fixed, and that psychic phenomena like telepathy are impossible — have held back the pursuit of knowledge.
It is hard to prove such claims. Sheldrake’s intention was to get the audience to start to question ideas that might stunt scientific expansion and growth.
What can we learn from this
Avoid flying in the face of the existing body of scientific knowledge.
Putting aside the problem that dogma is not part of the scientific method, should dogmas, if found, be challenged? Absolutely, yes.
But this must be done with precision, caution, and most of all a scientific approach using data that convince other experts.
If you want to challenge dogmas, you have to do it the right way, and giving ten examples that are highly-debatable or not generally accepted by the scientific community will put your talk on rocky ground and can jeopardize your credibility.
3. Sarah Silverman
A new perspective on the number 3000
Why it was banned
The video was banned because Silverman upset audiences by joking about adopting a "retarded" child, in light of Sarah Palin's campaign against the word.
Here is the exact quote:
“The only problem with adopting a retarded child is that the retarded child, when you are 80 is well, still retarded and that she wouldn’t enjoy the freedoms of setting them free at age 18, so she was only going to adopt a retarded child with a terminal illness so it has an expiration date, because who would adopt a retarded child with a terminal illness? Well, someone who was awesome like her.”
While on the one hand, we know she is telling a joke, on the other, it is highly offensive and in bad taste.
The talk became more controversial when TED’s head curator Chris Anderson tweeted: “I know I shouldn’t say this about one of my own speakers, but I thought Sarah Silverman was god-awful.”
On the one hand, Silverman was invited to TED to do what she does—provide a humorous talk in her brand of comedy, which often addresses social taboos and controversial topics in a satirical, deadpan way.
But where do we draw the line? Is this humor or hate-speech? Are derogatory slurs ever ok, or is this excessive political correctness? Wasn’t Silverman just doing what she was invited to do? This is all debatable, but for the TED stage, and many reputable stages around the world, the joke was simply not acceptable.
What can we learn from this
Do not use derogatory slurs.
While there are no hard and fast rules about what language is ok and what is not ok for the TED stage, common-sense is essential. Look at the audience. Look at the purpose of the event.
Is making people laugh valuable? Of course. But using derogatory slurs that promote casual discrimination, flies in the face of the organization’s values, which is categorically a bad idea.
Use humor wisely.
Humor should be used as a way to illustrate your point, theme or story. Jokes should add insight, or add value to your point.
Customize your jokes to your audience. Not all humor is ubiquitous. What works with one demographic or culture may not work in another. The TED stage is not a nightclub or a late-night talk show. Use humor that is appropriate to the audience.
Always avoid offensive humor.
While this might seem obvious, an off-color joke can immediately sink your talk. It can isolate or offend audience members, and once you lose that credibility, it can be incredibly difficult to come back from.
Never use ethnic, racist, sexist, indecent or vulgar humor. Avoid black comedy, blue comedy, insult comedy, excessive sarcasm and cringe comedy like the plague. Keep it simple, funny and clean, and if you aren’t sure, run it past the organizer before getting on stage.
4. Nick Hanauer
Rich People Don’t Create Jobs
Why it was banned
Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, believed the talk to be too politically controversial. Aside from this, it is widely accepted that the talk was categorically mediocre.
Hanauer spends most of his time trying to explain why the rich don't create jobs. TED curator Chris Anderson explains why Hanauer's talk, despite tapping into some timely and pressing issues “...framed the issue in a way that was explicitly partisan. And it included a number of arguments that were unconvincing, even to those of us who supported his overall stance. The audience at TED who heard it live (and who are often accused of being overly enthusiastic about left-leaning ideas) gave it, on average, mediocre ratings.”
According to Anderson, when Hanauer found out his talk wasn't picked, he "hired a PR firm to promote the talk to MoveOn and others, and the PR firm warned us that unless we posted he would go to the press and accuse us of censoring him. We again declined, and this time I wrote him and tried gently to explain in detail why I thought his talk was flawed. So he forwarded portions of the private emails to a reporter and the National Journal duly bit on the story." Which created a large buzz around the talk, perhaps unjustifiably so.
What can we learn from this
Be careful how you talk about politics
Politics and policy are key parts of the global conversation and is a topic TED widely explores.
But this is not the place for partisan politics, nor for extremist or inflammatory positions.
Speakers need to focus on discussing concrete problems and solutions.
Not only was the talk out and out political, the curators also felt it was too heavy-handedly promoting the democratic party and was too partisan given the stark and inflammatory political divide in the United States.
Your key message should be covered in a non-contentious way that does not vilify a particular political party.
This should go without saying, but — avoid mediocrity
While this talk created a lot of controversy about censorship, a huge part of the reason this talk was never published is simply because it wasn’t very good.
If it had been a mind-blowing talk which inspired audiences, there is a chance that even though it was partisan, it still would have been published. But the combination of being mediocre plus having a heavy-handed political agenda meant it felt short of the standards TED is trying to maintain.
5. Randy Powell
Why it was banned
The reason this talk was pulled was because it lacked scientific validity. Criticism came from mathematicians and science writers as well as from threads on specialist science and math blogs and other online communities. The science simply wasn’t there to back up Powell’s claims.
The curators of TED watched the talk, sought further advice from experts, which caused many red flags to be raised. They asked Powell to defend his work, but he did not do so.
Powell stated that his brief onstage talk at TEDxCharlotte did not include complete data on his work. He agreed to share his data with TED, including a detailed 10-page paper, for a further independent review by a mathematician and possible replication of his experiments by a physicist. But then failed to send the paper or any other data.
The curation team agreed that the criticisms had merit and were serious enough to warrant removal of the talk from the TEDx official YouTube channel.
What can we learn from this
Ensure your data are credible
While it doesn’t need to be a mainstream idea, your data do have to convince other reputable scientists that they are factual and correct.
Never over-simplify or offer far-fetched interpretations of legitimate studies. Stick to the facts, and while your insights about the facts can be fascinating and helpful to the audience, they should be clear conclusions that come directly from the data.
If the study you are citing has experimental flaws or cannot be reproduced by other researchers, or the data do not convincingly corroborate the experimenter’s theoretical claims, it is not credible.
Provide irrefutable evidence
The nail in the coffin for Powell’s talk was the fact that he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) provide the complete data for his work. Without the actual data it is impossible to verify whether or not the work is credible.
If your data or sources come into question, it is best to give as much information as quickly as possible to the organizers. Delaying, resisting, or withholding your data will certainly raise a lot of red flags about your credibility.
Conclusion: What we can learn from banned TED Talks
There are a few lessons we can learn from TED Talks that have been pulled, including:
1. Avoid promoting illegal activity: For a legitimate, credible talk, it is not wise to promote the use of illegal activities (like drug use) to the general public, even if you disagree with it being illegal.
2. Avoid promoting a religious belief-system: Be careful when talking about spirituality. This is especially true of new age beliefs. Speakers can be honest about their beliefs, but should not use the stage to promote them.
3. Avoid flying in the face of the existing body of scientific knowledge: If you want to challenge accepted thought, you have to do it scientifically, otherwise, it can jeopardize your credibility.
4. Do not use derogatory slurs. Using derogatory slurs and promoting concepts that fly in the face of the values of the conference are, categorically, a bad idea.
5. Always avoid offensive humor: Never use ethnic, racist, sexist, indecent or vulgar humor. Avoid black comedy, blue comedy, insult comedy, excessive sarcasm and cringe comedy. Keep it simple, funny and clean. If you aren’t sure, run it past the organizer before getting on stage.
6. Be careful how you talk about politics: Your key message should be covered in a non-contentious way that does not vilify a particular political party.
7. Ensure your data are credible: Stick to the facts. Do not cite studies with experimental flaws or that cannot be reproduced by other researchers and does not have backing from other reputable scientists
8. Provide irrefutable evidence: Delaying, resisting or withholding your data will certainly raise a lot of red flags about your credibility.
While there are events where these guidelines might not apply (for example, if you are talking to a group of young missionaries, it will likely be encouraged to promote their particular religious belief-system,) however, if you are not 100% certain, the above are good guidelines to follow for most events.
Want to find out more about TED and getting on the TED stage?
As TED is such a powerhouse of great talks, this is a topic we explore again and again. We have a number of great articles and podcasts. If you are looking for more TED-related content, here are some suggestions:
7 Storytelling techniques used by the most inspiring TED presenters
World of Speakers Podcast:
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