Why do some TED Talks go viral? It's all about the speaker

April 16, 2021
New research shows a strong link between the language used and the popularity of certain TED Talks. (Unsplash/Melyna Valle)

New research shows a strong link between the language used and the popularity of certain TED Talks. (Unsplash/Melyna Valle)

New research on thousands of TED Talks shows that people who speak with more "I" statements, positive emotion words like "love" and social words like "mate" get higher view counts and are seen as more popular and authentic.

The study, published March 29 in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, analyzed 1,866 transcripts from nearly 11 years of talks. Researchers discovered that the speaker's language style and status affected the popularity of the video and the ratings from viewers.

TED, short for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, has captivated billions of viewers since 1984. Its talks share "ideas worth spreading" in just 18 minutes or less, and past speakers range from indie musicians to Nobel Prize winners. The videos receive 1.5 million collective views every day, and their popularity is still growing fast. In early 2017, the most-viewed TED Talk, titled "Do schools kill creativity?" had 43 million views. Just four years later, the same video had over 70 million views.

"But the question of what makes some talks more popular than others has received surprisingly little attention," said Kate MacKrill, senior author of the study and a doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland. MacKrill herself is drawn to TED Talks that are educational but also humorous. "I like having a laugh, and if I can do that while also learning something new, then that's perfect," she told The Academic Times.

Previous research looked into the relationship between a talk's popularity and the speaker's gender, age or a variety of other factors. One study found that viewers were more likely to rate TED Talks as fascinating when the word "brain" was included in the title, while another study found that talks focused on STEM had more likes on YouTube than videos about art. This particular study, however, is the first to examine the speaking style of the presenters and how the language of academic versus nonacademic speakers influences the talk's popularity. 

TED Talks are ideal for a language study, since over 1,800 TED speakers have been viewed by the public. The researchers note that it is "unusual to have a database that allows the same stimulus, in terms of a talk, to be rated by so many individuals."

MacKrill and her team reviewed talks from 2006 — when the videos were first posted online — until 2017, when TED removed a key feature of online ratings. Until that time, the TED website collected data on viewers' emotions with rating labels such as "fascinating," "funny" and "obnoxious." These labels provided the researchers with a second form of popularity that was not solely based on the number of views.

The researchers categorized each word in the talks using a text program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, which was developed by one of the study's co-authors, James W. Pennebaker. This tool is commonly used in psychology to study language markers, such as the words "I," "we" and "but." MacKrill explained that "all those seemingly invisible connecting words actually tell us the most about someone's personality … the different ways they're used provide insight into how a person thinks and whether they're lying or telling the truth." For example, speakers who use "I" frequently are perceived as more authentic, and their talks are viewed more.

The researchers found that speakers with an analytic language style were less popular, while an authentic style of speech and positive words led to more views. Viewers were drawn to authentic language that is personal and vulnerable instead of analytic language that is formal and logical. This aligns with how TED Talks are presented: The format is "highly narrative … and designed to convey emotion," according to the study. 

MacKrill and her colleagues were surprised to find that analytic language had no effect when the talk was from an academic speaker. "This suggests that there is something else about academics that also influences the popularity of their talks — perhaps trustworthiness," she said. Additionally, although academics delivered just 27.4% of talks in this study, the four most popular TED Talks of all time are from academic speakers. "The TED platform … has turned relatively unknown academics into internet celebrities," and their ties to higher education are part of the reason, the authors explained. 

Academic speakers tended to use more words in their narratives, with an average of 13% more terms per presentation, which were also rated as more fascinating and persuasive. In addition, they spoke with more clout, "a confident or dominant language style that shows the person has a greater sense of status," MacKrill explained. And they used more social words. "It might seem counterintuitive that someone with a higher social status would use 'we' more," she said, but the royal "we" reflects the speaker's focus on a group to motivate others to take action. "They may be employing the 'royal we' as in 'we must get this job done,' but in reality, this means 'you, but not I, must get this job done,'" MacKrill added.

Speech isn't important just in academia. If a person in any field knows "what response they're trying to elicit from an audience when they deliver a presentation," they can tailor their language to achieve the desired effect, MacKrill said. Any communicator can convey their messages with a greater impact if they understand language markers. One example is a politician using positive emotion and social words to inspire an audience to act.

MacKrill believes further research is needed on how the language style of speakers is influenced by their nationality, especially if the talk was translated into English. Patterns of linguistic markers may be different in other languages that are more collectivist, as "English is spoken in largely individualistic societies where greater use of 'I' corresponds to more 'authenticity,'" MacKrill said.

Looking ahead, the authors plan to examine language in songwriting. Two of the co-authors previously researched how lyrical styles in popular music change over time, including through a mathematical analysis of songs by the Beatles.

The study, "What makes an idea worth spreading? Language markers of popularity in TED talks by academics and other speakers," published March 29 in The Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, was authored by Kate MacKrill, Connor Silvester, and Keith J. Petrie, University of Auckland; and James W. Pennebaker, University of Texas at Austin.

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