The 20 All-Time Worst TED Talks

At $7,500 a ticket, high-minded TED Talks are a pretty expensive way to watch someone give a lecture about whatever into one of those headset mics that Britney Spears uses. Are they actually worth it? Here’s 20 that you should get your money back for. posted on

1. Jessi Arrington: Wearing nothing new

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Description: Designer Jessi Arrington packed nothing for TED but 7 pairs of undies, buying the rest of her clothes in thrift stores around LA. It’s a meditation on conscious consumption — wrapped in a rainbow of color and creativity.

Why it’s deplorable: “Hey millionaires - let me tell you about this CRAZY thing called a ‘thrift store’. You can buy — get this — used clothes! And they’re totally cheap. Who even knew?! Wait, poor people?”

2. JR: One year of turning the world inside out

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Description: Street artist JR made a wish in 2011: Join me in a worldwide photo project to show the world its true face. Now, a year after his TED Prize wish, he shows how giant posters of human faces, pasted in public, are connecting communities, making change, and turning the world inside out

Why it’s insufferable: The phrase “can art change the world?” is projected on the screen behind him within the first 30 seconds. This is the second most boring question about art after “what IS art?”

3. Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity

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Description: Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

Why your eyes will roll off the edge of planet Earth: It’s a talk by the author of Eat. Pray, Love about being a genius.

4. Paul Zak: Trust, morality — and oxytocin

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Description: What drives our desire to behave morally? Neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows why he believes oxytocin (he calls it “the moral molecule”) is responsible for trust, empathy and other feelings that help build a stable society.

Why it’s ridiculous: “[You need] eight hugs a day. You’ll be happier and the world will be a better place.” For those who prefer their hard neuroscience in greeting card platitudes.

5. David Perry: Are games better than life?

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Description: Game designer David Perry says tomorrow’s videogames will be more than mere fun to the next generation of gamers. They’ll be lush, complex, emotional experiences — more involving and meaningful to some than real life.

Why it’s ridiculous: Halfway through, a long film clip of a man caressing a tv set with voice-over about how he’s a videogame addict takes over.

6. Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity

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Description: Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

Why it’s lame: How about instead of school we just watch a bunch of TED talks?

7. Kate Hartman: The art of wearable communication

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Description: Artist Kate Hartman uses wearable electronics to explore how we communicate.

Why you might demand a refund for watching this free video: This lady designed a hat that lets you talk to yourself, in case you couldn’t do that without a hat.

8. Terry Moore: How to tie your shoes

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Description: Terry Moore found out he’d been tying his shoes the wrong way his whole life. In the spirit of TED, he takes the stage to share a better way.

Why it is terrible: Reminder: Seven thousand, five-hundred dollars and zero cents. That’s what each person paid to watch this.

9. James Randi’s fiery takedown of psychic fraud

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Description: Legendary skeptic James Randi takes a fatal dose of homeopathic sleeping pills onstage, kicking off a searing 18-minute indictment of irrational beliefs. He throws out a challenge to the world’s psychics: Prove what you do is real, and I’ll give you a million dollars. (No takers yet.)

Why it stinks: Hold on. You mean psychics aren’t real? Then why have I been paying that lady on the phone all that money?

10. James Burchfield plays (invisible) turntables

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Description: Human beatbox James “AudioPoet” Burchfield performs an intricate three-minute breakdown — sexy, propulsive hip-hop rhythms and turntable textures — all using only his voice.

Why it’s cringe-worthy: To be fair, this was in 2003, long before America’s Got Talent existed as a showcase for stupid human tricks like beatboxing. I feel confident that Howard Stern would give him the buzzer if this was today.

11. Thandie Newton: Embracing otherness, embracing myself

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Description: Actor Thandie Newton tells the story of finding her “otherness” — first, as a child growing up in two distinct cultures, and then as an actor playing with many different selves.

Why it’s bad: I don’t want to say that someone who is widely accepted as one of the most beautiful women in the world can’t feel “otherness”, but I’m not exactly sure she’s the ideal keynote speaker for the cause.

12. Colin Robertson: A TED speaker’s worst nightmare

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Description: Colin Robertson had 3 minutes on the TED stage to tell the world about his solar-powered crowdsourced health care solution. And then… Colin Robertson is apparently “attempting to make the world’s first crowdsourced solar energy solution” Or is he?

Why it’s ralph-worthy: Spoiler alert: this is a joke where he pretends his video presentation won’t load on the screen, then a bunch of dancers in rainbow unitards come out and dance poorly to bad music. This “joke” is about as funny as a wet fart.
Even the only possible group of people on earth who might find this funny — a TED talk audience — appear unamused.

13. Arthur Benjamin does “Mathemagic”

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Description: Mathematician and magician Arthur Benjamin combines his two passions in “Mathemagics,” a mind-boggling presentation of lightning calculations and other feats of mathematical agility.

Why it sucks: This is the only TED talk translated into Esperanto. Apparently it’s the TED talk of most potential interest to the world’s most famous two Esperanto speakers, William Shatner and George Soros.

14. Carl Honore praises slowness

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Description: Journalist Carl Honore believes the Western world’s emphasis on speed erodes health, productivity and quality of life. But there’s a backlash brewing, as everyday people start putting the brakes on their all-too-modern lives.

Why it sucks: Honestly, I was so distracted by the way the vest he’s wearing over his t-shirt was dangling precariously off his shoulder I couldn’t concentrate. Also, he took forever to get to his point, sheesh!

15. Shea Hembrey: How I became 100 artists

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Description: How do you stage an international art show with work from 100 different artists? If you’re Shea Hembrey, you invent all of the artists and artwork yourself — from large-scale outdoor installations to tiny paintings drawn with a single-haired brush.

Why it’s all wrong: Hembrey describes his litmus test for selecting art works for his show: whether or not he can explain the art to his grandmother in 5 minutes.

16. Onyx Ashanti: This is beatjazz

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Description: Musician and inventor Onyx Ashanti demonstrates “beatjazz” — his music created with two handheld controllers, an iPhone and a mouthpiece, and played with the entire body.

Why you’ll die watching this: This is another stupid-human-trick musician, exploiting our love of seeing iPhones used in weird ways. A disappointment to the esteemed name Ashanti.

17. Joe Smith: How to use a paper towel

Description: You use paper towels to dry your hands every day, but chances are, you’re doing it wrong. In this enlightening and funny short talk, Joe Smith reveals the trick to perfect paper towel technique.

Why it’s awful: SHAKE. FOLD. That’s it, for four minutes. Pretty sure he wastes like 12 paper towels in this demonstration, too.

18. David Blaine: How I held my breath for 17 min

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Description: In this highly personal talk from TEDMED, magician and stuntman David Blaine describes what it took to hold his breath underwater for 17 minutes — a world record (only two minutes shorter than this entire talk!) — and what his often death-defying work means to him. Warning: do NOT try this at home.

Why you’ll want to pass out: A 20-minute video to tell us how he held his breath for 17 — possibly an explanation as to why it feels like you’re watching this video in slow motion, 17 minutes of minimal oxygen to the brain.
This said, I’d happily watch Blaine talk for 20 minutes about his experience as a member of Leonard diCaprio’s famed “pussy posse” in the late ’90s.

19. Clifford Stoll on… everything

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Description: Clifford Stoll captivates his audience with a wildly energetic sprinkling of anecdotes, observations, asides — and even a science experiment. After all, by his own definition, he’s a scientist: “Once I do something, I want to do something else.”

Why it’s the best example of a bad TED talk: A stream of consciousness talk about EVERYTHING but also NOTHING.

20. Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world

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Description: Games like World of Warcraft give players the means to save worlds, and incentive to learn the habits of heroes. What if we could harness this gamer power to solve real-world problems? Jane McGonigal says we can, and explains how.

Why it’s wack: This intellectual discourse has real-life application: show it to your mom when you need to convince her you need to play Diablo III instead of coming to the dinner table.

21. BONUS GRIPE: By the way, the TED site itself is pretty broken:

Videos often have trouble loading, and when you browse for talks from older conferences, the pages look like this hot mess above.

Additional reporting by Allison McCann

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