Say what you will about meetings going virtual, but one unintended consequence has been the exalted status of the TED-style keynote. For planners, the benefits are several—marquee names can be booked without travel, hotel and F&B costs; these names can boost and broaden attendance, since no geographic barriers apply; and the TED standard of under 18 minutes works perfectly within the new normal of short-attention-span online formats.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of TED and TEDx speakers to choose from. How can planners separate the wheat from the chaff? What is it that makes the most popular speakers…popular?

To probe this very question, VBQ Speakers conducted research to uncover the most searched-for TED speakers in five English-speaking countries.

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What was discovered may surprise you. The most searched-for speakers weren’t the ones who tell us how to get rich or win in office politics. They weren’t any of the most bizarre, like the neuroscientist who choreographs a cockroach leg or the guy who details what happens when you donate your brain to science.

In fact, the most popular TED speakers share one trait—they speak to harnessing human spirit and emotion.

The research found that Brene Brown topped the list, with an average of just over 9,000 worldwide searches per month over the period analyzed. She was also the most searched-for in the United States. A research professor at University of Houston, Brown shot to fame when her talks on the power of courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy became viral hits.

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Her popularity was confirmed in another study of 2,550 TED talks published on the blog Towards Data Science by Tomer Eldor. He looked at variables such as the number of comments, number of languages translated, duration of the talk, number of tags, and day of the week it was published online, and compared these to the number of views. In his study, Brown was fourth most popular.

In the VBQ research, Simon Sinek was in second place. He was also the most searched-for speaker in New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Sinek, an American author and motivational speaker, talks about how great leaders inspire action—particularly through demonstrating empathy. He 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.

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Overall, according to VBQ, the 10 most popular TED speakers were:

  1. Brené Brown
  2. Simon Sinek
  3. Wren Weichman
  4. Sam Hyde
  5. Elizabeth Holmes
  6. Cole Bennett
  7. Sam Harris
  8. Shawn Achor
  9. Tim Ferriss
  10. Elon Musk

“Human psychology and emotional well-being appear to be the most popular topics,” said VBQ Speakers founder and director, Leo von Bülow-Quirk. “This is perhaps to be expected during a pandemic but could also be a reflection of our perennial desire to try and understand the human condition.

“Controversy and infamy also seem to attract audiences, as suggested by the popularity of Sam Hyde’s prank TED talk and that of Elizabeth Holmes, former founder of discredited health-tech firm, Theranos,” he continued.