Looking for writing inspiration?
As a wise man once said, “I saw a TED Talk on that once.”
Since 1990, the media organization known simply as TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) has hosted an annual conference with presentations devoted to “Ideas worth spreading.”
These “TED Talks,” as they came to be known, originally emphasized technology and design—hence the name—but soon expanded their focus to include many other scientific, academic, and cultural topics—including the subject of writing.
The framework of these presentations is simple: TED speakers—who have included Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Bono, and many Nobel Prize winners—are given a maximum of 18 minutes to explain a particular topic in the most engaging way they can, often through storytelling. These talks are primarily for the benefit of their live audiences, but the presentations are also filmed and curated on both YouTube and TED’s own home site.
And because more than 2,400 TED Talks are available for free online viewing, an informative or inspiring presentation on any subject is never more than a few keystrokes away.
The Best TED Talks for Writers
Whether you’re looking for specific guidance on craft and style, advice for upping your productivity or staying consistent in your writing, or simply seeking the inspiration to take that first big leap of faith into sharing your writing publicly, these 10 TED Talks are just what you need to get those creative juices flowing.
1. John Dufresne: How to Write a Story
Talk about getting back to basics, right?
Led by author John Dufresne, this TED talk is an immersive guide through the process of writing a well-executed story.
The author talks us through the process of writing a simple story about a marriage in trouble, essentially writing the story out loud and in real time, explaining each choice he makes along the way. Worth noting is Dufresne’s focus on active characters, significant interactions between characters and the setting, and emphasizing scene over summary.
John Dufresne is the author of five novels, two collections of short stories, and two books on writing and creativity, including The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction.
2. Nathan Filer: How to Write an Award-Winning, Bestselling First Novel
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
A young creative finds himself in an unfulfilling job. He dreams of becoming a novelist—in fact, he’s got the bones of a bestseller already crafted in his mind—but he just can’t seem to find the time to “become a writer.”
That’s exactly what happened to Nathan Filer, but he quickly recognized that to achieve his goals, his goals would have to change. “I want to become an author” was a nebulous goal, but “I want to write” was concrete—and immediately actionable.
By drastically reordering his thinking around attainable goals, Filer developed a 7-step guide to writing a first novel—the same process that helped him write his bestseller.
Filer’s TED Talk outlines this process, focusing on the importance of setting obtainable goals and taking responsibility for both your failures and your successes.
Nathan Filer’s debut novel, The Shock of the Fall, won the Costa prize in 2013, and has been translated into 27 languages.
3. Elizabeth Gilbert: Your Elusive Creative Genius
Elizabeth Gilbert had a problem. After the blockbuster success of her 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, she worried that her biggest success was now in her past—and that this knowledge would destroy her.
This led Gilbert to research mankind’s complicated history with creativity, from the ancient Greeks’ idea of muses and daemons to our modern conceptions of genius. Gilbert’s TED Talk is an epic meditation on the power of imagination, and yields a surprising theory:
Genius is not something you are, but rather, something you have—and each of us has at least a little of it.
Elizabeth Gilbert is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, biographer, and memoirist. She has published seven books; her fourth, Eat Pray Love, spent 199 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.
4. Andrew Stanton: The Clues to a Great Story
“Storytelling is joke-telling,” claims filmmaker Andrew Stanton. “Knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal.”
Through this comparison, Stanton masterfully outlines some of the most powerful secrets of crafting a compelling narrative, drawing on his own past as a writer and director for Pixar to prove his points.
Using clips of his own past work, including early rejected storyboards from the film Toy Story, Stanton stresses the importance of theming, likeable characters, the power of anticipation—and, above all, making your audience care.
Andrew Stanton is an American film director, writer, producer, and voice actor for Pixar Animation Studios. Among other accolades, two of his films—Finding Nemo and WALL-E—won Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature.
5. Mattie Bamman: Words, Not Ideas
Here’s a common complaint among would-be writers: “I have so many ideas,” they say. “It’s the words that give me trouble.”
There’s a reason for this: according to developmental editor Mattie Bamman, ideas actually get in the way of writing.
Bamman’s TED Talk is all about the concrete aspects of writing, and how to refocus your efforts to overcome writer’s block.
Ignore ideas, Bamman says, and focus on words as objects, as the building blocks of your stories. If you plan to write a book, plan it like you would plan any other project. Estimate how many words you’ll need, and design a blueprint to complete the book. Trust that the more ill-defined aspects of storytelling—theme, voice, and import—will come naturally as you write.
Mattie Bamman is a writer and editor who focuses on food, travel, and poetry. He serves as editor of Eater Portland, and has contributed to 11 books on culinary travel and 9 travel guides to the United States and Italy.
6. Balder Onarheim: 3 Tools to Become More Creative
While the word “creativity” is often used in conjunction with the artistic pursuits, creativity researcher Balder Onarheim asserts that creativity is a basic human quality, a skill like any other—a skill that can be honed through training.
Onarheim puts forth three distinct tools to boost your creativity: constant practice, using sleep as a creative tool, and “right now” solutions. He describes each of these tools in action, and even introduces a few ways you can work these routines into your everyday life. Onarheim’s advice is scientifically sound and immediately actionable—perfect guidance for any writer.
Balder Onarheim, PhD, is a creativity researcher for the Technical University of Denmark, and founder of the Copenhagen Institute of NeuroCreativity, which studies the neurological underpinnings of creativity.
7. Ann Hood: Why Write?
Like many authors, Ann Hood has storytelling in her blood.
Through a deeply personal and passionate TED Talk, Hood details her history with stories and storytelling, from her youth as the child of Italian-American immigrants to her career as a bestselling novelist. She talks about how stories help us understand the world around us, to make sense of the strange and threatening things we need to face in order to survive and grow.
Ann Hood is the bestselling author of novels like The Knitting Circle, The Obituary Writer, and An Italian Wife, as well as the memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief. Her writing has won two Pushcart Prizes, the Best American Spiritual Writing Award, and the Paul Bowles Prize for Short Fiction.
8. Terry Brooks: Why I Write about Elves
So… why are legal thrillers “more important” than fantasy novels?
Terry Brooks has spent the past 35 years writing about elves, and intends to spend the next 35 years doing the same—but such fiendish devotion to writing fantasy has left its scars. Brooks’s TED Talk centers on the importance of fantasy, both as a means of escape and as a unique setting for challenging ideas, and discusses the hurdles genre writers must overcome to follow their dreams.
Terry Brooks is an extraordinarily prolific author of epic fantasy fiction. Thirty of his novels have been bestsellers, and his first novel, The Sword of Shannara, was the very first work of fiction to appear on the New York Times Trade Paperback Bestseller List.
9. Rhianna Pratchett: The Future of the Videogames Writer
The videogame industry is rapidly evolving, becoming more complex and cinematic with each new title released. Game makers are always developing new ways to tell stories—interactive cutscenes, choice-based gameplay, and complex morality systems, among others—and a new kind of writer is required to tackle these challenges.
Enter Rhianna Pratchett. As a scriptwriter and story designer, Pratchett is a veteran of the videogame industry, and in her absorbing TED Talk, she breaks down all the ways a game’s writing affects the game as a whole, from cutscenes to events during gameplay to overall narrative thrust.
Pratchett was named one of the top 100 most influential women in the gaming industry by Edge Magazine. She’s worked for influential gaming giants like EA, Sony, SEGA, and Square Enix, and written for popular games like Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider.
10. Brad Herzog: A Writer’s Secrets to Catching Creative Ideas
“What do fishing and creative writing have in common?” asks author Brad Herzog.
After introducing viewers to a photo of his younger self catching—he swears—the biggest fish he ever caught, Herzog claims that coming up with ideas is just as much collection as it is creation.
In this humorous and enormously charming TED Talk, the author breaks down his personal creative process, and describes how looking for stories in unusual places can yield surprising and engaging results.
Brad Herzog is the author of more than 30 books for children and a trilogy of travel memoirs, and has co-authored the memoirs of civil rights icon Carolyn Goodman.
Do you have a favorite inspirational TED Talk that didn’t make our list? Share it in the comments below!