A lot of people ask me for feedback on their TED Talk topics, wondering if they’re good enough to get accepted. This question is often posed as something like “What do you think of [topic]?”
At first, I thought, surely, I can answer this question. After all, as an event organizer, I’ve seen over 80 speaker applications. Someone with that much exposure would be the best person to ask, yes?
At the same time, when posed with this question, I found myself struggling for a few reasons:
- Limited Information, and Positivity Bias: I couldn’t possibly provide an accurate judgment based on a topic and 50 or so words of description. I knew that with limited information, people tend to bias positively (they assume the best, and also want to be encouraging), whereas when making a decision, any unknowns tend to scare people away. I didn’t want to mislead.
- Absolute vs Relative: When TEDx organizers chose speakers, they’re not judging whether an idea is inherently good or bad, they make a decision whether to accept it based on the other ideas. They’re judging relative value, not absolute. Depending on the mix of applicants, an idea could be accepted or not. The same is true for a business idea – it could be a great idea to open a coffee shop in an area that sorely needs one, but a bad idea to open one in an area with no people and 10 other coffee shops. Asking “is a coffee shop a good business idea?” won’t really tell you whether it’ll be successful.
- Wide scope of the question: What does “what do you think?” mean? It could mean “is there anything you’d improve?” “Do you think the headline is compelling?”, “if you were given this information and nothing else, what would be the likelihood of being accepted for a major TEDx event?” and so forth. You get the idea.
Put another way, imagine I’m in the market for a new shirt. You’re great with fashion, so I send you an email asking for advice: “What do you think of blue shirts?” I say. It’s tough to know how to respond in a helpful way.
Allow me to suggest several tools to overcome these biases, and get more useful feedback on your ideas.
For absolute feedback, ask for one way it can be improved
“What do you think of this blue shirt on me?” vs “I’m getting this blue shirt custom tailored…what’s one thing you would change to make it look better on me?”
For a TED Talk idea, a similar question can be asked — “what’s one thing I can improve about this idea?”. This eliminates concern for positivity bias since you’re not asking good/bad. When asked for one thing, many more people will feel free to provide ideas, since they’re being invited to specifically share at least one area to improve.
“What do you think of this blue shirt on me?” vs. “I’ve attached pictures of me wearing 3 different shirts – which is your favorite?”
For a TED Talk idea, you could provide 3 options. Ask which one would make the best TED Talk.
Don’t ask at all…see what people do
“What do you think of this blue shirt on me?” vs. Wear the shirt around. See if you get any compliments.
For a TED Talk idea, there are multiple ways you can test it and get feedback, without ever asking. You could create a video summarizing your talk (or summarize in written form) and post on social media – don’t ask for feedback, just see how people respond. Do they “like” and put comments like “well said!”, or do they engage, argue, add information, and share?
What are some effective ways you’ve found to get useful feedback?