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Sebastian Wernicke: 1000 TEDTalks, 6 words

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There's currently over a thousand TEDTalks on the TED website. And I guess many of you here think that this is quite fantastic -- except for me. I don't agree with this. I think we have a situation here. Because if you think about it, 1,000 TEDTalks, that's over 1,000 ideas worth spreading. How on earth are you going to spread a thousand ideas? Even if you just try to get all of those ideas into your head by watching all those thousand TED videos, it would actually currently take you over 250 hours to do so. And I did a little calculation of this. The damage to the economy for each one who does this is around $15,000. So having seen this danger to the economy, I thought, we need to find a solution to this problem.

Here's my approach to it all. If you look at the current situation, you have a thousand TEDTalks. Each of those TEDTalks has an average length of about 2,300 words. Now take this together and you end up with 2.3 million words of TEDTalks, which is about three Bibles-worth of content. The obvious question here is, does a TEDTalk really need 2,300 words? Isn't there something shorter? I mean, if you have an idea worth spreading, surely you can put it into something shorter than 2,300 words. The only question is, how short can you get? What's the minimum amount of words you would need to do a TEDTalk?

While I was pondering this question, I came across this urban legend about Ernest Hemingway, who allegedly said that these six words here: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," were the best novel he had ever written. And I also encountered a project called Six-Word Memoirs where people were asked, take your whole life and please sum this up into six words, such as these here: "Found true love, married someone else." Or "Living in existential vacuum; it sucks." I actually like that one. So if a novel can be put into six words and a whole memoir can be put into six words, you don't need more than six words for a TEDTalk. We could have been done by lunch here. I mean ... And if you did this for all thousand TEDTalks, you would get from 2.3 million words down to 6,000. So I thought this was quite worthwhile.

So I started asking all my friends, please take your favorite TEDTalk and put that into six words. So here are some of the results that I received. I think they're quite nice. For example, Dan Pink's talk on motivation, which was pretty good if you haven't seen it: "Drop carrot. Drop stick. Bring meaning." It's what he's basically talking about in those 18 and a half minutes. Or some even included references to the speakers, such as Nathan Myhrvold's speaking style, or the one of Tim Ferriss, which might be considered a bit strenuous at times.

The challenge here is, if I try to systematically do this, I would probably end up with a lot of summaries, but not with many friends in the end. So I had to find a different method, preferably involving total strangers. And luckily there's a website for that called Mechanical Turk, which is a website where you can post tasks that you don't want to do yourself, such as "Please summarize this text for me in six words." And I didn't allow any low-cost countries to work on this, but I found out I could get a six-word summary for just 10 cents, which I think is a pretty good price.

Even then, unfortunately, it's not possible to summarize each TEDTalk individually. Because if you do the math, you have a thousand TEDTalks, the pay 10 cents each; you have to do more than one summary for each of those talks, because some of them will probably be, or are, really bad. So I would end up paying hundreds of dollars. So I thought of a different way by thinking, well, the talks revolve around certain themes. So what if I don't let people summarize individual TEDTalks to six words, but give them 10 TEDTalks at the same time and say, "Please do a six-word summary for that one." I would cut my costs by 90 percent. So for $60, I could summarize a thousand TEDTalks into just 600 summaries, which would actually be quite nice.

Now some of you might actually right now be thinking, It's downright crazy to have 10 TEDTalks summarized into just six words. But it's actually not, because there's an example by statistics professor, Hans Rosling. I guess many of you have seen one or more of his talks. He's got eight talks online, and those talks can basically be summed up into just four words, because that's all he's basically showing us, our intuition is really bad. He always proves us wrong.

So people on the Internet, some didn't do so well. I mean, when I asked them to summarize the 10 TEDTalks at the same time, some took the easy route out. They just had some general comment. There were others, and I found this quite cheeky. They used their six words to talk back to me and ask me if I'd been too much on Google lately. And finally also, I never understood this, some people really came up with their own version of the truth. I don't know any TEDTalk that contains this.

But, oh well. In the end, however, and this is really amazing, for each of those 10 TEDTalk clusters that I submitted, I actually received meaningful summaries. Here are some of my favorites. For example, for all the TEDTalks around food, someone summed this up into: "Food shaping body, brains and environment," which I think is pretty good. Or happiness: "Striving toward happiness = moving toward unhappiness."

So here I was. I had started out with a thousand TEDTalks and I had 600 six-word summaries for those. Actually it sounded nice in the beginning, but when you look at 600 summaries, it's quite a lot. It's a huge list. So I thought, I probably have to take this one step further here and create summaries of the summaries -- and this is exactly what I did. So I took the 600 summaries that I had, put them into nine groups according to the ratings that the talks had originally received on and asked people to do summaries of those. Again, there were some misunderstandings. For example, when I had a cluster of all the beautiful talks, someone thought I was just trying to find the ultimate pick-up line. But in the end, amazingly, again, people were able to do it. For example, all the courageous TEDTalks: "People dying," or "People suffering," was also one, "with easy solutions around." Or the recipe for the ultimate jaw-dropping TEDTalk: "Flickr photos of intergalactic classical composer." I mean that's the essence of it all.

Now I had my nine groups, but, I mean, it's already quite a reduction. But of course, once you are that far, you're not really satisfied. I wanted to go all the way, all the way down the distillery, starting out with a thousand TEDTalks. I wanted to have a thousand TEDTalks summarized into just six words -- which would be a 99.9997 percent reduction in content. And I would only pay $99.50 -- so stay even below a hundred dollars for it.

So I had 50 overall summaries done. This time I paid 25 cents because I thought the task was a bit harder. And unfortunately when I first received the answers -- and here you'll see six of the answers -- I was a bit disappointed. Because I think you'll agree, they all summarize some aspect of TED, but to me they felt a bit bland, or they just had a certain aspect of TED in them. So I was almost ready to give up when one night I played around with these sentences and found out that there's actually a beautiful solution in here. So here it is, a crowd-sourced, six-word summary of a thousand TEDTalks at the value of $99.50: "Why the worry? I'd rather wonder."

Thank you very much.


Video Details

Duration: 7 minutes and 13 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 341
Posted by: tedtalks on Jan 6, 2012

Sebastian Wernicke thinks every TEDTalk can be summarized in six words. At TEDxZurich, he shows how to do just that -- and less.

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