The 10 Best TED Talks For Screenwriters and What They Teach

There are many TED talks out there for writers, screenwriters and storytellers. In this article, we’ll focus on 10 of the most relevant and best talks for screenwriters and writers as a whole. We’ll take a look at the advice they give writers and how to get the best out of them.

Of course, there are many other great examples out there. However, below are what we believe to be the top 10 TED talks for screenwriters (in no particular order).

What Are TED Talks? And How to Utilise Them

TED Talks are informative and inspirational talks taken in the form of short presentations, spanning a wide range of topics. Their purpose is to share ideas worth spreading through the areas surrounding, Technology, Entertainment, Design.

Since 1984, TED Talks have covered a vast range of specific topics broadly headed under the umbrella of education, business, science, tech and creativity.

Taika Watiti TED Talk

Tips On How to Utilise TED Talks

Getting into the range of TED talks can feel overwhelming. And it’s often hard to know where to start in terms of getting the best out of them. However, there are a few key ways of making sure you efficiently get the most out of TED talks…

  • Grasp the speaker’s overall message. What are they really trying to get across?
  • Listen carefully on the first watch. And only make summarised notes.
  • On the second watch add detail and examples listed from case studies or anything missed from the notes in the first watch.
  • Visualize the information. Notes written in short form using mnemonics and acronyms or by drawing images can be a more interesting way to recall information.
  • Re-watch again and again. These repeat viewings are proven to increase memory retention. And TED Talks are great for watching on the go. Listen while travelling on the first watch. This can be great preparation for the second viewing and can save time.
  • Keep the notes in a folder and refer to them when inspiration is most needed.

TED Talks For Screenwriters

TED talks can be the perfect tool for screenwriters, whether the talk is specifically about writing or not. They can be a great way of bursting through writer’s block or setting yourself up well for starting a project.

So below we’ve outlined the best TED talks for screenwriters. And we’ve delved into what exactly they can teach you and what to focus on.

TED Talk 1: Your Elusive Creative Genius –
Elizabeth Gilbert

Your elusive creative genius | Elizabeth Gilbert

Key Takeaways

Journalist and author, Elizabeth Gilbert (writer of Eat, Pray, Love), delivers a brilliant talk in which she discusses the source of creativity for writers. She outlines, for example….

Creativity & suffering are interlinked.

  • Create a protective psychological construct by developing a safe distance between writing and natural anxiety. Don’t let the inner critic win.

There are models to help humans’ inherent emotional risks of creativity.

  • The term ‘genius’ was defined as a magical divine entity that lived in the walls of the artist’s studio.
  • Gilbert is essentially saying creativity is all around. And it’s how the writer uses it that can be their most powerful tool.

Pressure can kill creativity

  • Unreachable expectations effects not only the performance on a project but the artist as a whole.

Everyone has a different creative process.

  • In order to keep the creativity flowing, it’s best to understand the relationship between humans and the creative mystery.
  • Whether that be waking up early to write or researching for inspiration. For example, American musician, Tom Waits describes the process as:

“The embodiment of the tormented contemporary modern artist.”

Tom Waits

TED talks for screenwriters tend to focus on there being a heavy anxiety surrounding ‘genius’. As a writer, it’s easy to get trapped within these pits of despair in creativity. However, it’s a part of the creative life to identify these and seek them out during the writing process. Among other things, this is what Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk highlights.

TED Talk 2: What Reading Slowly Taught Me About Writing – Jacqueline Woodson

What reading slowly taught me about writing | Jacqueline Woodson

Key Takeaways

This TED talk highlights the importance of reading to the writing process. Children’s author Jaqueline Woodson highlights, for example, that with each re-reading comes a new learning experience. She outlines key elements of reading such as…

Immersion in reading.

  • John Gardner’s concept, the ‘Fictional Dream’, for example, describes a world where the reader is so immersed in this fictional world, they believe it to be reality.
  • This concept also applies to screenplays. In order to create a world worth believing in, make the audience leave with a new reality.

Stories are meant to be savoured.

  • One of the earliest forms of connective technology to tell stories are the cave paintings made in the Palaeolithic period. People tell stories through words, gestures, drawings. Stories are ultimately told because they are worth remembering.

There are many possibilities for a narrative.

  • With the increasing popularity of streaming, the world is getting noisier, and story is getting pushed out of the narrative.
  • Taking more time with the story can teach everything about writing.

A strong focus on story & the nature of storytelling.

  • Having a strong focus on story and the nature and roots of storytelling can develop an idea into a story. Writing is all about finding a way to not feel alone in this world.
  • There are layers to a narrative and stories beneath other stories. Stories that last carry into stories in the present.

Stories can transform you from word to word…

  • From sentence to sentence. And from ignorance to understanding. Read to drown out the noise.
  • And as technology rapidly changes, read slowly, and watch carefully. Learn to respect and appreciate the writer’s work and stories’ lasting power.

TED Talk 3: The Clues to A Great Story – Andrew Stanton

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Key Takeaways

This TED talk from Pixar writer/director Andrew Stanton is one of the best TED talks for screenwriters on actual storytelling techniques. Whilst others may inspire this is great at giving practical advice.

Storytelling is joke-telling.

  • Know the punch lines and the ending. Everything must lead towards a goal.
  • The story commandment phrase ‘Make Me Care’ suggests the audience should care emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically.
  • Story must be interesting in its design.

Make a promise that the story will lead somewhere worth the audience’s time.

  • “All good stories at the beginning should give you a promise or an infinite amount of promises.”
  • As the storyteller, it should be hidden that the audience has to work for their meal.

Storytelling devices of problem-solving are evident in Finding Nemo.

  • The movie follows the unifying theory of 2+2. This theory suggests the audience should put things together themselves. Give them 2+2 and they come up with the 4.
  • In addition, in screenwriting the process is also known as ‘Invisible Application’. This ultimately holds the audience’s attention to the story.

Stories are inevitable not predictable.

  • A character has an inner mentor, a dominant unconscious goal they’re striving for.’ For example, Michael Corleone in The Godfather. His inner motor drives his choices and his goal always leads back to pleasing his father.

Every great TED talk for screenwriters will emphasize that storytelling has guidelines, not hard, fast rules. But a guideline and road map underlines every story. “A story theme is always running through a well-told story.” The writer must remember, “Wonder cannot be artificially evoked and to hold them still in the brief moment of their day and have them surrender to wonder. The best stories infuse wonder.”

TED Talk 4: Wisdom from Great Writers on Every Year of Life – Joshua Prager

Wisdom from great writers on every year of life | Joshua Prager

Key Takeaways

This TED talk from journalist and author Joshua Prager is great for a broad look at what makes writing so important and valuable. It may not be direct screenwriting advice as such. But it’s inspiring as to the purpose and value of writing as a form in general. What could be more inspiring than that for an aspiring writer?

There are patterns to life, and they are shared.

“From the wonders and confinements of childhood to the emancipations and frustrations of adolescence, the empowerments and milestones of adulthood; the recognitions and resignations of old age.”

Patterns are recorded in books and movies. These then turn into narratives people read and recognise.

  • Writing should provide a glimpse into the future.
  • Life can swing wildly and unpredictably from one thing to the next, people may experience the same age differently. Audiences, therefore, may react to patterns differently. But they will react nonetheless.
  • Art and literature helps record what the human race has experienced and to predict what they will experience. Writing helps to identify different worlds from the past, present and future.

TED TALK 5: The Magical Science of Storytelling –
David JP Phillips

The magical science of storytelling | David JP Phillips | TEDxStockholm

Key Takeaways

David JP Phillips is a motivational speaker. He might not seem the most obvious choice for writing advice. But his talk on storytelling is another brilliant example of a talk that can inspire writers as to the purpose and value of storytelling overall.

Stories can trick society.

  • Every story comes down to one core element called emotional investment.
  • The greatest emotional investment of all, for example, is falling in love. Falling in love resembles a good story.

“The more emotionally invested you are, in anything in life, the less critical and the less objectively observant you become.”

How stories work are similar to how the body functions, as both release hormones and neurotransmitters.

  • Hormones can shape story functions. Different hormones release different feelings and they can be used for the writer’s intentions.

Different hormones & their functions in the story…

  • Dopamine increases focus, motivation, and memory. To increase these levels in the story, the writer must build suspense, leave on a cliff-hanger, and ensure constant storytelling.
  • Oxytocin increases generosity, trust, and bonding. To increase these levels in the story, the writer must create empathy for that character.
  • Endorphins increase creativity, relaxation, and focus.

Prager calls a mixture of these three hormones, ‘The Angels Cocktail.’ The complete opposite to this is ‘The Devils Cocktail.’

  • High levels of cortisol and adrenalin causes irritability and criticalness, along with making bad decisions.
  • So to counteract this are the three factors to ‘Functional Storytelling’. These include; believing you are a great storyteller, writing down stories and indexing all stories.

TED Talk 6: The Science of Storytelling – Will Storr

The Science of Storytelling | Will Storr | TEDxManchester

Key Takeaways

Will Storr is a journalist and speaker. His book, Science of Storytelling, provides good ground for this TED talk, which again serves up context for what makes an effective story.

These TED talks for screenwriters that highlight story are really important as they help screenwriters understand the purpose of what they are doing. It’s the bigger picture for why you are writing your screenplay and how best you can achieve your goals with it.

All story is change.

  • Create moments of unexpected change to generate orientating responses in the brains of the audience.
  • Provide a moment of change in the beginning or give a threat of change.
  • Psychologist Roy Baumeister said – ‘Life is change that yearns for stability.’

A well-structured story is a sequence of causes & effects. One change leads to another.

  • Something has to keep happening next. Something has to keep the story moving forward.
  • Every question has to be answered in this respect.

Heroic characters focus on selflessness and villainous characters focus on selfishness.

  • This can be applied to a huge majority of protagonists and antagonists.
  • And it helps clarify what makes a hero and a villain in very basic terms.

Archetypal endings result in the hero taking complete control.

  • Stories are often about a character losing control.
  • And the narrative arc is about the hero seeking to gain control back. So the ending to that journey is often about them achieving such control.

TED Talk 7: Pain & Art: Write What You Honestly Know – Ryan Gattis

Pain & Art: Write What You Honestly Know | Ryan Gattis | TEDxChapmanU

Key Takeaways

Novelist Ryan Gattis gives a great TED talk on how to connect authentically to a story by writing what you know. ‘Write what you know’ is classic writing advice. But Gattis really demonstrates how to put this writing advice into practice. In this case, it’s not just generic writing advice, it’s a practical way of connecting to yourself and creating meaningful stories.

For example, he highlights…

The 5 Essentials of Immersive Storytelling:

1) Hooks – what grabs our attention and pulls us into the story?

2) The Unexpected – what will keep your audience hooked and keep them wondering what is next?

3) Cause & Effect – this is the “dynamic chain of occurrence” that is essential to keeping the story moving forward.

4) How Did It Feel? – the physical, emotional and mental feelings that came from the experience. These will help the audience connect on a human level.

5) Concrete, specific detail – the “lifeblood of storytelling”. This is what makes a story specific and worthwhile.

However, Gattis highlights that none of these steps mean anything without authenticity. The need for authenticity should ensure a building of empathy between writer and audience. However, similar to what is outlined in the other TED talks for screenwriters, authenticity is dependent on whether the audience takes the story home.

Ultimately, when the writer opens up they can see more about others. This has a dramatic impact on writing and creates a more humanistic writing approach.

TED Talk 8: How Words Change Minds: The Science of Storytelling – Nat Kendall-Taylor

How words change minds: The science of storytelling | Nat Kendall-Taylor | TEDxMidAtlanticSalon

Key Takeaways

Nat Kendall Taylor is a social scientist and leader of a Washington think tank. Again, his talk is great at grasping the broad beats of storytelling. It’s a valuable insight into what makes stories matter and what makes them distinct to society in general.

Culture influences society’s decision-making.

  • Seek out these cultural issues in writing.
  • What are you saying with your writing? What cultural issues are you connecting with?

A device called framing is essential in moderating the outcome of how to present information.

  • This shows how variations in the way people present information can lead to dramatically different perceptual and behavioural outcomes.

There are clear differences between the intention and delivery of a message to its actual perception and effect.

  • This is essential for a writer to understand. Sometimes the effect can be very different to the intention based on the audience’s engagement with the writing.
  • But a writer can drive social change by aligning societal values with the right words to express the writer’s intended meaning.

TED Talk 9: The Mystery of Storytelling – Julian Friedmann

The mystery of storytelling: Julian Friedmann at TEDxEaling

Key Takeaways

This is a great TED talk for screenwriters as Julian Friedmann has years of experience representing and managing screenwriters. He represents both book and screenwriters through the agency he established in 1976, now called Blake Friedmann (in partnership with Carole Blake).

His insight is fascinating and whilst it’s another talk on the broad meaning of storytelling, his advice is also specific and practical.

Firstly, he outlines how story is more about the audience than it is about the characters, plot and storyteller.

  • It’s not about giving the audience what they want neccesarily. But as a writer, you need to be seeking to make a connection with the audience.

There are three main points that make up the Holy Trinity for writers.

  • These include the writer, the characters and the audience.
  • These three elements are what will make an effective story.

Additionally, there are four factors to why writers write:

  • 1) To Steer Egotism 2) Gain Immortality 3) Get Revenge 4) Bettering the world.
  • This kind of breakdown of the motivation for writing feels rare and is interesting.

In addition, Friedmann outlines Aristotle’s three-part formula.

  • This involves, pity – to have an emotional connection with the audience and characters.
  • Entice fear so the character is in turmoil.
  • And to release a catharsis, where the character is free from jeopardy and the audience feel a cathartic release.

Finally, Friedmann outlines how suffering, struggle and overcoming define a good beginning, middle and end.

This talk often feels that it’s packaging quite familiar writing advice in a new and interesting way. And this makes it highly valuable. Oftentimes seeing essential advice through a new lens is what can make it suddenly make sense to you.

TED Talk 10: Seven Keys to Good Storytelling –
Josh Campbell

Seven Keys to Good Storytelling | Josh Campbell | TEDxMemphis

Key Takeaways

This talk by professional storyteller Josh Campbell is one of the best TED talks for screenwriters as it gives a handy breakdown of the keys for great storytelling. Ultimately, it’s a talk that perfectly combines overarching points about what makes good storytelling with solid, practical advice.

Campbell highlights that the best storytellers are prepared but not too prepared.

  • This is because it’s the side roads, long cuts and shortcuts that make the journey worthwhile.
  • So ensure to have an outline but leave room to explore the story further.

Campbell breaks down the 7 keys to good storytelling…

1) Give an escape route for where the story isn’t working. Don’t let preparation get in the way of a good story.

2) A story doesn’t always have to be funny. People want to feel connected more than they want to laugh.

3) Name names. If the writer can’t use someone’s name, that someone has power over your story.

4) The writer must want the audience to feel empathy, not sympathy. Otherwise, the audience focuses on the writer’s feelings more than the story. Additionally, writers should make peace with their story before sharing it with the world.

5) Start at the beginning of the story and end at the end. Writers should aim to have a great closing line, where the audience should experience a great cathartic release. In essence, do not rob the audience of that experience by telling them the moral of the story.

6) The devil is in the details. There is an important connection between writer and audience. Both have shared experiences that do not need to be explained in great detail.

7) The audience is on side and they need to be kept there. Understand the audience and don’t make a controversial statement unless it is vital to the story’s message.

8) The secret 8th key – All the rules should be broken. Sometimes details are important, morals are necessary and sometimes the audience must be offended in order for them to listen.

The Best TED Talks For Screenwriters – In Conclusion

Overall, all the TED talks for screenwriters on this list stress the importance of discipline and measure in tackling writing and storytelling. The lesson to be garnered from all these talks is that a considered approach to writing and storytelling is essential.

You must not wade into the dark without a light. Instead, a plan and structure is going to make your writing solid, meaningful and worthwhile. However, the talks also consistently highlight that there has to be creative wiggle room as well as a structured approach. Too much discipline can kill creativity.

Ultimately, the best TED talks for screenwriters pass the torch on to you, the writer. They give you a very strong idea of what to implement in your writing practice. But in the end, they leave you with a roadmap, not a destination. That destination is up to you to find on your own writing journey.

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This article was written by Hannah Taylor and edited by IS Staff.

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