A few weeks ago I sat in a room with around 200 other people for six hours. We listened to one person after another stand on stage and tell the story of what they do and what they believe in. I can’t remember the last time I sat and simply listened for such a long period of time. No questions from the audience, no interaction. Sounds tedious, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t. It was energising, inspirational, thought-provoking, and at times very moving. It’s one of the most successful information-sharing phenomena of our time. It was TEDx.

From the start, TED has released most of their talks as public videos. In fact, the TEDx I went to was being live-streamed. So I could have sat in the comfort of my own home and watched it all. Or just watched the talks when TED published them. But despite (or maybe because of?) this electronic sharing, TED talks sell out. Being able to watch the talks online doesn’t stop people from wanting to go and sit in a room for six hours and listen.

This got me thinking. What makes these (long) days so special? Why bother to travel and uproot yourself for a day when you don’t really need to?

The answer, I think, is in the theatre of personal storytelling. Watching person after person take to the stage for just 15 minutes and talk about something they believe in, a journey they’ve taken – some visibly nervous, some quite emotional at times – is incredibly powerful. They’re showing their vulnerability and their strength in that quarter of an hour. Everyone in the audience is interested (and pretty much everyone is interesting). There’s a collective sense of something special happening. Of people baring their souls. Doing something out of the ordinary – in their lives and on that day. The feeling in the air, the buzz in the room, the drama of the moment – these are things video will never quite capture.

Brand storytelling

So what does this mean for brands? Clearly they can’t always tell their stories in person. But there is something powerful about any business being brave enough to talk about the journeys it’s taking – even if these are only shared internally. To be clear about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it (assuming they have a purpose beyond profit), and to share this with the wider world. And sometimes, even, to be confident enough to share when they got things wrong, and how they recovered.

You hear a lot about storytelling in branding these days. And it can be very powerful. But what the TED talks show so vividly is that when you have a real purpose and tell your stories from the gut (warts and all), you can keep a room full of people mesmerised for a day.

It’s about starting from a truth, and being brave enough to tell it. Brands who do this – in whatever medium – will always stand out.