The Iliad Was the Original TED Talk

Epic long form storytelling in the ancient Hellenic world bears no superficial resemblance to the hyper-polished short form of the 21st century – but they are connected by a long thread in human experience. The conviction that Homeric myth and history held “ideas worth spreading”, drove Mediterranean cultures to preserve them and pass them on through oral tradition. In doing so, they both defined their world and established a framework for exploring it.

Long after written word became a central feature of public administration and communication between elites, oral tradition continued to be the primary means of sharing knowledge and shaping culture. Traveling Welsh raconteurs, the hakawati of the Arabian peninsula, and Provençal troubadors, all drew on centuries-old tradition and the deeply felt communal need to inspire and inform through the spoken word.

Until the late 19th century, the spoken word could only reach new audiences as written, or printed, words. In the 20th century, advances in audio and radio technology standardized the experience of hearing the spoken word, like this FDR “fireside” talk on the Dust Bowl.

Now, midway through the second decade of the 21st century, online video is exponentially increasing the reach of spoken word talks by providing a new, deeper mode of engagement. Just as radio before it, online video is democratizing access to compelling conversations on issues, ideas, and the human experience. But whereas radio can only be heard, video can be watched – and felt.

It is impossible to internalize the feeling of this Jill Bolte Taylor TED Talk, without watching it and seeing the full spectrum of her expression. This video has been seen by over 15 million people, and helped bond and inspire a community around a unique piece of human experience. Similarly, this Charity Tillemann-Dick TED Talk on the loss of her lungs as an opera singer, can be felt because it can be both seen and heard. Without seeing Charity’s talk, someone hearing it would have only a partial awareness of her personality, the scale of her challenge, and the near miracle of her successful operation.

Spanning centuries and cutting across cultures, storytellers have always understood that there is a power in being seen that goes beyond being heard, or being read. From Virgil to Voltaire the written word became the dominant medium for sharing knowledge. Today, however, this explosion and democratization of online video is renewing and reinvigorating the ancient tradition, breathing new life into what it means to tell and enjoy stories.

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