Technology, entertainment, and design: Ideas worth spreading

We all look to find inspiration in our lives, and TED talks are popular for this very reason. They furnish a continually updated source of information, motivation, common-sense advice, and entertainment that is easy to share.

By Mary Verstraete, PH.D., SWE Editorial Board August 21, 2014

TED (technology, entertainment, and design) is listed as a “nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED talks have been presented at TED conferences, which have occurred throughout the world since 1984, most recently in December 2013.

According to, “Each TED Conference features more than 50 of the world’s most innovative and influential speakers.” The speakers come from all walks of life and present on a wide variety of topics, including science, business, the arts, technology, and global issues. The conferences are also peppered with shorter, entertaining performances. Each talk is limited to 18 minutes, so speakers are expected to give “the talk of their lives.” The speakers may be well-known names in business or in entertainment, or they may be completely unknown.

The first TED talk I watched was by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Our collegiate section at The University of Akron chose this presentation to view at a member meeting, and it made quite an impact on the audience. In “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” Sandberg provides compelling evidence, including personal stories, to show why women do not rise to leadership positions and offers three recommendations. The first is “sit at the table.” Sandberg discusses in a humorous way and through examples how women tend to underestimate their abilities, how they do not negotiate for higher salaries, and how they attribute their success to other external factors and people.

Her second piece of advice, “Make your partner a real partner,” is self-explanatory. Sandberg presents observations about successful marriages and the distribution of responsibilities in the family unit. Lastly, she suggests, “Don’t leave before you leave,” because thoughts concerning future plans such as pregnancy can prevent one from taking additional responsibilities or applying for promotions. Sandberg encourages women to keep moving upward on the career ladder every day, regardless of what they believe future plans may entail.

TED talks also include entertaining presenters who keep the audience amused and/or inspired, such as Maysoon Zayid: “I Got 99 Problems… Palsy Is Just One.”

Zayid is an Arab-American born with cerebral palsy. Encouraged by her parents, who convinced her that she could do anything, she has had an amazing journey on her way to becoming a comedian, actress, philanthropist, and an advocate for the disabled. Her performance is riddled with the shakes and tics associated with cerebral palsy, but the audience is only marginally aware of them. Instead, they revel in her comedic style, captivated, as she takes them on the journey of her life.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a compelling talk, “Your Elusive Genius,” which proposes that we all have a bit of genius in us — genius moments in which whatever we are doing or thinking falls into place.

Her examples of these elusive times that cannot be “scheduled” made me recall days I’ve walked out of a classroom with a mental fist in the air, thinking “that was a fantastic lecture.” And she suggests that calling someone genius may be too heavy a burden; instead it should be recognized that we all have genius moments.

The website is fairly easy to navigate and viewers can narrow the talks to fit their interests, explore the “mostviewed” talks, or sort them by adjectives such as inspiring or funny. There are 144 different “playlists” where talks have been grouped according to a particular subject or a specific individual. However you choose to browse these more than 1,600 talks and presentations, you will most likely stumble upon one that inspires you, that makes you laugh or even cry, or makes you shake your head in disbelief.

Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., is associate professor and associate chair of the undergraduate program in biomedical engineering at The University of Akron. She earned her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in engineering mechanics/biomechanics from Michigan State University. A member of the SWE Magazine editorial board, Dr. Verstraete was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007 and received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011.

This content originally appeared in SWE’s Spring 2014 publication. Edited by Anisa Samarxhiu, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media, asamarxhiu(at)