SCENE CHANGE’S Ian Whitworth ponders what event managers can learn from the success of TED.

Ian WhitworthHow would you like your events to be so popular that people have to apply in writing to get in, and thousands don’t make the cut? That’s what TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) has achieved. It’s single-handedly made presentations cool again.
I spent some time recently with the managers of Australian spinoff event TEDx Sydney. The statistics are remarkable. Thousands apply. Only 800 get in. Hundreds more sit in the foyer watching on big screens. 45,000 watch on line. Breathtaking numbers by any standard. So what’s the secret to making hordes of info-hipsters fight to see talks by scientists and bird trainers?
Sorry to those hoping for a shortcut, but it’s planning and hard work. The search for interesting presenters is long and painstaking. Presenters must submit their material three months (!) in advance. At that point, each presenter gets a curator to fine-tune their material. The curators are volunteers, but with serious exec-producer day jobs, people like Julian Morrow from The Chaser.
The curators work on every facet of the speech. Arranging the information so it becomes a story rather than just information. Ruthless editing to fit the 18-minute limit. Creating visuals that add to the story, rather than just duplicate what’s being said. Distilling a lifetime’s specialist knowledge into something that will fascinate a general audience. Coaching them on how to deliver each line, where to stand, where to look, and all the details that create presentation greatness.
The speakers also have to abide by the long-standing TED Commandments, which would benefit any speech:

  1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick
  2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before
  3. Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion
  4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story
  5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy
  6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt Thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
  7. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desperate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
  8. Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
  9. Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee

“We tell each presenter that they’re here to deliver the presentation of their life. Our job is to help them achieve that,” said TEDx event director David Glover.
The TEDx 2012 lineup delivered some fascinating material. Getup founder Jeremy Heimans’ “Green is Dead” talk is well worth chasing up on-line. Another favourite, for sheer whimsy, was neuroscientist Professor Mandyam Srinivasanon how to train bees, and you never know when that could come in handy. Fly, my pretties!

Jeremy Heimans
The TEDx planners also put a lot of consideration into the rhythm of the program, with musical acts between every three speeches to refresh overloaded audience brains, something all conferences would benefit from. On that point, it’s worth noting that the beauty of Katie Noonan’s live vocal work would bring Chuck Norris to tears.
Another thought for conference managers is how TEDx splits the audience into three different levels of experience: in the auditorium, big screens in the lobby, and on
-line. If your event is designed the right way, to be an experience, streaming it on-line isn’t going to cannibalise your registrations. It creates aspiration to actually attend one day, because attending gives people the prestige of telling people they were actually there. It makes them look interesting and informed.
Above all, TED teaches the value of hearing about subjects from way outside your usual goldfish bowl. At TEDx I ran into a friend who’s a senior creative director on a global advertising account. In jobs like ours, it’s easy to end up under the impression that what you do is A. Very Important and B. Difficult.After a day of listening to incredibly accomplished people calmly speak of quantum computing, charting the outer universe, and robots that run the entire Brisbane container terminal with a human workforce of zero (uh-oh), we came to the humbling realisation that we are both just carnies working the sideshows of business.
That’s a very welcome recalibration of your perspectives. A great conference has the power to do that.