On TED – The Future of Conferences

I attend a lot of conferences.

As a speaker, sometimes as a representative of a vendor out in the exhibition hall, and often as a delegate. In all honesty, I’m over it. Or rather, I’m over the big vendor sponsored, Conference Company organised, “same old, same old” conferences.

TED logoSo what got me out of bed at 6am on a Saturday morning to spend a day at a conference recently which I both thoroughly enjoyed  and came away totally inspired and invigorated by?

TED came to town.

For those of you not familiar with TED, it is a conference with it’s genesis in the worlds of Design, Entertainment and Technology and it’s birthplace in Long Beach, California. Now into it’s 26th year, TED focuses on providing a platform for ‘Ideas Worth Spreading‘¬† and has attracted the cream of this generations creative excellence from world leaders to eminent scientists, from best selling authors to unknown individuals with an amazing story to tell.

And the real masterstroke, the primary reason for it’s phenomenal success, is it’s desire to not be a ‘place to sell’ but a ‘place to engage’. Most TED talks are available soon after the event for download (for free under a Creative Commons License) so that the ideas worth spreading begin to spread through the most viral of all mechanisms, the web.

That’s how I got into TED. A reference from a friend to a world of ideas, a constantly evolving encyclopedia of the latest thinking and a feeling of being ‘part of something bigger than myself’. Every flight I take (and I take a lot) is now my ‘TEDTalkTime’. My trusty iPhone is always fully loaded with the latest talks (and my spending on VirginBlue‘s Live2Air has dropped dramatically).

Over the past year or so, TED conferences have gone global in a typically-TED unconventional manner. A Brand potentially worth millions licensed free of charge to anyone with a desire to gather other like minded people together to become part of the TED experience, to become become a ‘TEDster’.

And so TEDx was born, the ‘x‘ standing for ‘independently organised TED event’ , and so countless millions who would never be able to attend the main TED conferences due to cost and demand for tickets, could attend a local microcosm event in their own town or cities.

My TEDx-perience was at TEDxBrisbane, March 6th, 2010.

So what makes TED different? What makes it a conference you just don’t want to end? What makes a group of people from the most diverse socio-economic groups converge and converse on a Saturday? Here’s my thoughts …

1. Passion.

How many times have you sat through dull presentations given by un-inspired and un-inspiring people, spouting second hand thoughts on subjects for which they clearly have no passion? The thing that strikes me most about TED talks is that the speakers care about their subject, really care. And it shows, and it’s addictive. As I write I am watching Elizabeth Gilbert speak on Nurturing Creativity. If you haven’t seen it watch it. You may not agree with what she says, you may think she’s a bit ‘cookie’, but you can’t deny her passion. Another great example is Marjora Carter talking about her fight for environmental justice in the South Bronx, still for me one of the best TED Talks yet. Two women from the opposite ends of the fame spectrum, yet both passionate about their story, their dream, their ideal.

2. Communication.

TED speakers are a rare group. A group who know how to, or open to be coached how to, communicate. You will not find dreadful PowerPoint slide decks at. Some of the best presentations are simply speakers telling a story with no slides. Others contain slide decks as they should be, visual devices to compliment the message (not bullet points to act as a tele-prompt for the speaker or a slideument for later perusal). Design agencies like Duarte Design are often instrumental in the production of the slide shows – an investment that few in the corporate world truly see the value of and yet one which adds immensely to the credibility of the speakers and the organisations they represent. But more than any of that, stories. Stories that need to be heard, that leap out of the speakers mouth and take on a life of their own in the lives of those that hear them.

3. Focus.

The longest TED talks are limited to 18 minutes. Some question whether that’s enough. Personally, I believe that if an idea can’t be pitched in 18 minutes it’s not because the idea is too complex but because the speaker does not know how to focus on what’s important. Ask any author how powerful and effective the editing process was for their book. Hours and hours of creative energy might end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. But the book is all the better for it. Why do we not apply the same concept to our presentations? 18 Minute presentations are great for presenters. Presentations are tiring. 18 minute focused presentations are fabulous for an audience. Listening to a dull presentation for an hour is extremely tiring, frustrating, annoying and in all honesty is disrespectful to the individual members of the audience. And besides, if a presentation is rubbish there will be another along in about 17 minutes and 45 seconds.

Having said that, I am booked to speak to a group of IT Managers on Wednesday evening this week. I have been allocated 45 minutes. I plan to give the audience ‘some time back’ and finish early. Its a technique I learned from a colleague recently. It shows respect, it also focuses you the speaker on what’s important to discuss and what’s just ‘fill’.

4. Innovation.

TED manages to attract speakers with something new and interesting to say – regardless of their area of passion or specialist subject. I have watched hundreds of TED Talks and can think of only one where I got bored enough to ‘switch off’. Vendor presentations at major conferences tend to not be very innovative (by their very nature, it’s a bout a product right – the innovation was long ago).

But please vendors, if you are going to pitch, make the presentation interesting, relevant and work on your communications skills and your visuals. The next time I see a slide with ‘Who Are We’ as a heading and seven bullet points on where your head office is, when you were incorporated and other such information I can get from your website if I’m really interested, I’m leaving!

5. Community.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the success of the TED phenomenon s nothing to do with the speakers, or the quality of their slides, or the time they are given to speak, but rather the community that is generated. The collective desire to inspire and be inspired. The connections that remain long after the conference has gone.

I met some amazing people at TEDxBrisbane. People who I would not normally meet in the normal course of my job, my social life or, of course, at other industry focused conferences. I learned firsthand about statistical modeling in the study of genetics, of ideas for sustainable architecture and of the value and challenges of social networks in education. And all that prior to stepping into the conference theatre-ette.

So if you have never experienced TED, head on over to TED.com and be immersed. The following are my Top Five to get you started:

1. Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity

2. Marjora Carter‘s tale of urban renewal

3. Blaise Aquera y Arcas demos augmented reality maps

4. Jill Bolte Taylor‘s stroke of insight

5. Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen

If you have experienced TED online then I highly recommend getting along to a conference. There are a number of TEDx events around the place – just Google or Bing ‘TEDxYourTown‘.

And if you work for a professional conference organisaing company, please please please get along to a TEDx event and learn how to build a conference that will give you a competitive edge, will mean us long suffering attendees no longer have to rely on our mobile devices to maintain the will to live through yet another dull vendor presentation, and will facilitate a community that will thank you.

Be Sociable, Share!

One thought on “On TED – The Future of Conferences

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *