IS RICHARD SAUL WURMAN the man behind the most successful meeting in America?
Probably so, to hear recent attendees rave about his three-day TED conferences. The meetings draw VIPs from companies including Intel, Sony, Walt Disney, and Microsoft. "TED is a brain feast, a taste of what technology's most inventive chefs are cooking up for our future," was how Mitchell Cannold, President of Sony Online Ventures, described it.
These big confabs, held annually in Monterey, Calif., focus on the merging of technology, entertainment, and design--thus the name TED--in the service of learning and communication. Within that very broad theme, there's room for almost anything Wurman finds interesting.
For example, Kal Krause, co-founder of Meta-Tools, opened last February's meeting with a demo of new graphics software. He was followed by Daniel Boorstin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who spoke about the decline of the amateur spirit in a world of narrow professionalism. Other topics ranged from dinosaur foreplay to the source of Intuit's competitive edge. There was also a firsthand account of the Tiananmen Square uprising in China.
A primary attraction is that Wurman serves up celebrity speakers by the truckload, from Bill Gates to jazz-great Herbie Hancock, and from medical guru Jonas Salk to novelist Michael Crichton. The presenters appear just as excited to be a part of the event as the attendees.
The last TED--they are always held in February at the 660-seat Monterey Conference Center--was sold out months ahead. Prices started at $2,250 for early registrants. Wurman points out that the full house was achieved before he announced presenters or mailed brochures. "People aren't coming for a particular speaker, theme, or subject," he says. "They are coming because they trust my interests and curiosity."
Wurman has been adding conferences in other locations, sometimes on specialized subjects. A meeting focusing on the idea that learning will be the biggest business of the 21st century was held in New York last fall, and the second TEDMED--conferences which hone in on the communication of medical information in all its facets--took place in May in Charleston, S.C.
One Man's Instincts Wurman plans his meetings by following his instincts. One recent speaker, for example, was a scientist he had seen on the Discovery Channel--for all of three minutes. Wurman says he reads and scans a lot of magazines for ideas, and taps into his many friends and acquaintances.
In a way, the conference agendas are the product of his whole life. He has been an architect, a graphic designer, a cartographer, a writer, and a publisher. Each of his more than 65 published books focuses on some subject or idea that he personally had difficulty understanding. He has written on sports, medicine, computers, cities (the Access travel guides), and more. His singular passion in life, he says, is making information understandable.
Along the way, he has become a fellow of The American Institute of Architects, and has been awarded several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has been a visiting scholar at MIT in the Department of Architecture and Planning and a Fellow of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The Rules of TED Wurman's interest in TED, which he started in 1984, springs partly from the high value he places on personal contact. "The more we don't have to press the flesh, the more we want to," he says. Particularly in a first meeting. "A phone conversation is much better if you have met once before. You see where the other person is sitting, and that person sees where you are sitting. It's in your memory."
At TED, there are no lecterns, no titles to the speakers' talks, and Wurman "forbids" the reading of a speech. "They can have notes," he says. "They sit in a chair or walk around." Some presenters bring elaborate audiovisual, and others none at all. There are no breakout sessions: Wurman wants all guests to have a "common memory...People don't want choice," he explains. "They want a wonderful experience, and to have conversations with other people there, and you can't [do that] if you go to different things."
Wurman personally picks the food and locations for meetings, designs the graphics on the hats, and coordinates the program, right down to the timing of whether lunch should be an hour or hour and a half. There are no sit-down meals. "All the food is designed so that you can walk around and talk to people...I purposely don't make the food very good. I don't want people to talk about the food--I want them to talk about each other."
Before the conference, Wurman meets with each speaker, "dancing around" what he thinks the person might talk about. But he leaves it up to them, feeling strongly that he'd interfere with their creativity by specifying a particular topic for the talk. Wurman doesn't recall any problems that have arisen with this informal system, but admits there are challenges for his staff. (He has two to three assistants per meeting.)
Wurman is ever-present at TED, circulating during meals and breaks, and talking to everybody that he possibly can. One attendee noted that he seems to know everyone by name, and treats the crowd as an over-sized family gathering. His jokes and surprises also set the tone. When America Online CEO Steve Case took the stage at one meeting, the audience suddenly heard a highly amplified telephone busy signal. The crowd erupted into laughter. On another occasion, the high-powered executives all found cuddly, stuffed animals in their chairs.
Maja Brisvall, founder of SEEK, a San Franciscobased high-tech consulting firm, went to Monterey in 1996. She recalls, "At TED, we interact with each other on a personal level. It's different than the more formal, guarded interactions that can characterize corporate life." Brisvall still keeps up with business contacts she made at that meeting, and reflects on what she has heard. "TED is similar to reading a good book and then starting to associate around that book. You bring that knowledge into different parts of your life."
Wurman attributes TED's success to the desire people have to avoid being "narrow-banded" and to see the ideas that exist between seemingly disparate disciplines. He concludes, "What they love about it is that they sit next to somebody and they don't know what they do. With every other conference, it's homogenous. This dances to a different drummer."
Wurman on CONFERENCE PLANNING Q: What can other people learn from your success with this meeting?
A: "Try not to do conferences that are better versions of what you have already seen. Some people see a panel, and think it's okay, and that a better version would be to have more people on the panel. They try to take the pieces that already exist and make them better. Often, that doesn't work.
Q: So, if your success lies in your creativity, how do you stimulate it?
A: "I trust it."