The annual TED conference, held at the Long Beach (Calif.) Performing Arts Center, brings together diverse speakers and listeners for four days of presentations and networking. And it has one advantage that corporate planners may never have: TED chooses its audience. “Without an amazing audience, we couldn’t attract amazing speakers,” organizers say at TED.com. “Our speakers aren’t paid—they attend because of the audience.”
That’s not the only meeting tenet flipped on its head by TED. The conference is driven toward complexity on one hand—its attendees represent a broad swath of disciplines, its topics a world of ideas—and toward simplicity on the other—there is but one thing on the agenda: presentations, none more than 18 minutes long.
You may have seen some of those presentations, in fact. They’re now known as TEDTalks, and most are on YouTube, where they’ve garnered hundreds of millions of views.
Expanding its audience is another thing TED does well. Three years after it began posting talks, TED posted, in a way, its secret sauce. June 2009 saw the launch of the TEDx brand—local TED-like events that follow strict guidelines. In less than two years, more than 1,500 TEDx events have been held worldwide.
“We created TEDx in the spirit of TED’s mission of ‘ideas worth spreading,’” says Chris Anderson, curator of TED and founder of the Sapling Foundation, which acquired the TED Conference in 2001. “The program is designed to give communities, organizations, and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level.
“With a license for a Corporate Event, corporations can organize private, employees-only [TEDx] events ... to highlight ideas within corporations and to foster a culture of passion, inspiration, and collaboration—to enable employees to step outside of their daily routine and be inspired.”
A closer look at TED could inspire you to think outside your day job, too. Here are five big ideas that might help you think about your meetings in a new way.
In TED-speak, meeting planners are curators. Or should be. Point No. 1 in the TEDx organizer guidelines: “More than anything else, the content is what defines a TED event.” If you choose presentations that “provoke conversations that matter,” you’ve done your job.
“Just as a museum curator handpicks works to make up a complete and meaningful exhibition, I work with our team to identify ideas worth spreading,” says TED Curator Chris Anderson. “We select our speakers and talks based on their relevance, newness, innovation, impact or potential impact, and interestingness.”
Avid TED watcher Ruud Janssen, founder of Arlesheim, Switzerland–based The New Objective Collective, which helps organizations craft live, digital, and hybrid event experiences, has organized two TEDxBasel events. He sees the content at TED as “bigger than life, with overarching [topics], and challenges that seem impossible.” But when you put “different silos to work on one thing,” as happens at TED, the impossible starts to look doable.
While one hallmark of a TED agenda is this cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, cross-pollinated mashup of art, science, research, and theory, another is its simple format. As the TEDx guidelines put it: “No panels. No breakout sessions. Usually: No podium. You may not pay your speakers to present.” And there’s that time limit—18 minutes—which, more than anything else, sends the message that you’d better have your story straight and be able to deliver it efficiently.
Why not think about your entire meeting message in those terms? “We often get tied up in complicated meeting objectives,” says Mark Shearon, executive vice president, engagement strategies, at TBA Global in New York. “TED’s mission is simple: Ideas worth spreading. It’s so understandable. Try to distill what you want your event to do. Don’t have 10 objectives. You don’t have to reduce it to one objective, but how about three?”
In organizing the TEDxBasel events, Janssen got to that distillation by answering one question. “When we started talking about ideas and themes, ultimately we asked, ‘Do we know what we really care about?’ When you find that, when you touch those chords, that’s the magic.”
2. Play with design.
If there’s one prerequisite for TED attendance, it’s an open mind. Corporate meeting planners could open their minds to the importance of meeting design, believes Dianne Devitt, CMP, owner of DND Group, New York. “You can’t take room setup lightly,” she says. “Décor gives permission to forget the outside world. The goal is to capture people, allowing them to focus so you can send your message.”
Devitt recently helped to design the room setup for a meeting of the Westfield (Conn.) chapter of Meeting Professionals International. Working with furniture sponsor CORT, she transformed “a long, rectangular, brown hotel meeting room” into something “unexpected.” The front of the room contained “pods” of casual furniture, including sofas around small tables. In the middle was traditional theater-style seating—using designer chairs. And at the back, she set rectangular and triangular Lucite tables and chairs. “People came to a dead stop,” Devitt recalls. “You could see them calculating what mood they were in and where they wanted to sit. It was a very interesting dynamic. Their senses were heightened. We surprised and stimulated them.”
No furniture sponsor? You can make an impact in small ways. Try a theater-style setup, but place the chairs in a crescent shape rather than a straight line, Devitt suggests. “Or just add a couple of sofas. It softens the room and makes people more at ease. Or put six-foot table at the back, set at angle. Even if don’t have a budget, you can be creative with what you have. Look at things differently.”
And present differently, adds Mark Shearon, executive vice president, engagement strategies, for TBA Global. “As soon as PowerPoint pops up, people switch off. We are doing a lot more with other content systems such as Montage and Pandora’s Box.” He also notes the wide-screen stage setup as a continuing trend. “It signals a change. It’s not the standard setup,” he says, adding that “cost has come down in the production realm, so these things are doable for more groups.”
3. Produce it.
Think of your event as a show. That doesn’t mean glitz— it means rehearsal. Kara DeFrias was show director for TEDxSanDiego, which drew 325 live and more than 27,000 virtual attendees in November 2010. “There was a conscious decision to treat this as a show, not just an event, and that came through in the production quality and execution,” DeFrias says in a blog post about her experience, which is well worth reading. (Find it at http://bit.ly/howTEDx.) “We put together a production staff that included a show director, tech director, talent relations manager, stage manager, and presentation manager, to name a few.” And DeFrias drew from her experience with TV awards shows to take the agenda outline and flow it into a minute-by-minute “show rundown.”
The other thing required by a show, as opposed to a meeting, is a complete tech rehearsal. “We started off with our tech load-in, then marked all our speaker spots on stage, followed by our emcees running their lines. Speakers began showing up in the afternoon, some running their full talk, others just clicking through and getting a feel for the stage,” DeFrias explains. The team held a speaker orientation to review the protocol for handing over the stage from emcee to speaker and vice versa, plus what would happen if a speaker ran beyond his or her allotted time. (At 30 seconds over, the emcee appears at the edge of the stage; at one minute over, the emcee approaches.)
Thoroughly working through this kind of detail ahead of time is non-negotiable for a successful show—and should become just as routine for a corporate meeting. Respect your audience and they will reward you by participating fully. “TED presenters are coached on speaking and engaging the audience,” Janssen notes. “Part of the magic is how speakers are trained.”
Many executives are unaware of how de-motivating their lackluster presentations can be for employees. If you have trouble getting executives to rehearse, send them the video “Behind the TED Talk,” in which two speakers—a novice and a true star of TED, whose first TED talk is one of the most viewed of all time—prepare for their presentations.
And if you’re still stuck with C-level egos, point out that the rehearsal is not just for them, says Mark Shearon of TBA Global. “Execs may not realize that everyone who is making that presentation possible—prompters, sound guy, video guy, webcast guy—they all need to rehearse the speech, too.”
Finally, look for hidden gems in your own backyard. “Do some research on your internal talent pool,” suggests DeFrias, who is now organizing TEDxIntuit, planned for August. “I’ve used employees who do Toastmasters or participate in local theater as emcees at larger meetings.”
4. Make it personal.
Inspired by his attendance at TEDActive2011, Andy Taylor, CMP, director of the Intel Fellows Office at Intel Labs in Hillsboro, Ore., has held two TEDxIntelLabs events. “The idea of bringing TED back to Intel was a little bit of a desire to get the genie back into the bottle,” he says. “Is there a way to recapture some of the magic that comes from the cross-pollination at TED? And how can I deliver it to an audience that has at most a few hours a month to spare?
“I’ve done two short events, essentially introducing the Intel Labs audience to the concept. Response has been tremendous: 100 percent want it to continue, and many want toto help it succeed.”
One thing that particularly attracted Taylor was how TED presenters engaged the audience. “One of my roles is coach to senior technologists on presenting,” he explains. “TED has a powerful story-telling method I think we can learn from. The power of many TED speakers comes because you can relate to what they are saying on a personal level. As a technology company, our default method of influence is with data and facts. But few in an audience remember most of that later. It’s about breaking away from PowerPoint and telling a story rooted in personal experience in 18 minutes.”
Mark Shearon of TBA Global agrees. “Some of the best TED talks are one person speaking about something they care about, and the audience gets it,” he says. “The whiz-bang and pizazz is not necessary. Of course, your brain needs a break, so you do want a mix of didactic and interactive, entertainment and education, but everything should have a purpose. Many events are a bag of stuff with no through-line, no story. For me and for TBA Global, telling a story is incredibly important. People have gathered to hear other people tell stories forever. It’s very natural to make a meeting into that kind of experience.”
TED is much more than a single conference these days. It is TEDTalks, the archived presentations. It’s TEDGlobal, a summer conference in Edinburgh with an international focus. It’s TEDActive in Palm Springs, which runs concurrently with TED and emphasizes connection and creativity. It’s the TED Associates webcast, which, for a reduced fee, gives registrants a “virtual front-row seat” to the entire TED conference. And it is the TED Open Translation project, which at last count had logged more than 17,000 translations of talks by volunteers into more than 80 languages.
Your takeaway? Let your meeting live on. Create high-quality recordings of presentations and archive them for attendees and nonattendees. Is it just the sales force that needs motivating at the annual kickoff meeting? Why not expand that audience and unify the efforts of employees in all areas of the company?
Hybrid meetings—where both live and virtual components are held simultaneously—are growing. Are there international divisions that could virtually attend the CEO’s keynote address?
One caveat: If you go the hybrid route, pay as much attention to your virtual component as you do to the live one. “It’s very important that the live-streaming audience feel connected,” says Ruud Janssen of The New Objective Collective. “If you are just watching another meeting happen, it is like bad public-access TV.” When Janssen and his TEDxBasel organizing team got together to watch the live streaming of the first day of TED2011, he says, “TED came up with the idea of doing a shout-out to those [watching] around the globe. We were selected as one of five locations to be connected to the main stage in Long Beach by Skype—by a free, easy, camera setup. It’s one little touch point, but it allows people to see the impact.”