You would think it would be hard to find anything wrong with a smart, hip, Web-savvy content service that delivers the latest ideas and knowledge in dozens of subject areas, direct to your computer, at no cost.
And there’s a lot to like about the annual conference series on Technology, Entertainment, and Design that “bring[s] together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less),” according to the TED Web site.
But it’s time to rethink the extent of TED’s influence on the way we view, package, prioritize, and interact with content. The conferences and their various offshoots bring together fantastic material, but have entrenched an elitist format, discourage audience dialogue, and damp down the richness and complexity of topics that don’t fit the 18-minute limit.
Adrian Segar, author of the book and Web site, Conferences that Work, points to TED’s high price tag and hand-picked attendance as evidence that these are not meetings for the rest of us. TED “perpetuates the myth that only a minority in this world have something worth saying,” Segar argued in a recent blog post. “The organization derives revenue from appointing itself as gatekeeper of who should be up on the stage and creating an exclusive event that can be capitalized.”
The resulting format “perpetuates the old, hierarchical model of learning, a minority of people who know and the majority who don’t,” Segar wrote.
TED brings value to meetings, and I can’t believe I’m complaining about an online phenomenon that has made content and knowledge cool. But like any innovation, it becomes counterproductive if it’s applied beyond its intended purpose.
Every time a meeting professional or program chair comes away from a TED talk determined to replace the next flavor-of-the-month motivational keynote with a speaker who has real substance, our industry gets a little better. But I worry when I see organizers replacing large swaths of their programs with 20-minute pitches.
If the format requires participants to sit still and listen, with limited time for dialogue or discussion, much of the value of a face-to-face meeting is lost.
If too many topics stream by too fast, participants have no time to process or ponder the new knowledge they’re supposed to be acquiring.
If we assume that the discussion and interaction will take place online—something TED does pretty well—the good news is the opportunity it gives us to keep participants engaged and to broaden the audience after the conference ends. But if the basis for that interaction is a collection of dozens or hundreds of verbatim video clips, very few site visitors will have time to go through all the source material, much less react to it.
None of this is to suggest that we stop incorporating TED-style designs in our program, or sneaking away to view TED videos when we can. But maybe meeting design’s contribution back to TED is to articulate its limits and point to better ways of making the format useful for participants.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.