Many people consider TED, the conference Richard Saul Wurman founded, to be innovative and groundbreaking. But Wurman himself, in a wide-ranging speech at the Professional Convention Management Association’s 2012 Convening Leaders conference, offered a different assessment. “I invented the TED Conference by subtraction,” he said. He just got rid of the things he didn’t like about meetings.
He did away with dress codes, especially ties, which he cut off a speaker at one conference. He hates panels so he eliminated those. He did away with lecterns because it gives speakers something to hide behind and hold their prepared remarks. “Who wants to be read to?” he said. And when he gives speeches, he never starts until people sit in the front rows. As soon as he walked on stage at the January PCMA meeting in San Diego, he asked the audiovisual team to turn down the lights so he could see the audience. “They sound like funny little details, but meetings are made up of so many small things,” he said. “Every little detail is important to me.”
Wurman, an architect who has written 80 self-published books, founded TED in 1984 because he saw a convergence between technology, entertainment, and design. But also, he wanted to learn about things he didn’t understand. “I wanted to design a meeting I’d want to be at," he said. His tactic: Invite interesting people to talk about interesting things. “Learning is remembering what we are interested in,” he said. That’s also his philosophy as an author. “I write books about things I don’t understand,” he added, that’s where curiosity begins. In his talk, Wurman bemoaned the fact that there’s so much information available, but that most things really aren’t explained to or understood by people. He’s coined the phrase “information architect” to talk about how the massive amount of available data needs a framework to be understood, and that framework is what he’s tried to create with his various endeavors.
Wurman’s first major experience running an event came in 1976 when he chaired the American Institute of Architects meeting in his hometown of Philadelphia. Wurman didn’t use hotels for meeting space and didn’t have any exhibit space. He went around the city talking to business executives and got them to host sessions and provide meals in their meeting rooms. “I used the whole city for the meeting,” he said. He even created a fictitious character dubbed the “information architect” to be keynoter.
In addition to TED, Wurman has founded the EG Conference, for innovators in entertainment, education, and technology; and TEDMED, about healthcare and technology. He has since sold all three, and now, at age 76, has plans to launch four new conferences over the next three years.
The first is called WWW.WWW, which is scheduled for September 18–20. The concept is to invite people on stage for improvised one-on-one conversations. Wurman says there won’t be introductions, or presentations, or time limits, and he reserves the right to stop the conversation when he feels it’s no longer interesting. He believes the format will bring out more honesty. Only 66 people will be invited, among them architect Frank Gehry, magician David Blaine, publisher Arianna Huffington, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, scientist Juan Enriquez (who spoke at PCMA 2012), Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, and General Stanley McChrystal. During the conversations, the conference’s musical directors—Herbie Hancock and Yo-Yo Ma—will provide improvised musical accompaniment. The event will be filmed in black and white, streamed live to some locations, and available for viewing via a tablet app.
In spring 2013, Wurman plans to launch Prophesy2025, which will take place in five cities (Beijing, Chicago, Berlin, Abu Dhabi, and Delhi) over the course of five sequential Mondays. Each day will include five 50-minute talks, with each speaker giving his or her predictions about what the world will be like in 2025.
After that, Wurman’s Geeks and Geezers Summit is planned for spring 2014, focusing on discussions between young and old generations, and in 2015 he will create FEDMED, a conference to discuss healthcare policy and governance around the world.