The TED Conference Is All About Ideas Worth Spreading

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If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, who would you invite? What would it look like?

That was the premise and that was the question that Richard Saul Wurman asked himself in the mid-’80s. Wurman – a U.S. architect and graphic designer – is more widely known as the person who coined the phrase "information architect." He also became a very successful publisher of travel books before acting on his impulse to invite some of the people he found fascinating to dinner. In 1990, he turned that dinner party idea into an invitation-only event called TED.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and the annual event is open to only 1,000 people that the TED organizers deem worthy (I was very fortunate to attend TED in 2008).

The truth is that TED is much more than just technology, entertainment and design. TED is trying to change the world.

Presenters give "TED Talks" – 18-minute presentations on topics that also include science, arts, politics, culture, business, global issues and more. But, the event is not just about the presentations. It’s about what happens in the hallways during intermission and what takes place while socializing in the evening. The TED conference tagline is "ideas worth spreading" and, over the years that’s exactly what this conference has done.

In 2002, Chris Anderson (one of the people behind the magazine Business 2.0 and the very popular gaming website IGN) took over as curator of the TED conference and gave ownership of the event to his non-profit organization, The Sapling Foundation. The fee for the conference shifted to an annual membership model (around $6,000 U.S.), which includes a pass to the TED event along with club mailings and more. In the interest of spreading the ideas being shared, TED now publishes many of their TED Talks online – free.

They’re available from their website or you can subscribe for free via iTunes in Podcast format (in both audio and video). Anyone can now experience TED when and how they want.

One participant has called the event "gymnastics for the brain." On any given day, you could watch speakers as diverse as Al Gore presenting his thoughts on the environment to TV and film writer, director and producer J.J. Abrams (Lost and Alias), talk about the power of mystery. The conference is not just about growing your business, it’s about something much bigger than that. It’s about growing your mind.

For years, TEDsters (as they call themselves) converged in Monterey, Calif., but this year’s event – Feb. 3-7 – was moved to Long Beach, Calif. To expand the audience and reach, TED has announced people can watch the event live on the Internet (the cost for this is about $1,000 U.S.).

The economy has definitely made events like this even less accessible to the masses.

The first place most businesses are chopping is their event marketing and participation at conferences. If the price and travel is prohibitive, and you think the $1,000 price tag to watch it online is still a little dicey in these times, there are hundreds of past TED Talks online that are free, but here are four 18-minute ones that will melt your brain:

Sir Ken Robinson.

Creativity expert and education system re-invention evangelist Sir Ken Robinson makes a compelling, funny and brilliant presentation on the power of creativity and how we’re getting it wrong when it comes to educating our children. Essentially, we are killing creativity when we should be focusing on it.

Benjamin Zander.

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. He is also one of the best speakers you will ever experience. He is the co-author of the book, The Art of Possibility, and – even if you never cared much for classical music – this will change your mind. Music and passion make people amazingly more successful and if your eyes are not shining after this presentation, it might be time to consider a different career.

Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling proves that the devil is in the details. This amazing look at third-world myths through new data visualization will not only get you excited about the future of mankind, but might get you thinking differently about how we use data and information in business (and how boring you thought it was). Rosling is a doctor and researcher who, after speaking at TED, took on a position at Google.

Majora Carter.

You can’t have a strong business without a strong community and Majora Carter‘s emotional presentation about her fight for environmental justice in the South Bronx demonstrates the power of the human spirit and how leaders do emerge to make a difference. Watch this one with your co-workers who think that nothing can change and things have to be "the way they have always been."

The world of new business is not just about the bottom line. It’s about making the bottom line count for something. TED is a celebration of ideas and thinkers. Every day your business is poised with another challenge. Your success in navigating that challenge is going to be measured by how creative, passionate and embracing of change you are. TED celebrates that. You should join in on the celebration – either live on the Internet next week or by watching some of the past TED Talks right now.

What do you think about the TED conference? Which TED talks have moved you?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

Montreal Gazette – Here’s an exclusive club that anyone can join.

Vancouver Sun – TEDsters are the smartest guys in the room, and you can listen in.


  1. TED is excellent video source. Everytime I watch video on TED, I get excited by what people do. One of my favorites is Kevin Kelly next 5000 days of internet.

  2. I’m a long time fan of TED. I refer to it often when discussing with speakers.
    My favourite TED Talks are still Sir Ken Robinson and Hans Rosling.

  3. I’m a big fan of Benjamin Zander, so his speech is one of my favorites of TED. But I also like the variety of presenters that TED attracts, like the beatbox performance of James Burchfield.

  4. Great read! I am a new fan of TED since last a few months.
    I vote for Benjamin Zander. When I whatched it for the first time, I thought it was some kind of show. Actually it was not only a presentation, but meaning many many more!

  5. I love Ted Talks… I think it was here, on twist image blog that pointed out my favorite one;
    Benjamin Zander.
    Good stuff.
    I wonder how a Mitch Joel TED talk would go? 😉

  6. I too am in love with the TED Talks. So inspiring and thought-provoking. It’s near impossible to pick just a few favorites since TED gets so many amazing presenters. But:
    Philip Zimbardo – probably not the most dynamic speaker at TED – but wow – what he has to say. His presentation on “How ordinary people become monsters … or heroes”is as disturbing as it is fascinating.
    (I’ve always believed his prison experiment (and electroshock/authority test) were 2 of the most telling psychological/sociological experiments ever done.)
    Gever Tulley: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do�?
    – because people tend to protect their children into paralysis – and the topic inspired one of my rants ( )
    Julie Sweeney performing from her one-woman show. I expected nothing – but found myself alternately amused, moved and charmed.

  7. Thanks for posting this Mitch. Especially with respect to the Richard Saul Wurman reference. Having received my degree in Architecture (and 3 years of interning at architectural firms) I love how he transitioned into other universes. Continues to affirm my path in life.
    Also can’t remember when I discovered TED but I love, love their talks.
    If I coudl invite anyone to a dinner party who would it be. . .
    Li EdelKoort
    Malcolm Gladwell
    Kofi Annan
    Charlie Rose
    Barak Obama
    Angelina Jolie

  8. Mitch
    Thanks for this post, gave me a few more to go and look at.
    My two faves so far:
    Sir Ken Robinson (the English dry wit and delivery is Cleese like in some ways)
    Will Wright – inventor of SIM City and now Spore – the guy’s thought process is just amazing and a great advertisement for Montessori education
    Just my toonies worth

  9. My brain is addicted to TED for quite a while now and I think that this kind of content is missing in Montreal. Having a virtual access to this content is a thing, but having the chance to be there surrounded by cross-fields thinkers has to be a richer experience.
    Instead of creating Associations based on content such as music festivals or fashion week, I think cities should get involved in making those kinds of gathering happen. A gathering based on creativity and innovative thinking. It attracts smart people and your city suddenly become a smart city!
    So I am asking, would you get involved in such an event in Montreal or Toronto?

  10. Let’s do it in Montreal then. I feel that Ideacity is conservative and business oriented, I’m I wrong? I dream of the right balance beetween TED and Pesha Kusha.
    Accessible, inspirational and for a younger audience. The 25-35 generation.
    Are you in ?

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