The TED Experience

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The truth is that TED is a lot more like a community than a conference, and that speaks volumes to how much the world is changing and evolving over time.

Every year, 1,000 very lucky individuals apply to get invited to a conference called TED. There are many components that make the TED experience interesting – from the calibre of speakers to those who attend (it is a mix and mash of business leaders, showbiz types, entrepreneurs, educators, scientists and more). Most interesting is how the organizers of TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) manage to produce an event that keeps their Type A personality attendees engaged and focused on the content and overall experience for nearly five full days.

TED 2010 took place last week in Long Beach, California (and I was fortunate to have attended).

Each year, the conference takes on a theme, and this year’s theme was: "What the world needs now." TED head and curator, Chris Anderson, kicked off the event by letting the audience know that the time has come for action. To paraphrase his thoughts: We can’t just sit back and constantly reflect on how bad things got in the past few years (war, the economy, the environment) and nobody can tell the future, so the time has come for us to live in the now and do something. Something magical, something important, and something that will resonate and help us build the future together.

It may sound like one big, long jam session of ‘Kumbaya,’ but it isn’t. TED was best described by a TEDster as "gymnastics for the brain."

It’s an interesting place to be, and something that often leaves attendees stumped when it comes to explaining it to their peers – especially the business application of such an event. All sessions have sub-themes and feature three to four guest speakers who are given 18 minutes each to present their story. These speeches are intertwined with additional three-minute TED talks that are usually quick anecdotes or a demonstration of something new and unique. One segment of TED will have you listening to Microsoft chairman and global philanthropist Bill Gates discuss new and hopeful energy solutions for our environment, then Jake Shimabukuro (watch some of his work here: YouTube – Jake Shimabukuro) will assault your ears with his majestic mastery of the ukulele (Queen‘s Bohemian Rhapsody never sounded more beautiful) from there, biochemist and cell biologist Mark Roth talks about the potential of putting living organisms into suspended animation (and bringing them back), while comedian Sarah Silverman does what she does best (offends everybody).

And, with all of that, come ideas and conversations that spill out into the halls and into the lobbies of the surrounding hotels and restaurants and TED-sponsored parties… and beyond.

Montreal entrepreneur Austin Hill credits his attendance at TED in helping him to crystallize and formulate the business model for his latest venture, Akoha (a social gaming platform). Hill isn’t alone. It’s not uncommon to catch some of the better-known business minds jotting down notes and then heading to their iPhones on break to brainstorm with their teams back home. There is a social component to TED that can’t be understated. Attendees pay a fee, not to attend the conference, but which is considered an annual membership to the TED community and acts as a charitable donation to The Sapling Fund – a private non-profit foundation that was established in 1996 by Chris Anderson. The Sapling Fund owns the TED conference. The mandate of this foundation (according to the TED website) is to "foster the spread of great ideas. It aims to provide a platform for the world’s smartest thinkers, greatest visionaries and most-inspiring teachers, so that millions of people can gain a better understanding of the biggest issues faced by the world, and a desire to help create a better future."

TED spreads.

In the spirit of "ideas worth spreading" (TED’s tagline), conference organizers have shifted from a private annual event open only to 1,000 participants, to creating a TEDActive event that has people attending the TED conference in Palm Springs via satellite, to posting their infamous TED Talks online for free (which have seen hundreds of millions of views). There is also a TED Global event (taking place this year in Oxford, England), TED India and special TEDx events that allow anybody to create a TED-like experience in their own hometown.

Another special component is the TED Prize.

While usually this award is given annually to three unique individuals, TED 2010 saw the granting of "one wish to change the world" along with $100,000 and the help of people in the TED community to assist in turning the dream into a reality. Jamie Oliver, the world-famous chef, best-selling author and TV personality, won the award for his wish: "To create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again, and empower people everywhere to fight obesity."

The TED message of hope through knowledge is certainly an idea worth spreading, and is something that the business world needs now.

For more about information about TED and to check out some of my personal favourite TED Talks, go here: The TED Conference Is All About Ideas Worth Spreading.

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 – You can hook up with the TED experience via satellite or online.

Vancouver Sun – What the world needs now is more TED.


  1. I attended the TED Active event and it blew my mind. It is much more than a simulcast of the “Big TED”. We have local speakers of very high caliber and the community feeling is incredible. The smaller size, ~400 people, creates a very tight family atmosphere. There were a few kids, a couple of dogs, most of us sat in beanbag chairs. One morning, as a stunt, a bunch of people attended in their PJs for the first session. Lunches consisted of picnic baskets for six with table seating and blankets on the grass. Some evening were spent around the pool bonfires.
    Long breaks and events like a Friday night party in the desert, cycling, a flash mob in the middle of busy palm springs all combine to create an incredible experience that is about ideas and people. I HIGHLY recommend it.

  2. It does indeed sound very much like a community event. I hope to make it to one some day. I followed the link to your favourite TED talks and was happy to see two of them were ones that I list as my favourites, but even better was to discover two new ones that are now also my favourites!

  3. Hey Mitch – just a heads up that the link is dead. (It’s entered as
    Great article – hoping to be one of the lucky few in attendance next year!

  4. No problem.
    You figured out who’s won the free AoM tix yet? 😉
    Side note – really enjoying the MediaHacks Podcasts – great group on there; nice dynamic. Keep it up!

  5. I’ve been a fan of the TED talks for some time and even have favorites I keep on my iPod. I just saw the Jamie Oliver TED Prize wish video and was very moved by it. As a fledgling speaker and presenter, I love what he did to help get his points across.

  6. Sure. But let’s also remember TED is exclusionary, invitation only and for rich folks. It’s “gee whiz” science pre-sweetened, and predigested. If this is gymnastics – it’s from Home Shopping network.
    TED are great marketers and hats off. Goal #1 – make money. Best way to do that is tell rish, tech folks mainly what they want to hear: really, really caring a lot (“passion”) and gadgets (tech) can save the world. Simple.
    Reality is much more complex, unknowable and just hard. But who will pay $6k a head for THAT!? And it would take MUCH longer than 20 min and that’s a snore.
    However, if ppl move from TED to real science vids, and there are a gazillion of them, then what the heck. Try MIT World for a start.

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