Steve and TED’s Excellent Adventure

tedHave you ever found yourself at a party where you felt like if someone discovered who you really were, you would be ejected immediately? That’s a little bit how I’ve felt for the last six months or so since my invitation to speak at TEDGlobal 2014 was confirmed. You may be wondering yourself, why him? As someone who has previously applied for a TED Fellowship and been declined, I know how that feels. Why them and not me? The most important thing to understand about TED is that it is not a meritocracy, it is a network. In that way, it is complex and imperfect, like life. I have no doubt that there are many people more deserving than me but equally I believe I have something important to say and am grateful to be given the platform to reach a broader audience.

Preparation

I speak in public fairly often and I enjoy it. I also like to think I am a reasonably engaging speaker. I use slides but they are typically simple images, not a bullet point in sight.  I set out to connect, to translate technical issues into understandable ideas, inspired by other (mostly TED) speakers. Even so, I was still not quite prepared for what preparing for TED entails.

One of the greatest gifts that TED has given the world is to set a much higher bar for public speaking. Its knock-on effects on talks everywhere cannot be overstated. I aspired to deliver a talk Ken Robinson-style and have people spellbound from start to finish.

The process of engagement with TED has been an interesting learning experience. Back in March my mentor/liaison at TED said he would be looking for an outline or draft talk roughly by the beginning of the summer. Thus I determined I would have a draft by the 30th of June. July came and I had nothing, many post-it notes, a cavalcade of ideas that were swirling round my head, but nothing coherent. In the first week of July, I set myself a deadline for the end of the week to produce a draft. Then the second week, and so on. As Douglas Adams said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. And so July and August passed. My wife’s patience began to grow thin as I agonised over finding the right narrative.

Then at the end of August, an email from my mentor arrived and I knew I had to produce. The months of gestation crystalised overnight into a first draft which I immediately sent off. Then it got more interesting. The curators of TED already have a reasonably strong sense of what they want you to say. As active curators of the TED experience they are concerned with the overall message of the conference. They also know “what works” in the context of TED. The development of the talk is a kind of dance with TED and often it is not entirely clear who is leading. No doubt this experience varies with the stature of the speaker. I got a lot out of the interaction and learned in the process.

A slightly embarrassing revelation for me was to discover how dependent I still was on slides. In drafting a talk with only some slides to illustrate key points (as was suggested to me), the crutch of “slide as talking cue” was taken away and I found myself losing my way in practice more often than I normally would. I ended writing out my entire talk and this also presented new challenges. I discovered that my written prose is quite different from how I naturally speak. I am still not quite sure what to make of that but I do know that when I read the talk I had written out loud, I sounded terribly stilted and unnatural. Thus began several re-writes to rediscover how I naturally talk.

Once I had written the talk I thought I wanted, I struggled to absorb the whole thing and have it come out naturally. This culminated in the dress rehearsal three days before my talk in which I stumbled through my fifteen minutes in a way that had me thinking that disaster awaited. It was probably a good thing, as it sent me back to my hotel room to practice over and over and over again. I said my talk out loud so many times that I became completely sick of it, but finally it was burnt into my brain which weirdly allowed me to let go of the script. I know that practice is essential in giving a talk but I didn’t credit just how much practice is needed in order to not have to worry on stage.

Because you do worry. The real pressure in TED talks is not how you perform on the day but in thinking how it will look online in the longer term. We’ve all seen YouTube comments and it can take a thick skin to ignore them even when you know that they’re trolls. The pressure to get it right for posterity is where all my stress came from. A tip I only learned afterwards is that if something goes wrong in the live delivery, you can actually rewind your talk on the spot to just before the slip and start again, and the magic of video editing will remove the error.

How did I do?  Not bad although it was a little geeky for the room. The super positive nature of TED events makes it a difficult place to get critical feedback. The most insightful comment I got on my talk was at the last evening celebration where I was letting loose on the dancefloor, “dancing like no one was watching” and a TEDster (for so they are called) said to me “great dancing, great talk!” “But not in that order?” I replied hopefully. He shook his head. You needed more of that (pointing to the dancefloor) in your talk.  And he was right. Great talks come from the heart, are backed up by evidence, and are communicated with passion. I think I got the first two but I was still too self-conscious to be truly passionate in delivery.

I learned so many things about speaking in this process that I thought I already knew that I am indebted to TED for this alone. But there was so much more.

The Conference

The TED Global conference was a beautiful machine that ran so smoothly that most of the time you didn’t notice the machinery in operation. I am a bit of an event facilitation geek and TED is so well organised that it really is breathtaking. As a speaker, my every engagement with TED staff, from the moment I knew I as going till after I got home was friendly, helpful and professional. This was all the more striking for having attended the facilitation travesty that is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul a month earlier. A part of this is down to money. TED smells strongly of money from the deluxe hotel and venue to the army of dedicated staff that cater to your every need. It is a kind intellectual and social pampering that simultaneously seductively draws you in to luxuriate in the experience but which also feels slightly otherworldly.  But money is just an enabler, the real magic comes in the orchestration of social interaction, the lessons of which can be applied to any event.

Rio de Janeiro on Copacabana beach in an amazing hotel with a theatre actually built on the beach is a pretty incredible setting for anything. Having spent a year in Brazil as a student, I was already in love with the country and the people. And the TED conference amplified this by creating a kind of feast for the senses everywhere you went. There were interesting things to nibble on at every turn and a barista ready to arm you with a latte whenever your energy flagged. And then of course the sensory experience of TED itself with visual and music artists that paced the actual talks giving ideas a chance to percolate while other senses were being stimulated.

In some ways all of this pales in comparison to the social design of the event. From dawn till dusk, TED is designed to make it easy for you to meet people and get to know them. They create loads of physical spaces that are just for people to hang out in. Don’t feel like going to the theatre itself for the talk? It is simulcast in several different venues around the event which have comfy chairs. Event after event is crafted to create the serendipity of meeting and talking to people while you are doing something else, from taking a local tour, to morning runs, to yoga sessions, to samba lessons; all crafted for entertainment but more importantly to catalyse new conversations. One of the most profound things that has ever been said about the Internet is by Cory Doctorow who said, “Content is not king… Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.” This is what makes the TED conference so special. They know this and design the event to create content that sparks conversations.

They also iterate their conference design as they go, introducing new process ideas with each event and learning from what does and doesn’t work. This is brilliant but it is also not rocket science. Conferences that skimp on event design and facilitation squander their most precious resource, the people who attend them.

The value of speaker curation also cannot be overstated. The organisers go to great lengths to find interesting people/ideas and help them get their message across in an engaging manner in less than 15 minutes. The purpose of these talks is two-fold: they are conversation starters and holders at the event and they are also designed to inspire. Hearing stories directly from people who are passionate about what they do and who have done remarkable things has the effect of catalysing ambition in those who hear it. This can happen via YouTube but it is much more powerful live where you can actually talk to the speakers about the experience afterwards. I came away from the event slightly drunk with ambition to do more, to be more. I’m told there is often a hangover associated with this but I haven’t experienced it yet.

On TEDness

Every organisation or event of sufficient size develops its own culture and TED is no exception. Its focus on ideas can sometimes results in talks that can seem a little too speculative or improbable. It has also been accused of sacrificing complexity for performance. This tendency is beautifully parodied by the Onion. Is this true? I think inevitably yes, sometimes. But when TED works best, a talk becomes a portmanteau for complexity: it allows people to talk about a complex issue as a building block for other discussions. It also works well when it simply provides a different lens through which we can see the world. I think both of those things can be extremely valuable.

For those jaded by the real world, TED’s determined earnestness and positivity can be a little off-putting at first. It is probably the easiest place in the world to get a standing ovation, although apparently not that easy as it did not happen to me. While that may not be to everyone’s taste, I found the value of focusing on the positive, which had the impact of creating a very safe space for very open conversations, to outweigh what might have been lost by the occasional need for calling out the emperor’s new clothes. The basic premise is that bad ideas will die of their own accord.

It is a very eclectic mix of people. First you have the TED speakers and fellows who are quite varied in their fields and achievements. Some, like Glenn Greenwald, are household names and others, like me, are more niche interests. I gather TED Global is a different sort of flavour to the regular TED event but this is the only TED event I’ve been to so I can’t compare.  For me the interaction with the other speakers was the highlight of the conference.  But then there are the people who are the financial engine of TED who pay the fee plus hotels, etc. to attend. As someone who has trouble imagining paying that sort of sum for a conference of any kind, I was curious. It seems to break down into two categories, either people who have made enough money personally to not worry about a $6000 ticket or people who work for companies/organisations large enough to consider a $6000 ticket a small price to pay for new ideas, connections, etc.; think World Bank, Gates Foundation, etc. That makes for a kind of eclectic environment. Many of the attendees were remarkable people in their own right who could easily have been on the stage. Of course there were duds too but history will deal with them.

Any organisation that charges what TED does to attend is inevitably elitist. To their credit, TED have addressed this in part by making all the talks available online for free and for encouraging the proliferation of TEDx events everywhere. For anyone with something to say, it is a very desirable event because it has become such a powerful platform for reaching people. The fact that the number of speakers is necessarily limited and that selection process is not transparent is inevitably frustrating for those who are not asked. Being there was a little like the feeling I get when I use my gold frequent flyer card to bypass queues at the airport. I feel guilty at my lack of egalitarianism but at the same time part of me feels I’ve earned it (every mile in cattle class) and it is so nice not to have to wait. TED Global 2014 was like that. I felt a bit guilty that it was me and not so many other amazing people who equally or more deserved the opportunity but at the same time it was amazing to be there.

Takeaways

meMy dominant emotion in coming away from TED Global was a powerful urge to kick things up a notch, several notches actually. Being around remarkable people really does re-fuel one’s sense of passion and commitment. Perhaps that’s an obvious thing but I did not expect it to be so visceral. This powerful need I have right now to kick out the jams made it clearer for me why people are willing to pay to attend.

I also come away with a strong desire to stop attending workshops/conferences where no investment has been made in the facilitation and social design of the event. It is such a waste of money to fly people around the world to a conference or workshop that is not designed to take real advantage of all the people attending.