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December 15, 2009

All the World's a Stage

By Spear's

Want to get plugged in to the most exciting and exclusive network of power players in the world? Better have an idea worth spreading, says Sophie Walker

Want to get plugged in to the most exciting and exclusive network of power players in the world? Better have an idea worth spreading, says Sophie Walker

FANCY AN AUDIENCE with Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Sergey Brin and Larry Page? How about high-fiving Al Gore on your way down from the platform having wowed the enraptured assembly, then having the lot broadcast on one of the most sophisticated and heavily trafficked academic websites in the world? A number of other unpaid speakers at TED conferences do, too, including Gordon Brown.

To an ambitious entrepreneur, progress-hungry CEO or indeed champing-at-the-bit political figure, the opportunity to pay $6,000 for a place at the annual TED conference in Long Beach, California (or its sister conference, TED Global, in Oxford) is the equivalent of finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket (only slightly more expensive).

The invitation-only TED event is a factory of sorts, generating the stuff that overachievers’ dreams are made of: open ears, big ideas, instant connections with people who have the means and motivation to put plans into action. It’s a networking opportunity par excellence, which is why figures who could command £10,000 for an after-dinner speech are queuing up to get on stage and talk free of charge. It’s a rarefied milieu to address.

Notable speakers (or ‘Tedsters’) have included world heavyweights such as Bill Clinton, Larry Brilliant and Jeff Bezos, while it has introduced some lesser-known but just as influential figures in the world of science and technology, such as Mena Trott, the co-founder of pioneering blogging softwear company SixApart.

Applications for the strictly limted 1,450 golden tickets per conference are considered individually by registration, recommendation and TED’s coveted invitation. However much you may want to enter the inner sanctum and behold the oracle, it’s not just a question of flashing the cash. TED is a fastidious meritocracy where inspiration, not money, talks.

‘Our goal is a diverse community of amazing people from different fields,’ explains the blurb on the website for TED’s admissions criteria. ‘We give preference to people who are curious, passionate, open-minded; have done something fascinating with their lives; show evidence of creativity, innovation, insight or brilliance; would be wonderful to sit next to at lunch and have a conversation with; are well placed to make a difference to the world.’ It’s an anxiety-inducing profile for the shrinking violet, but then that’s clearly not who TED is after anyway.

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SPEAKERS ARE SELECTED to discourse on ‘Idea Worth Spreading’ within the subject of their expertise for a limit of 18 minutes. Talks are highly polished, often very entertaining, studded with multimedia, moving-image slides and props (one memorably being a dissected human brain), with provocative and often moving results. Unlike most conferences and lecture programmes, TED never shies away from being entertaining. Like its contemporary, the search behemoth Google, it’s more cool than corporate.

TED is quasi-evangelist and right-on. The atmosphere at the event has been rapturously described as ‘a 21st-century Chautauqua’, ‘a cerebral spa’ and ‘an intellectual Mardi Gras’. Attendees seem to get whipped up into a sort of deeply tribal, orgiastic intellectual fervour when in the presence of all this idealism. Testimonies show that that’s also a rather good atmosphere in which to do business. ‘At each TED conference something important happens to me — a new business, a new friend. I return exhilarated,’ says Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of MIT Media Lab. But the only capitalist agenda here is of the social kind.

The organisation has come a long way since its birth as a summit for innovators in Technology, Entertainment and Design in 1984. Not only does it now embrace more diverse fields, including science, politics and business, it has ramped up its vision for the future, too. TED wants to become no less than the go-to hub for the greatest ideas on the planet, harnessing this utopianism and deploying it in the outside world. Its a sophisticated mutation of philanthrocapitalism; using business ideas and methods to promote charitable ends, all of which hinges on its use of the web.

Probably the most significant departure in TED’s history was curator Chris Anderson’s drive to take TED talks online after his accession in 2001. There’s a TED BC/AC (Before Chris and After Chris) divide. Anderson has sculpted TED into a highly desirable not-for-profit commercial prospect. His own fairytale trajectory from struggling gadgets and technology journalist to millionaire publishing entrepreneur and media mogul and back down to penniless debtor with only his hard-knock experience and a desire to do new work for good underpins TED’s deeply aspirational spirit and its sophisticated new media methods.

Starting in 2006, TED talks began to be streamed online and the success of the site, which functions more like an enlightened on-demand channel, is staggering. More than 500 talks are currently streamed online and they have so far been watched over 100 million times by 15 million people. New talks are added constantly, but staggered so as not to devalue the intellectual property for which TED conference attendees can lay their $6,000 claim.

THE SITE IS dynamic and exciting to use, with the talks and performances cleverly organised by theme, sector, and — that principle so particular to the web — user-promoted content. A TED speaker is at the mercy of their audience rating them either ‘Most Fascinating’, ‘Most Persuasive’, or, at the other end of the scale, simply ‘OK’ or ‘Unconvincing’. Ouch. But for the user it’s a stimulating and involving game.

From a marketing perspective, TED is uniquely positioned brand that equals ‘optimism, future, blue-sky thinking’. For business leaders, the primary advantage of being profiled as a speaker on is the chance to add nuance to their profile online. Nothing speaks to the YouTube generation more effectively than a moving image, or hearing the cadence of a voice. From a viewer’s perspective it poses a fascinating insight that no printed word could replicate — seeing Sergey Brin and Larry Page speak together is an interesting peek into the dynamic of this famous pair. Bill Gates is more intensely ordinary than expected; Felix Dennis even more outrageous. Memorable, both.

A natural Tedster in waiting, Robin Wight of UK ad agency WCRS is a keen follower of TED’s remarkable development. ‘I would love to go to the conference and give a speech,’ Wight testifies. ‘And in terms of the website I think it’s a fantastic idea, a great concept to catch all the interesting ideas springing up about the place and arrange them in such an organised and accessible fashion online.

‘We are all increasingly comfortable with sending links to things of interest and we all have 18 minutes to spend watching a TED talk,’ he adds with a rueful grin, ‘however busy we are. I think that TED is reaching its critical mass. It seems poised to grow suddenly, very soon. Five people have sent me the link to Rory Sutherland’s talk in the last month or so. When ad men like Rory start to pay attention, you know that something is going on commercially.’

TED is already an ambitious fusion of idealism and commerce. It’s a great affiliation for brands looking to appear more conscientious and forward-thinking, quite a thing in this current climate. The option to get involved as an online or prize sponsor is clearly appealing and accessible, but nothing would beat the golden ticket for a fantastic journey into the hallowed and hair-raising inner sanctum of the utopian world of TED.

Speakers at TED (from top): TED curator Chris Anderson, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Elizabeth Gilbert, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Kevin Kelly and Larry Brilliant

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