TEDx has become the model for regional meetings. How five local organizers pull it off.
TED conferences—the events that bring together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design—have been happening since 1984. But it wasn’t until the last several years with the rise of social networking and quality, easily streamed online video that TED talks went viral. The most watched TED talk has more than 7 million views, suggesting that the tagline “ideas worth spreading” was well chosen.
Since 2009, those ideas worth spreading have multiplied dramatically with the advent of TEDx, the independently organized/curated regional variants of TED conferences. The organization grants licenses to individuals or corporations, based on location, to play host to TED-like events for the local community. Thousands of people around the world have obtained licenses, and already nearly 2,500 TEDx events have taken place in just the past two years.
TED provides plenty of guidelines for TEDx events, and the community of organizers is as open and collaborative as you’d imagine. Still, organizers are completely on their own when it comes to finding the speakers and subjects that will ignite a spark among audience members, including online viewers. Many have never organized events and are unfamiliar with the litany of details to tend and things that can go wrong when the cameras roll. We spoke with five TEDx organizers to learn their motivations for taking on this challenge, lessons they’ve learned and wisdom gained.
Charlie Wollborg, TEDxDetroit
When Charlie Wollborg applied for the TEDxDetroit license, he couldn’t wait “to get cool people in a room and see what happens.” What happened was a daylong homage to ideas originating in the city that has taken a beating and comes back fighting every time.
“If you read any media reports, it was ‘Detroit is dying, Detroit is dead,’” he said. “People had written Detroit off. We were a fur trading capital, then a military capital, then a timber metropolis and then the iron stove capital of the world. Furniture City, Motor City—our DNA is based on [a city] reinventing itself.”
Wollborg’s goal during and after TEDx events is to shine a spotlight on the Detroit successes and progress that few hear about: the local company that pioneered bladeless wind energy; the 9-year-old entrepreneur who donates 10 percent of his profits to a no-kill animal shelter; the documentary that attendees crowd-funded by purchasing one frame—for one dollar—at a time.
He’s now planning his fourth TEDxDetroit for fall 2012. Since launching, Wollborg says he has learned a lot, starting with the need for a sufficiently sized team. He started with just four people but has grown to 20 volunteers planning each conference.
Wollborg says nothing about planning the conferences has been particularly difficult, but there has been one frustration.
“When I call people up to ask, ‘Would you like to be part of TEDx?’ there is one of three responses: ‘Who’s Ted?’ ‘FedEx is coming to town?’ or ‘Oh my gosh, absolutely I want to be involved,’” Wollborg said. “It boggles my mind that people haven’t heard of it.”
Kat Haber, TEDxHomer
Since 2009, Kat Haber has produced three TEDx events in her hometown of Homer, Alaska, and she’s gearing up for more. Her reason for getting involved was two-fold: to bring the world to Homer and Homer to the world.
“The idea was to take the juicy, innovative ideas that I was tapping into at TED and bring those to Alaska through our little village,” Haber said. “And how could I source the solutions that had been created within our small town and push those out to the rest of the world?”
The first TEDxHomer was aimed at adults. The second year, Haber decided she wanted to bring the whole community together, kids and adults. So the conference was split into two parts: a half-day aimed at adults and a half-day aimed at youth.
“The feedback we got from the community was that they didn’t want to be separated,” she said. “The kids wanted to be included and have their voices heard on the same stage with the same respect as the adult speakers.”
TEDxHomer found its equilibrium in 2011, in an event that targeted the entire community. Young organizers, including Haber’s son McKenzy, also became heavily involved. In 2012, Haber predicts the youth organizers will plan and run the entire show.
According to Haber, the most difficult parts about organizing have been the details: working out finances, setting up technology and ensuring clear communications among the team. But she has found that the challenges—particularly those involving communication—often lead to personal breakthroughs for the volunteers.
“When you get down to the wire and decisions have to be made, people have to trust each other,” Haber says. “It’s a beautiful flow of letting go and showing up in the moment and having what you have and being grateful for joining together all of these ideas and people.”
Ruud Janssen, TEDxBasel and TEDxYouth@Basel
When Ruud Janssen became the TEDx licensee for Basel, Switzerland, he brought more than 15 years of events experience to the table. He already knew all of those details that other organizers encounter for the first time: obtaining sponsorships, integrating technology, repurposing content for later viewing and preserving the feel of live action in a hybrid live/prerecorded event. So it’s no surprise that the first conference was a success.
The biggest obstacle that Janssen had to overcome was a lack of understanding of the altruistic spirit behind TED. TED-related events are prohibited from incorporating any commercial, religious or political bias, and the people involved are generally volunteers. But when dealing with people who work with proprietary information—in corporate research and development, for example—he met resistance.
“The format is so pure and simple,” Janssen said. “Some organizations don’t understand why you’re doing it. Things that are larger than life can actually be changed [through TED], which is a strange phenomenon for people who aren’t into that or haven’t experienced that before.”
More challenges came when Janssen started planning the second event, a Basel-based TEDx youth conference, and discovered that audience engagement for kids ages 8 to 16 is a different matter altogether.
“Their attention span is shorter and the palate cleansers need even more direction and curation than if you were doing this with just adults,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s about allowing yourself to let go and let the kids do what they’re really good at. The tension between those two components drives a meeting organizer absolutely berserk, but it’s the best way of challenging yourself.”
Janssen advises other TEDx organizers to work only with people who don’t need convincing. And, he says, remember that TEDx isn’t just about the day.
“If all you want to do is put on a very good TEDx event, then you miss the point of ‘ideas worth spreading,’ which is more about meeting like-minded people able to articulate ideas well and getting them to be spread globally.”
Adora Svitak, TEDxRedmond
Adora Svitak is one of the rare TEDx organizers who didn’t just attend a TED conference but actually presented at one. She’s rarer still because when she presented, she was just 12 years old.
“The experience of being in a place filled with so many ideas and so much inspiration made me want to bring back something similar to my community,” Svitak said.
So she created an organizing committee of 16 young people and got to work. Today, Svitak is 14 and has already organized two TEDx events in her hometown of Redmond, Washington, and currently working on the third.
She says her organizing committee of 16 teens gets a lot of support from the parents. (TED requires that all organizers under the age of 18 be supervised by an adult). But the decisions, she says, are all made by the teens because the TEDx format is ideal for a for-kids-by-kids program.
“As young people, we’re at the perfect crossroads of this childish naiveté and realism,” Svitak said. “I think it can be easier for young people, being a little less cynical, understanding the message that speakers are putting forward and going into it with an open mind.”
Svitak says that planning TEDx events has become somewhat addictive because each event sets the bar higher and inspires more new people who crave even more ideas. To keep going, Svitak says she has had to learn the same lessons that all organizers eventually learn.
“Start early, delegate tasks and, above all, keep in mind why you’re doing it,” she said. “If I ever lost focus, forgot the fact that it’s ultimately about the inspiration and the impact, I would feel like all my hard work wasn’t going anywhere.”
Pablo Jenkins, TEDxJovenPuraVida
When Pablo Jenkins became a co-organizer of a TEDx youth event in Costa Rica, he was hoping to get young people inside his country better connected to each other and to the rest of the world at a time when they need it most.
“We were trying to think of ways we could get the TED message to people as they are deciding what they’re doing with their lives,” Jenkins said. “Young people are making important decisions, and a lot of the outlets where they would get information are not providing a vehicle that is very effective at giving them engaging, meaningful, exciting things to pursue.”
In September, hundreds of young people came to San José for the daylong conference, where they were exposed to social entrepreneurs, nonprofit founders, technologists, environmentalists and journalists. For some kids, it wasn’t just the first time they learned about these career options; it was their first visit to the city.
Jenkins got creative about audience engagement by asking each attendee to make a commitment. On a large white board shaped like a comment bubble, each attendee was asked to write a commitment and pose for a photograph. The pictures now populate the group’s Facebook page with promises of all kinds: exercise more, launch a business, write that thesis, stop thinking negatively and smile more often.
Rather than charge for attendance, Jenkins and his team decided to offer free admission to young people who sent in an idea via video. He says it was a way to get kids involved before they even arrived and to put them in the TED mindset so they would be ready to think about applying creative solutions to the problems they’ll face.
“There’s a shift in new kinds of careers,” Jenkins said. “The problems young people face are not solved by traditional careers. But these young people will be the ones dealing with the challenges we face over the next 20 years.”
Jenkins is already at work on next year’s TEDxJovenPuraVida event. He plans to improve the quality of the technical aspects, such as lighting, sound and online streaming, and to work with sponsors earlier in the process to make their stands more interactive.
Yes, there are a lot of challenges, he says, but they’re all challenges he looks forward to.
“I was afraid the TED high would end after the event,” Jenkins said. “But I saw that it could be sustained.” One+
future of meetings,
One+ December 2011,