I’m still getting my feet back on the ground after spending last week at TED2010. I left the conference with a much broader sense of possibility and a renewed commitment to thinking big. Many of the talks were dazzling, and while there was no one “best” talk, the most significant one may have been Bill Gates’ talk about the need to think seriously about nuclear power as a way to address climate change.
So what makes for a great conference? While TED is unique in its ability to bring together some of the smartest, most influential, most groundbreaking thinkers, there’s still a lot that TED does as a conference that others can and should borrow.
Here’s what I would copy if I were running any other conference:
- Single speakers talking – no panels. I’ve come to believe that the best way to waste the skills, talents, and insights of four great speakers is to put them all on the stage together with an inexperienced moderator. One person sharing a compelling vision beats out four people tripping over each other. (Caveat: a panel is not the same thing as an interview or a debate, which can work…but even those should be used sparingly).
- No parallel tracks. While TED2010 (including TED University; TED Fellows; audience speakers; and the main TED talks) probably had more than 100 speakers, there was one single track that everyone participated in. This focused attention and energy, gave people a common experience, and optimized the use of the conference space.
- Intersperse music and dance. No matter how great your speakers, by the early afternoon, energy will be waning. TED2010 put fabulous performers on the stage (the string quartet ETHEL; dancers from The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD); Natalie Merchant; David Byrne; and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro). The music was transcendent, and it reenergized the audience and brought life to the conference (and to the post-conference parties).
- “Radical openness.” www.ted.com is one of the most-viewed video sites on the web. In addition to fulfilling TED’s vision of “ideas worth spreading,” the knowledge that a great TED talk could be seen tens of millions of times raises the bar for all of the speakers. While most conferences won’t get global visibility, each conference has a core constituency that cannot be in the room. Making talks available to those who couldn’t come does two things: 1. It spreads the message; and 2. It pushes speakers to improve the quality of their talks, because they’ll compete for attention.
- Giant-sized name tags that everyone wears. Pretty self-explanatory and easy to execute. Make the first name bigger than everything else.
- Cocktail parties and buffets, not seated dinners. When the sessions end, people want to meet each other. Sitting people at a 10-top table so they can only talk to two or three people for two or three hours is a no-go.
There are a million other things that make TED special, but applying just these core ideas would make almost all conferences so much better – enough so that people might come to attend the conference talks (rather than just to meet the other attendees).
And if we’re not willing to raise the bar here, we may as well just get people together and only have them talk to each other. Publish who else is going to be there and hold a massively parallel conversation, not a conference.