It’s a mid-summer weekend in sunny Colorado and thousands of people are standing in line, actually various lines that snake all around the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in downtown Denver. They are all waiting to get into the theater to hear a series of talks. These talks will cover a wide variety of subjects. One will be about a big idea, something that may change the world in the coming years. Another may be a personal narrative, and another may even be a musical or poetic performance. The only thing these talks have in common is the main draw. The main reason anyone chose to spend a Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer inside a building as opposed to in the mountains where most Coloradans chose to spend their summer weekends, the association with a brand known as TED.
Most people have some form of exposure to TED talks, even if they did not purposely seek them out. TED talks are shown at all sorts of conferences and workshops, are shared with friends and colleagues regularly, and are commonly found in web searches. This was the first time I chose to attend a TED event, but I have watched quite a few TED talks in my life. When you are really ill, watching TED talks on YouTube can be the most productive thing to do with your time.
What I notice most about TED talks, both at this conference and online, is the fact that I never get bored during them, despite the fact that I find it quite easy to get bored and antsy during presentations, especially of the standard power point variety. It is quite clear that the people who organize TED events (and TEDx events, which means they are independently organized) follow a formula that takes into account how the human mind works and responds to information as presented. Talks are generally 15-20 minutes, consistent with most scientific understanding of the human attention span. Short videos are presented between talks of wildly differing topics to ease the transition from one topic to another.
Speakers undergo a rigorous three-month long process of preparation to ensure all TED talks meet their standards. As a result, speakers always seem to emphasize the right words, stay poised, and avoiding using filler words. Auditions for speakers for this conference took place in February, and auditions for their next conference, in November, take place at the end of July!
When I think of the brand TED, the first thing I think of is people who think like me. By this, I do not mean people who have the same opinions on certain specific issues or policies. It is more of a general sense of what “TED people” are like. If there is one thing that binds all the people who speak at and participate in this brand known as TED, it is the desire to think beyond the day-to-day routine, the next task or the next purchase. People come here because they want to be inspired. They imagine possibilities beyond what is seen directly in front of them day-to-day. They want to engage their intellectual curiosity. They believe their life will be changed, or even that the world will be changed, by something they hear about and talk about here.
The conference provided a few other perks as well…
Each ticket, regardless of whether it was General Admission, VIP, or All Access, provided a free lunch, to be redeemed at one of many food trucks located in sculpture park behind the Denver Performing Arts Center (which houses the Ellie Caulkins Opera House). There were vendors for many other other organizations too, including ones that focus on environmental activism, sell new flavors of tea, or focus on career development. At the end of the conference, I even got a free pair of eclipse glasses, which I intend to use to view next month’s total solar eclipse.
After 22 speakers spread over three sessions, meeting countless interesting people, and a really awesome after-party (there was an after party both nights, but I only attended the Saturday night one due to poor meal planning on my part), I felt something absolutely crazy. I came out of this conference with more energy than when I had arrived. I wasn’t expecting this, as most conferences leave me drained. This one covers even more intellectually and emotionally draining topics than most.
The success of the TED brand seems to run contrary to every piece of business advice I have ever received. I am always told to have a specific product in mind, a narrower purpose, and a specific target audience, like all those blogs that focus on one activity.
Yet, this idea seemed to start with a broader purpose; to inspire and change the world. Then, they thought about humanity and found the most effective way in which to present the information. If TEDxMileHigh Point of Departure taught me anything (other than specifics like how fast a supersonic jet can go) it is to stop worrying about how others achieved, or what status anyone has. It is all about having something to offer that people see as worth-wile, and bringing it to them effectively, regardless of titles or perceived status.