Is TED the new Toastmasters?

Nathan Heller writes a brilliant piece on the TED talks in the New Yorker, asking the question, “Has a conference turned idea into an industry?”  

I’m sure you’ve seen many TED talks, such as Jill Bolte’s real-time description of witnessing her own stroke. Or Simon Simek’s game changing exposé of what’s really driving leadership (and marketing). And then there’s the more risque, such as Nicole Daedone’s explanation (and how-to instruction) on women’s orgasms saving the world.

The TED conference undoubtedly revolutionized speaking and education: They limited speakers to 18 minutes, forcing them to focus, while inspiring them to create what’s called a “TED moment” – a standing ovation that goes on and on. And those moments are hardly random. The curators work tirelessly to find material that’s new and counterintuitive, so it has that shock value. And then there’s what’s become the formula. Heller describes it perfectly:

The Ted Talk Arc

1. Opening of direct address
2. Narrative of personal stake
3. A research summary
4. A précis of potential applications
5. A revelation to drive it home
6. And ending that says, “Go forth and help humanity.” 

I loved all of this when there was simply the TED talk in southern california. But my energy and passion for it has waned as the brand extended through TEDx. Anyone can apply to host a local version of TED, and there are now five a day throughout the world. It’s certainly not “easy” to get approved, and it comes with a 136-page manual to execute it. But now the number of talks is overwhelming and the quality certainly suffers. 

In a way, it’s a brilliant combination of open and closed systems.  What is open vs closed? Apple is the most famous example of a closed system – it’s totally regulated. Its code based is not shared, and anyone on the system (such as app creators) need to be approved. Open systems (Linux, Android) allow everyone to play in the name of innovation and free markets as the best drivers of progress. Closed systems focus on quality control to maintain a consistent experience, while open systems focus on crowdsourcing the new ideas. 

Now I wonder if TED is embracing the worst of each world – the low quality of high proliferation, and then the formulaic process, akin to a Hollywood story format that gets used over and over again. Yes, when done right, it can be both entertaining and life changing. But now we have to sort through more and more content to find them. I think we now need a curator for all this curated content.

Richard Saul Wurman, the original creator of TED seems to be tired of the entertainment factor and wants to make it a completely engaging experience.  He sold TED to Business 2.0 magazine founder, Chris Anderson who is responsible for taking it from a conference to a brand empire. When asked why Wurman is not invited back, Anderson replied, “He started talking about this idea that the prepared talk was finished. I think his words were, ‘I now must destroy what I created.'”  Understandable that his invitation would get “lost in the mail.”  

While Wurman did not have the chance to destroy TED, this month he created his new model to replace it. Called WWW.WWW, the conference is free form discussion, taped in black and white, and set to be released via an interactive app, rather than passive video. It certainly sounds more like the passion project of a rich eccentric of yesteryear, than a TED replacement… But I still think he’s onto something. 

I’ll share that idea in my next post.