TED is not your usual conference. Like all conferences, it has presentations, exhibits, parties, name badges, and people. All are different in ways that I will describe below, but the people are the best part. It's an event where you can pick any person at random and not only will they talk to you, but you will learn something interesting.
TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) was started by Richard Saul Wurman, a designer and author best known for his book Information Anxiety and his Access Travel Guides. The first conference, in 1984, lost money and he didn't do TED 2 until 1990, but by TED 3 in 1992 he was on a roll. The conference sold out every year, sometimes a year in advance. Contrary to popular belief, you didn't need to be invited, but TED spent nothing on PR or marketing. As Wurman said on stage this year in a remarkably candid interview, "Why should I give a free seat to a reporter when I could give it to someone who would pay for it?" In those days before the World Wide Web, the only publicity was word of mouth, but the word spread quickly to an eclectic set of technologists, entertainers, and designers.
Wurman admits he didn't really care that much about his audience but ran the conference so he could hear from speakers that interested him. As he put it, holding "the dinner party I always wanted to have." Sometimes it seemed he took pleasure in abusing his customers, whether it be a no-refunds registration policy or the way he would give away a big screen TV and then tell the lucky winner that shipping was not included. Still, Richard (or Ricky as everyone called him when he wasn't listening) threw himself wholeheartedly into the conference, whether it be showing tears on stage after a particularly moving presentation or allowing the Raspyni Brothers to juggle knives to each other with Richard in the middle. He also invested a lot of his energy between conferences persuading people to come and present, drawing such diverse speakers as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jonas Salk, Arno Penzias, Herbie Hancock, Frank Gehry, Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama, and Oliver Stone. Unlike most conferences where the celebrity speakers fly in just for their presentation, most of the TED speakers stayed the whole week, and returned in subsequent years to sit in the audience. This effect gave the conference a reputation for being an exclusive event, but there were plenty of people in the audience who had (not yet) won the Nobel Prize or taken their company public. What characterized the audience was a keen interest in ideas and the willingness to shell out a substantial sum of money a year in advance in the belief that each year's conference would be as good or better than the last. By and large that faith was justified. Not every accomplished person was a good presenter, but as Richard put it, "the bad presentations didn't last that long." The best ones were unique to TED.
A good TED presentation comprises equal parts of interesting material, polished delivery, and an emotional connection with the audience. The use of bullet-point slides and blatant sales pitches are strongly discouraged. The topics can be as lofty as genetics research, as entertaining as Penn and Teller, or as moving as describing an escape from the killing fields of Cambodia. The presentation can be a set of images or just a person standing in the spotlight. The best talks, and the ones most likely to receive a standing ovation, are the ones where the speaker breaks down the fourth wall and draws in the audience, either by sharing some personal experience or getting the audience to participate in some activity.
In 2001, Wurman sold the conference for $14 million to The Future Network, publisher of Business 2.0. Future in turn sold the conference to the Sapling Foundation for $6 million. Chris Anderson, who was the former Chairman of Future and the Director of Sapling, became the new organizer of TED and the conference entered a new era. There are some signs that Wurman had seller's remorse. While he professed to be tired of running conferences, he continued to run TEDMED and competed for many of the same people who attended TED, although TED did not appear to suffer for it. Under Anderson's direction to conference grew larger and more prosperous. Returning to TED this year for the first time since 2002, Richard told me he "never thought it would get this big."
The handover to the new management coincided with the rise in popularity of the Internet and related technologies. While Wurman had recorded the sessions and distributed them on CD after the conference, the size and quality reflected the technology of that era. Under Anderson's direction, the conference distributed high quality DVDs of all the sessions and, more significantly, posted the videos for free on the TED web site. Between the Web presence and an energetic PR effort, the conference became known to a much wider audience. The upside was that a lot more people could benefit from the ideas exchanged at the conference - indeed my son gathered with his friends to watch the DVDs - but the downside was that the conference sold out during the first week that registration was open.
The conference organizers agonized over what to do about their newfound popularity. They could move to a larger venue, but that would dilute the experience. Some experiments with holding sessions in a larger hall were disappointing. Eventually they settled on raising the price to an eye-popping $6,000, but the conference still sold out in a week more than a year in advance. The organizers instituted an application process which asked questions about one's interests, accomplishments, and plans to help the TED community. This led to some carping about the exclusivity of the event, although it is hard to tell how much of this is due to genuine concern for the common person and how much is just sour grapes from journalists who couldn't get in for free on a press pass. The latter may be another sign of the disintermediation that is taking place in the news business, since the conference seems to be able to generate plenty of interest without comping a large press contingent. Every event that gets this popular needs to either grow or become more exclusive, both of which can change the nature of the event, possibly to its detriment. The organizers streamed one of the sessions live over the Internet this year. I'd like to see them do that for all of the sessions. Given the popularity of the event I doubt it would cut into attendance any more than television has dampened the demand for Red Sox tickets.
Next year, TED is moving to a new, larger facility in Long Beach. Without selling the balconies the event can increase in size by about 10%, with everyone in one room for the first time. As the photographs show, the rooms are very similar in concept. The old venue in Monterey was well integrated into the town. It will be sad to leave that behind, but to paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, a conference has to constantly move forward. Here's looking forward to TED in 2008.