The Wrong End of TED

Editor’s Note: This is from a guest post I did for the Cvent Blog earlier this month.

We’re going to do something different for our meeting this year.  It’s going to be like TED.  Everyone will have 18 minutes to speak, and that’s it!  No more long presentations.  It’s going to be great!”

So says many a meeting planner these days.  And why not?  TED talks have quickly become the gold standard for how live presentations should be run.  The problem, however, is that people frequently misunderstand what makes TED so special.  And it’s not, as quoted above, the strict 18 minute time slots.

Sure, the shorter time frame is nice.  The first time I started watching TED talks online I was blown away by how powerful, and often quite thorough, a presentation could be in such a short time period.  Having done several such presentations since then, I can also appreciate how the limited time does truly focus one’s thinking.  It’s amazing how much content you didn’t need when you have to ruthlessly start cutting things down.

But no, it’s not the timing.  What makes TED talks so compelling is the quality of the presentations.  If you’ve watched any of them, you know the 18 minutes is irrelevant.  You could easily watch them for 30 minutes, or even an hour.  They’re riveting.

TED accomplishes this in the following 5 ways.

1. Great Topics.  TED finds unique, intriguing topics to share with their audience.  Whether it’s about business, the arts, technology, medicine or philanthropy, they seek ideas that provide a fresh and thought-provoking perspective on a given subject matter.  And you have to have stellar content when you have a single-track program like TED; the audience can’t get up and go to another seminar if it’s boring.

2. Compelling Speakers.  Speakers at TED are the doers, the original thinkers behind the great topics.  It’s for this reason that, even if they are not necessarily polished, professional speakers, they are extremely passionate about their material. There’s no ulterior motive to motivate employees, inform investors, wow the media, or sell to clients.  They own their concepts, and are simply excited to share them with the world.

3. Prepared Speakers.  TED speakers know their material inside and out. Watching them you feel as if you’re listening to a fascinating guest at the dinner table talking about something they believe in.

4. Minimal Staging.  TED sets are simple.  The backdrops are plain and basic.  There’s no fancy special effects, lighting, or staging.  It’s the opposite of what you see at the Academy Awards.  Nothing is there to distract from the content being presented, which becomes the main focus.

5. Minimal Slides.  You don’t see a lot of text-based slides in a TED presentation.  If they do have slides, they’re there to show visuals that truly complement the spoken word: photos, charts & video.

If you’re an event planner who is inspired by the excellence of TED, before you start focusing on the timing of the speaker slots, first commit to making sure your presentations and presenters will be amazing.  If they are, then the length of the session becomes secondary, and you’ll have a conference that your attendees will surely buzz about.

For more information on this topic, see our on-demand video class, New Thinking In Content Delivery & Engagement.