Imagine attending a conference where you are sitting in the same row as Ada Lovelace, Audrey Hepburn, Billie Holiday, Edmund Hillary, Ghalib, Laxmibai of Jhansi, Srinivasa Ramanujam, William Shakespeare, Marie Curie and Michelangelo.
And imagine each of them talking about an idea worth spreading.
Discounting for the chronological impossibility of meeting all these people at the same time, a modern-day version of that conference would be TED.
TED is a gathering of equals discussing ideas worth spreading. That lady in the corner could be the next Marie Curie. And that gentleman, the next Michelangelo.
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When it began, 25 years ago, TED stood for technology, entertainment and design. Today, it has gone beyond the three disciplines and has become the meeting place of the greatest minds from across disciplines. TED is a great story of entrepreneurship and a lesson in what it takes to make a simple idea into an institution. When Richard Saul Wurman started TED, it was simply the dinner party he always wanted to host—with a crossdisciplinary constituency. I attended my first TED in 1993 (or was it 1994?), when I was at Intel.
The moment the lights went out and the first speaker came on, it was as if someone had flicked a switch in my head. I was fascinated by the variety of thought, the depth of knowledge and the intensity of passion.
TED has three distinct qualities that form a part of its appeal.
The first is the format. TED has a unique format of having all speakers address the entire audience from one stage with no parallel sessions. The members experience the same content and discuss opinions during breaks—much like what they would do after a movie.
The second is the quality of speakers across all disciplines. Each speaker has only 18 minutes to talk and no one is allowed to sell anything from the stage. What TED gets out of each speaker is the speech of their lifetime.
Finally, unlike any other conference TED curates the audience. So, the person sitting next to me could often be more accomplished than the person on the stage.
The best part is that no one fawns over anyone else. There is no frantic exchange of cards, no focus on deals or jobs. TED is a family of equals coming together to learn and enjoy one another’s company. Over 15 years, I met a few people with whom I formed lifelong friendships and others whom I am happy to meet at the conference.
The TED community is larger than any single individual who attends the conference. In most conferences, people wait for the list of speakers to be announced before they sign up, but at TED, people sign up not even knowing who the speakers are, content in the knowledge that whoever they listen to will be worthy.
It’s that egalitarian spirit and the unabashed greed for learning that makes me feel at home at TED. It is a place where I can learn from the best about every possible topic under the sun even as I enjoy my time with friends.
Conferences, even big ones come and go. Comdex, which used to take over the entire city of Las Vegas has disappeared from existence. So, what is it about TED that makes it the phenomenon it is even after 25 years of existence?
The answer is the ability TED has shown to reinvent itself—with new leaders and new features. It is one thing to build a company that can last a few years but it is another thing to build an institution that can last for many generations. The first test for TED was the transition of leadership.
Wurman, who started the conference is a colourful personality and ran it like a personal dinner party. He was emotional, introspective, funny, rude—all at once—much like a precocious child, who everyone loves.
Then we got the news that he sold the conference to Chris Anderson (who made his money in media and isn’t to be confused with the editor of Wired). British and seemingly shy, Chris is the exact opposite of Richard. Many TEDsters had some doubt about the transition. I found myself signing up for the next TED to be hosted by Chris, not so much for Chris as much as for the community that I had come to love and the habit that I had formed of being at TED. That’s when I realized that TED had grown beyond a single individual. Chris continues to shape TED in his own unique way—quietly and brilliantly.
When a conference becomes bigger—both in terms of price and attendees—there is always the danger of its quality being diluted. TED has grown from an audience of 300 to 1,600 with the price going from $2,200 (around Rs1 lakh) to $6,000 without any change in either the quality of the audience or the intellectual stimulation provided by the content.
Chris grew the conference by hiring the best people and by letting them follow their instincts. And the language of TED reflects the spirit. At TED, we “curate” the audience and speakers; we have “partners” instead of sponsors; we have a TED prize that “grants a wish” in addition to giving a cash award.
Chris has combined the best of both worlds—business acumen as well as social impact by opening the content to millions across the world. This year, I have the opportunity to implement my idea of co-hosting TED in India between 4 November and 7 November.
TED is a small non-profit devoted to ideas worth spreading. TED India 2009 will be the first-ever conference of TED in Asia. In these chronicles, Lakshmi Pratury, co-host of TEDIndia, will talk about her personal experiences with TED and provide a curtain-raiser for TEDIndia.
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