Monday, August 09, 2010

How to Go to TED (or at least TEDGlobal)

(Note: I went to TEDGlobal this year in Oxford, so this is written from my experience, and may be very different for the other TED events.)

Going to TEDGlobal was like jumping into an icy stream, or swimming in Lake Geneva at 4 degrees C. It took endurance, a little craziness, and provided that kind of a wake up and direct reconnection with so many of life's support systems. That for me was the WHY, here is the HOW...

T is for Technology

To connect with a TED event, the main port of entry is through the TED website, which is interesting all by itself as it features links to the "riveting talks by remarkable people" videos from past TED conferences that we know so well.  If you want to explore joining a TED conference, there are four now - the TED Conferences link will show you where applications are currently being accepted (yes, you do have to apply to go to a TED event). The four include the Long Beach, California TED, TEDActive in Palm Springs (simulcast of the Long Beach TED), TEDGlobal in Oxford, and new this year, TEDWomen. There are also more and more TEDx events around the world, which are independently organized TED events.

It must be said up front, attending a TED event can be a rather expensive proposition, an investment you could say, with published prices ranging up to USD6000 for the Long Beach main event. Having said that, there seems to be a lot of variation in what people pay, and some ways to join an event that are supported, such as through the TED Fellows Programme (there are Fellows and Senior Fellows). You can also try to make an individual case for a reduction, this has worked for some in the past. Another option is to gather a small group and follow simultaneously one of the events online through a TED Associate Membership, at a reduced rate. We had a group of participants in Kenya following the TEDGlobal event; at one point they hooked up a video link and we exchanged a "Hello!" with them from the Oxford Playhouse.

If you decide to apply, the electronic application form is available on the TED website. You will want to spend some time on this: the questions are provocative and are the main way that the selection team assesses your application if you are not known to them. A key word for TED is "curation" (a curator is content specialist responsible for an institution's "collections". ) So everything from the chemistry of the participant group, to the framing of the talks, is highly managed and choreographed.

Once you are there, at the TED event, a notable "T" stands for Take your Toys. You will see people tweeting, blogging, vlogging, podcasting, you name it, from the event - either live during the talks from the back row of the auditorium (audibly enforced), or in the simulcast lounges set up for spill over and for this purpose. The amount of e-chatter that comes out of the events through every technology imagineable is amazing. You can take a technology holiday yourself, but will still want some way to capture your thoughts as they roll through your head at 200 miles an hour over the week-long event.

E is for Education
(Actually, it is officially for Entertainment, but Education speaks more to me!)

There is a lot to learn, both at the TED event and prior to it. Before you get there, do some "self" learning -  you will be asked the question "Why are you here?" by everyone you meet, and if your answer is not satisfying enough, you may be asked it twice. Look deep and be ready with a good, authentic answer to this question. This is not just why are you at TED, although that is also interesting to people, but Why are you on this planet? (This was something I noticed on my first day there which I blogged, "TEDGlobal: Why Am I Here?) This conference is full of social entrepreneurs, angel investors, many people with great ideas to share - their answers to this question are fascinating.  After all, TED is about ideas worth spreading, make sure you have yours ready.

There is also quite a bit of information on the TED website, which merits attention (probably more than I gave it in the busy weeks prior to the event.) There was an interesting matching exercise, which identified 10 other participants that you might like to look up. I did have a few people find me, and should have printed my list! If I was doing it over again, I would have spent more time with the online participant list (there was none printed) to identify people that I wanted to find and meet from amongst the 700 attendees. There was a tag wordcloud produced (we each picked 5 tags for ourselves for our profile), which could help narrow down the participants to some groups of interest. These tags were also printed on the helpfully large name tags (11cm x 19cm). No matter who they were, everyone was incredibly accessible, and the TED community norm was definitely to approach anyone for an introduction and a chat. There was also much waiting-in-line-time (more this year according to veterans) as lines formed in front of the Oxford Playhouse for main stage sessions. I would go much earlier to queue up than the 15 minutes recommended to get a good seat, if that matters to you, and the Lucky Dip of wait companions in line make it all the more worthwhile.

Finally, educate yourself about your baggage limit if you travel by plane; you will get a pile of big books and a TED gift bag (more like a napsack) of many delightful and sometimes bulky items like Mike Dickson's Please Take One* (One Step Towards a More Generous Life), a bobble, a handy Rhodia notebook, BBC Earth Life on DVD, more films and books and technogadgetry, even a magic wand, by far the most talked about inclusion, from The Wand Company.

D is for Design

Design expresses itself at TED in many different ways. There is of course the content about design, as well as the overall stylish design and curation of the event, and all the satellite events. I noticed design in a few other simpler places. For example, if you like people watching at airports, you will just love doing this at TED. The great part is that you can walk up and talk to these passers-by, versus watch them on their way to Gate 48. You can also afford to be yourself with this group, you don't need to pack that conservative kit that you might take to a normal conference. Nothing is too unusual for this crowd. I enjoyed talking to The Retronaut at one evening reception, creator of a visual time-machine, who in addition to having a fascinating story delightfully looked the part.

Other often hidden innovative "design" elements that I noticed included titles and labels, and business cards, to name a few. First of all, everyone was a Founder, Owner, a Maker or a CEO. There were also bio-inventors, creative directors, and rational optimists, voting system designers, plant neurobiologists, whistleblowers, humourists - what do you call yourself when you are doing something that not many other people are doing?

And then what about that business card? They were being exchanged fast and furiously. One artist I met specialised in invisible paintings, and she wrote on her business card in invisible ink (the kind you need to hold to a lightbulb, I hope my CFL will work!) Another green designer worked only in bamboo, and his business card was printed on a thin slice of this favorite material. A staff member of invited people on the back of her card to "Collect all 6" (and presumably she would have been happy to give 5 more if someone had asked). Another staffer of a company that traded in (presumably happy) digital labourers sported a '50s black and white photo on the back of his card provocatively asking you to find, "How many happy people in the picture?"

How to Go to TED

These are some of the things I thought were interesting to keep in mind if I went to TED again, or which might be interesting for others who are considering, or going, for the first time. Overall, I thought it was a wonderful experience, and I'm happy I went.

I came away in awe of the imagination of humanity, at the creative pioneer spirit. And definitely benefitted from the refreshing paradigm-shifting that undoubtedly results from repeat practice (like 100 times in 5 days) in thinking laterally about just about everything.

One thing I would definitely do differently next time and would encourage first-timers to do - I would apply to speak at TED University, where participants apply to speak on stage in shorter increments (there are even 3 minute slots), to share their work and thoughts. That would add to the stress a little, and also greatly add to the benefits of going to TED.