The TEDx Journey Comes to an End

The TEDx Journey Comes to an End

Our team was one of the first outside of the US to grab the idea of creating a “mini-TED” of our own – I think we were event number 59 in the World. Since then well over twenty thousand of such gatherings, big and small, have taken place all over the globe, and we have contributed our annual flagship event TEDxWarsaw, and numerous others, including the first ever TEDx inside the seat of a head of state, the TEDxWarsawPresidentialPalace in 2014.

Part an excuse to talk to fascinating people, part an experiment in making sure volunteer teamwork is beneficial and enjoyable to everyone on the team, TEDxWarsaw was an important part of life for many tens of team members for over a decade. After a hiatus, the event is back as at 2021 – though I’m now what’s called Curator Emeritus 🙂

For the benefit of those who are still running events such as ours, here are some thoughts on what worked, and how to make sure it does for you, too. This was written following our very first TEDxWarsaw, held at Warsaw University’s Old Library in March 2010.

This is a long post. I thought I could break it up but then thought the better of it. If you are organising a TEDx event — or any other small conference with people speaking and presenting — this is for you, and I’m hoping it contains enough information to carry you to the end of the piece, so read on.

More important than anything else is to pick a good team. It is entirely possible to arrange everything yourself but it will take a lot longer and the results will not be as good as they could be otherwise, so don’t try it. To a degree the team may self-select, with passionates getting in touch with you as soon as you receive your license confirmation. Let it happen, even if — or actually especially if — they seem too young, too inexperienced, too whatever. Trust me on this. Far better to have someone passionate and enthusiastic driving forward than to try and convince a reluctant “experienced pro” to put their weight behind the project. Of course, the ideal would be to have both and at TEDxWarsaw we were fortunate to have a great mix of skills and levels of experience. Passion to get it done to the highest possible standard needs to be the underlying force and it goes without saying that excellence is a starting point and not a goal to be reached. Team leaders listen up: if you want several months of intensive leadership training then putting together a TEDx event is one of the best ways to get this 🙂

The three critical areas in terms of putting together a successful event are choice of speakers, choice of venue and choice of participants. Get these three mostly right and any whizz-bang technology or award-winning stage design (as nice as they are) will only add to an already outstanding event. Get one of them wrong and there is little that technology or design will be able to do to compensate. How to go about choosing the participants is covered elsewhere on the Net so here I’ll concentrate on the other two points.

The quality of speakers is the single most important aspect of the day, and the single easiest to get wrong. Selection of speakers needs to begin months before the day. Make lists, put out a call for suggestions and pick someone appropriate and, preferably, experienced in dealing with a large number of fragile egos, and have them manage the speaker selection. That does not mean one person can, or should, do all of the work. It means speakers, and team, need clarity in terms of who is responsible for what — which of course goes for all the other roles to which people will need to be assigned. (I threatened the team that if it were left up to me then the entire schedule would be filled with feminists and jazz musicians and I was only half-kidding. It’s important to have several voices making decisions on whom to include and whom to leave out, for all the best reasons of variety, scheduling and ‘flow’ as well as on the simple basis of their presentation and speaking skills.) Make up a list of likely speakers, follow up, cull, discuss within your core team, make a decision, then repeat the process.

Speakers will likely fall into one of three categories:
1 — happy to contribute, “where do I sign up?”
2 — socially-minded and happy to contribute with a little explanation
3 — primadonnas.
Needless to say, the last category is best left to itself since pushing a reluctant primadonna up a hill with a pointy stick is not something we usually have a lot of time for. Leave them to their primadonnaness. Their loss, not yours.

Have a couple more speakers lined up than you think your schedule can accommodate, and don’t “lock in” the speakers’ roster publicly till a few days out since someone will probably remember a wedding they’d committed to attending or get confirmation for that long-awaited lecture tour abroad. Conversely, keep the schedule as fluid as possible for as long as possible since excellent speakers will appear at the last moment and one of your afternoon speakers will desperately need to moved to the first morning session.

Communicate with your audience as frequently as you can. Whenever you have something to say, good, bad, or indifferent, post it, blog it and tweet about it. Train your audience to head for your website once or twice a week to get the latest lowdown. Following the same logic, announce speakers in batches instead of waiting for the last moment to announce everyone. Each speaker will have their own band of friends or followers who will do much of the publicity for you. Work with your speakers, prompt them to tweet or blog as soon as the are confirmed. Make the announcements using every channel available — do not assume that everyone reads your Twitter stream or your Facebook updates. Use every means you have to get the information out there, and make sure all team members are doing the same to get the news out to your entire social graph and to build buzz. Before, during, and after the day keep pushing speakers (and other, of course) to blog, tweet and generally talk about it. After a while, the conversation will build up momentum and volume. Check out some of our tweets — it’s all about keeping up a steady level of energy…

Assuming that your event is a general interest conference rather than one concentrating on a specific range of subjects, then hugely important to its success will be a good balance and mix of disciplines, approaches and levels of expertise of the speakers. At TEDxWarsaw we had several PhDs as well as some very young speakers, just starting out in their careers or fields of study. This allowed us to cater to our broad audience in terms of both a range of subjects as well as emotional identification with the speakers. It worked well.

In order to build your programme you need to make up a day schedule as early as possible (as a spreadsheet or database), complete with the number of minutes everyone gets. Allow for two minutes between speakers and follow the TED guidelines as to the length of sessions and breaks between them. We had a very full, and exhausting, schedule of over twenty speakers and a dozen TED talks or so. By the end of the day everyone was spent but elated.

How to help your speakers reach their best is covered elsewhere, not least in TED’s own materials as well as the TEDx wiki which is available for licensees, so I will skip those subjects. A word on presentations, however: give yourself twice as much time to correct all of the speakers’ presentations as you think you will need, then keep hounding them relentlessly. Once the speaker has agreed to participate, they are subject to the same rules as everyone else. This includes handing over much of their creative and technical control over the presentation to the team. For most speakers this will be a relief! Even experienced professionals are often at a loss as to present their ideas succinctly. If at all possible you should have a highly trained graphic designer on hand to fix up most of the presentations. In some case this will mean starting from scratch… Such is life.

All presentations need to have a uniform title slide with the speaker’s name in the selected house style. In our case we decided to draw direct on the design vocabulary of TED, with Helvetica in two weights, no spacing between words, and so on. Study this aspect of the project. A little extra effort pays off on the screen. Not enough effort takes down an otherwise excellent day by a peg or two. That’s the unfortunate reality.

As early as possible create a written document with as much information and ‘pointing the way’ for your speakers as you have to hand. Update it regularly and send it to each speaker as they are confirmed. Other documents that you will find useful will be a questionnaire which you send to speakers following the initial approach, and a call sheet / schedule of the day, to make sure everyone knows precisely when they’re on. Some speakers may ask you to put them in before or after others in order to get extra synergies from the talks playing off each-other. Go with it if the schedule allows it. Cool things will happen.

A few more bullet points:

Find musicians who will amaze the audience. Our accordion and cello duet was truly astonishing, and I’ve heard a lot of music in my day.

Challenge the audience at every step — with the choice of speakers and their ideas. Showing up at a TEDx event should not leave the participants luke-warm. If they’re merely politely grateful, you have not done your job. They should either love it, or strongly disagree.

Mix disciplines. We had a monk, a nationally known actress and a horse whisperer among our speakers, and they were fantastic.

Open and finish with the strongest speakers.

Allow plenty of time for screening of TED talks and discussion between the live sessions. The whole point of doing this is to get people talking.

If you are not able to pin down someone you particularly want, keep in touch with them and make sure they know about the next event. Timing may be on your side then.

The venue needs to follow the Goldilocks principle and be “just right” for the event. That means the first thing you have to do is to figure out what kind of even you want to stage. In our case, being the first in the country plus staging it in the capital city we figured it was only fitting to do something fairly large and well produced. That, naturally, meant a venue with appropriate capacity and facilities. At TEDxWarsaw we are fortunate to have the unstinting support of the University of Warsaw who has provided a large and comfortable auditorium, with adjacent spaces, and an industrial strength internet connection. At the other end of the scale, if you are producing a TEDx for your local community an auditorium such as ours would be entirely inappropriate — a school hall, community centre, art gallery etc. would work far better. Pick a venue that is easy to get to on public transport, has decent parking nearby for those arriving by car, is easy to find (a major thing to get right since the majority of people will not have been to it before) and is close to a restaurant or lunch bar, if you are doing an all-day event but are not providing sustenance. People will need to eat, drink and then, naturally, find somewhere to take care of the other end of that process 😉

You will probably screw something up. We did. Not a major thing but we’d thought we sent out about a dozen invitations too many and were worried people might not find a seat if they did show up, so we recalled the invitations and offered a full apology. As it happened, we learned that you need to overbook by 10% anyway since even those who have confirmed will show up late or not at all. So this would not have been an issue, had they shown up.

Technical advice on projectors, cameras, audio gear and all those other bits of technology we come to reply on can easily be found elsewhere so I won’t double up on that subject here. Here, however, are some of the software tools we have used:

File sharing: DropBox — a file sharing utility well integrated into your desktop; a fundamental necessity for sharing files with the team without emailing them

Information management: Spreadsheets — you can use Google Docs of course, very simple to set up and run. We happened to save in Excel format though I open spreadsheets in Numbers and a lot of team members use Open Office.

Presentations: all of the presentations received in PowerPoint or other formats were corrected in Keynote, then exported as pdf to preserve typeface integrity

Communications: Skype for VOIP, Gabble for instant messaging