by Nathaniel Whittemore
TED has a well-deserved reputation not only as a home for big ideas and great networking, but as an exceptional production. Everything from the stage lighting to the program guide is carefully crafted to optimize the experience they want to provide attendees. While much of the magic is in the arrangement of elements, there are some strategies that they’ve employed over the years that any conference or event planner can learn from.
1. Plan More Break Time And Let People Experience The Event As They Wish
TED keeps people on a grueling schedule. Each day has 3 or 4 2-hour sessions filled to the brim with heady talks and performances. What’s surprising though – especially for regular conference attendees – is that the breaks in between are each an hour, and lunch is an hour and a half. That’s a huge amount of break time at event so heavily branded around content. What’s more, every session is simulcast into lounges where people can eat, type or socialize while watching. These are explicit design choices that let people customize the experience for them. It’s tempting for event planners to try to craft the “perfect” experience, but ultimately, each attendee has a slightly different perfect.
2. Appeal to Both Sides of the Brain
Down to its name, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a multidisciplinary event. Here, this means that a talk by a neurobiologist will be followed by an avant-garde dance performance will be followed by a new technology demo. But appealing to both sides of your attendees’ brains isn’t necessarily about what happens on stage. It means taking care and time to design the social spaces. It means doing more than throwing together a little party. It means asking if there should be music playing when people arrive in the morning (almost certainly, yes)?
Humans are complex creatures. We love complete experiences and immersive worlds. No matter what the actual subject matter of an event is, there is an opportunity to have it be an incredibly fun, social, communal experience. But this only happens if the planners take the time to make it happen.
3. Invest in Teams That Care
The TED staff loves TED, and it shows. The firms that TED works with love TED, and it shows. The sponsors who help pay for TED love TED, and it shows. But it’s more than that. TED is the only conference I’ve been to where the baristas apply from roasters all around the world to be a part of making coffee for attendees. When your team loves your event – not just likes it but really loves what they get to be a part of – they cease to be a set of skills that can be deployed in the service of getting things done, and instead become an animating force that not only organizes but breathes live into an event.
4. Take Risks
In the last five years, TED went from an elite California event to a massive global intellectual brand. Many of the risks it took to achieve this are well known – making talks available for free to the general public, hosting new extension events, and perhaps most of all, allowing people around the world to organize their own TED events through the TEDx program. But there are more quiet risks, as well. The TED Prize is an annual gift of some money and a community of support.
Last year, they gave the award to the amazing French photographer JR. While JR was somewhat well-known before the Prize in Europe and in artistic circles, he was certainly not a household name in the US. What’s more, the project that he proposed was an edgy, community-driven street art project. The choice has paid off in droves though – from an acceptance talk in Long Beach in March that took the house down to the premier today of the first two episodes of a new web documentary about the project. The most important lesson of TED’s risks is that the best of them had the chance to, if they failed, undermine the brand, and if they succeed, to lead the brand in directions both unplanned and sometimes, uncontrollable. With great risk comes great reward.
No event other than TED has to be TED, and what makes a great event great is so deeply anchored in its DNA that its dangerous to abstract too much from one to another. But the ethos above are largely transferable, and are big elements of how great events transcend themselves to become institutions.