Pure Genius

For TED curator Chris Anderson, shifting the world with great ideas

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TED curator Chris Anderson talks to SmartPlanet about TEDx, radical openness, passion, what makes a powerful speech, and how 18-minute videos are helping revolutionize the art of the spoken word.

TED began in 1984 as a four-day conference focused on technology, entertainment and design. Today, the nonprofit organization supports "ideas worth spreading" through its annual TED Conference and talks from global leaders. The 18-minute talks are then posted on TED.com for free viewing in dozens of languages. TED speakers have included Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson, Isabel Allende and Jane Goodall.

TEDx is a year-old offshoot, offering individuals and groups a way to host local events around the world -- which are now occurring daily. The annual TED Prize awards one individual with plans to change with world; the winner receives $100,000 and the attention of TED's worldwide audience. Recipients have included Bono, British chef Jamie Oliver and French artist JR.

Last month, I spoke with Chris Anderson, TED's curator. We talked about TEDx, radical openness, passion, what makes a powerful speech, and how TED’s videos are helping revolutionize the art of the spoken word.

I just watched your talk about crowd accelerated innovation. Is the idea that the free sharing of ideas will help us advance faster as a society, and what does that really mean?

It’s not clear. The thing about ideas--there’s no guarantee how an idea impacts anyone’s behavior. TED overall is a giant bet that ultimately it’s ideas that shape the world.

They fly across the world and the Web but nonetheless are unbelievably powerful. There are great things to be thinking about. But it’s not like a machine where you turn a dial and you know there’s going to be an impact.

I think anyone who has read great books or watched a half-dozen TED talks will say, “My goodness, my world just shifted,” and understand the impact of great ideas. If you don’t get the power of ideas, you will think TED is a very strange thing.

In the same talk, you spoke about how our brains are uniquely wired to take in information through video, even though it takes longer, for example, than reading. Can you talk about that?

The human brain is wired to pick up visual signals and in doing so, we can pick up a huge amount of nuance. Last night at a dinner I got people to look in someone else’s eyes for 30 seconds without looking away. It’s an incredible experience. That is a biological phenomena that predates language and probably predates homo sapiens. We’re at a time where there’s the technology that allows that experience to scale, to go global.

In the early experience of YouTube I don’t think people were looking at an invention that might rival Gutenberg, but I think it is that: It allows the primal communications medium to go global. This medium is actually more powerful. So what are we going to do with it? We’re trying to rediscover the ancient art of one human talking to other humans.

In our ancient past there were a lot of campfire experiences. Over the years we’ve allowed that to turn into boring mumbling behind a lectern. We’re trying to create a platform that allows teachers to become rock stars—which they should be, because they can shape the minds of the next generation. We live in a world now where those people can connect with millions.

You have a new iPad app that has an Inspire Me button, which allows users to indicate how much time they have to watch a video. Then the app will suggest talks that fit their schedule. With the limited time we all have, are TED talks taking the place of other entertainment options? Or are people doing it instead of working or taking a class? How do they fit into our lives?

That’s a good question that we don’t know the answer to. Based on the comments, a lot of it is displacing television. Some of the talks are viewed at work. I don’t think people are secretly hiding away and watching a talk about the universe when they’re supposed to be doing spreadsheet work. But some share talks with colleagues and report that they can be beneficial [in work environments]. As with most online activities, I don’t think anyone really knows for sure.

TEDx. How may are there now?

This week pretty much every day there has been at least four TEDx events in the world, which is shocking, given that a lot of the organizers are putting in an unbelievable amount of effort. They are booking theaters, booking local speakers, setting up equipment. They all seem to be playing to full houses. It’s an amazing phenomena and not one we expected.

How did you come up with the TEDx rules—what is and is not allowed; who can and cannot get a license?

The main thought was to pursue what has served us so well over the years—radical openness: to let things go, to let them out, to give the talks away.

Part of it was the logic of that: Let’s try radical openness and see if people can do their own. Coming up with the TEDx brand was an important step—it’s TED so it appeals to organizers to use, but it’s TEDx so it’s clear that it’s self-organized. So it’s a happy double-play, positioning those events exactly where we want them. They can’t use the same name, but basically if someone is coming in from a new location and looks to be seriously interested, we’ll let them have a go.

The thing about the world we’re in is there is so much feedback. So many people have a sense of what TED is about, so if someone uses it for their own personal gain or political or religious agenda , we’ll know that. We thought that quite a bit of that might happen, but all the surprise has been on the other side—how much time, energy and money people have put into it. How much they have respected and tried to improve on the TED brand. How much we are learning from them.

So what have you learned from the TEDx organizers?

How deep and how powerful the interest is now, right around the world, in people learning--learning in this format. Every time technology moves in the new media business, new media units emerge. And I think there’s a lot of serendipity that this format—18 minutes--has found a sweet spot online. It’s somewhere between a performance and communicating a passion. The speakers are putting in time to do something powerful. And audiences are finding them interesting as opposed to being bored by live talks. Some TED talks I guess are like that, but if it’s not like that, people are delighted.

The truth is we’re trying to make sense of this phenomenon ourselves. We’re watching it, measuring it, trying to understand it.

Some people prepare quite a bit for their TED talks, while others do it more off the cuff. What have you observed about our public speaking skills as a society?

I think there’s a whole new literacy that’s being developed here. Reading and writing is how we teach our kids to communicate with the rest of the world, because that’s been the only game in town. Now, the literacy of speech is going to be more important. So it’s quite funny at our youth events. Some of them have been great presenters. There’s something electrifying about watching them in action.

What makes a strong speech?

Vivid, specific and clear. Most of the best talks have powerful stories, and you get a sense of the person behind it. You can sense their vulnerability, their dream. Most of them are rehearsed and prepared with spectacular effort and visuals, so each moment of the 18 minutes is carefully used. But having said that, sometimes there are no visuals at all, and it’s just a narrative.

I think we'll see in the next few years innovation in how people weave together voice, print, photographs, animation, film, music, interactivity between all of the above. I think we haven’t really started to think and create. Time is limited. What is the most we can do in the period of time we have to make the most impact?

Who was the most difficult speaker to book?

Steve Jobs, I guess because we haven’t gotten him yet. It’s gotten a lot easier. Mark Cuban--we booked him and then he cancelled two days before. That was difficult. It used to be impossible, but now the talks are better known so most people we can get. That part doesn’t keep us awake at night anymore.

Do you think it’s important to balance the viewpoints of the speakers?

Not balance in the sort of traditional and slightly bankrupt media way--where if you have a Democrat, you have a Republican; but what about a third party member? If you have someone taking about climate change, do you have to have a denier?

I don’t think it’s that constructive to view the world as a bunch of issues, every one of which there are two sides to it. The model is more that all the knowledge is connected: Let’s explore how the pieces fit together. So it’s more balance between different parts of your mind. So many events go wrong because they just hammer one nail the whole time, and they get exhausted. Inspiration comes with curiosity and storytelling.

What is the response to TED in other countries, and is their video-watching culture the same as ours?

To a surprising degree, I think it is. We did English-speaking countries first, but since we started translating the talks, the U.S. is now less than 40 percent of the audience. We’re highly ranked in countries from Australia to India to Brazil. I think people all around the world are excited about learning.

What’s the most important thing you have learned?

There’s 1,000 talks now. I love the talks that give a different lens on the world and especially those that give a different lens on your own mind. It’s a shock to discover just how buggy and flawed our minds are. We do all kinds of things in a kind of broken way. That can be disturbing at first, but getting to understand why and how that is can be thrilling.

Someone like Dan Gilbert at Harvard—who talks about synthesized happiness and how bad we are at predicting the impact of our own decisions on our happiness. It’s very insightful, and I think about that all the time. It means I try to shut down--deliberately take away from myself--some choices. We’re often happier with less choice. There are a lot of talks like that that explore aspects about ourselves.

What’s next?

TED has never operated by a road map. There’s never been a five-year plan. TED operates with a compass. It has a life all its own. My role is to nurture it, listen to it and let it grow in the way it wants to grow. One of our strategies is radical openness, and I think that will continue to be huge growth on the TEDx side.

But the global technology community will decide where this goes. There are thousands and thousands of people around the world dreaming TED-like things. That will be the main driver of this.


Photos: TED / James Duncan Davidson

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure