Thursday, November 07, 2013

TEDx Revisited - Light at the end of the tunnel

Where is TEDx heading?

Regular readers to this blog will know that I have my concerns with the TEDx movement as a whole. From its origins in 2009, TEDx feels to me like a marketplace for ideas rather than a movement. The number of events under the TEDx flag are still growing exponentially, so there is a lot of shouting needed to get heard above the noise. Currently there are 1143 TEDx events scheduled around the world, the majority taking place in North America and Europe. There have been 8200 TEDx events so far, and the TEDx website says there are 30,000 videos on-line recorded at TEDx events. In fact, the success is part of the challenge that lies ahead.

The challenge for the TED movement is that the quality of these gatherings is very variable. Many are a thinly disguised business conference, or a city marketing bureau trying to show off. The organisers follow the TEDx format rather like a recipe book, usually overloading the day with far too many speakers, not giving the audience time for reflection. They have quickly become a cheap way for corporates to organise entertainment for their clients. There are a lot of business cards exchanged, but little in the way of action.

However, this past week I did attend a TEDx event in Amsterdam which is gradually taking the concept in a different direction. From ideas worth spreading in the direction of ideas worth doing. From passive partnerships to active participation.

Let me explain.

Big, Diffuse Network

At the moment the TEDx movement is still a loose network of very creative people. Anyone can apply for a free TEDx licence. They'll get it if they follow the rules.

The goal for many on the TEDx stage is to get noticed by the TED conference organisers in the US. TEDx has no core leadership because it's purpose for most of those involved is all geared around an event format and the hunt for talent to fill the stage. The mother organisation which built the format around 18/5/3 minute inspiring talks is careful to distance itself from TEDx. Chris Anderson's intro video is a huge disclaimer incase the conference which follows turns out to be nothing like a TED event.

On a visit to talent search visit to Amsterdam, I remember him saying that his approach of "radical openness" will not jeopardise the coherent message of TED.  At the same time, TEDx is a huge ocean of talent from which anyone, including TED, can fish out new talent for the TED(x) stage. I see it a sort of chaotic three ring circus, where the good talent rises to the top.

So what will happen next to this messy brand? At the TEDxSummit in 2012 in Doha, Hans Rosling (one of the most inspiring and downloaded speakers TED has ever had) gave an impromptu interview, following up from his famous washing machine talk. It must have been prepared because it was filmed in the typical TED style using multiple cameras (for easy editing). He starts by picking up from the conclusion of his washing machine talk,  where he concludes that we're striving harder in the world to get washing machines into the world than to spread democracy. But at 2'00 in to the video he also said something extremely interesting about the challenge that's going to face TED very shortly. I believe it is happening now.

TEDx is an emerging international civil society organization. It has enormous potential  and the decision about the next step will be crucial.  As it expands, friction will emerge as the discussion starts as to which direction it wants to go. Will it run projects, will it run education or will it (just) make statements?

TED has built an industry around coaching people to deliver a better, clearer talk. It has polished performance and established a successful business model for itself. An elite will pay relatively large attendance fees to network (though a US$6000 dollar ticket is considerably less than the cost of a piece of research from one of the big four accounting firms). That helps to support the new talent given a once in a lifetime chance to share a brilliant concept, thought or idea.

I still believe the weakness to both TED and especially TEDx is the follow-up. To continue to flourish, TED will have to professionalize that part of its business - you cannot leave it all to passionate volunteers. It needs a different group to do this - curators rather than event organisers. People who understand the value of coherent collections rather than just a wikipedia of brilliant ideas. A small core group of people need to build careers at TED or the goodwill will wear out. As a digital storyteller myself, so I wonder which direction TEDx will choose?

Next post: What TEDXAMS got right.

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