Ted spreads ideas in talks from teddy bears to introverts

Ted Talks have become a global phenomenon worth €31.7m a year and there’s an offshoot in Tallaght

TEDxTallaght, last year.

TEDxTallaght, last year.

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 13:31

So you want to go to Ted. Well you’ll need to write an extensive application form, explain what makes you tick, demonstrate what you tend to share through social media and get two references.

Oh, and one more thing, you have to pay up to $8,500 (€6,270) to attend. Still want to go? Well, such is the appeal of Ted that thousands of people do just that every year.

Ted – or Technology, Entertainment and Design – began as a conference in 1984 as a vehicle through which to spread ideas.

It has since grown to a worldwide phenomenon, with more than a billion views of its online presentations. These cover everything from the power of introverts to how teddy bears teach us compassion and shark-deterring wetsuits. It has attracted speakers as diverse as Sting, Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Berners-Lee, David Blaine and Frank Gehry.

The secret of its success has been its ability to engage and excite viewers. After all, who could have predicted that 17 million people would watch a speech on body language?

Rigorous application process

Ted’s next global event will take place in Brazil for the princely sum of $6,000 (€4,406), while Ted 2015 in Vancouver, Canada, will set you back $8,500.

It has been estimated that global revenues for Ted are about $43 million (€31.7 million) – no wonder The New York Times, in its recently leaked digital strategy, suggested it should try and emulate the success of the platform.

Owned by the non-profit Sapling Foundation, Ted says its revenues go back into free Ted Talks video, the Tedx programme, the Ted Prize, Ted Fellowships, and there are scholarships available to attend the events.

However, some have questioned how the obvious elitism inherent in paying so much for a ticket doesn’t sit well with the organisation’s principles of spreading ideas when so many of those responsible for those ideas couldn’t even attend themselves.

Caroline Casey, founder of social enterprise Kanchi and speaker at a Ted event in 2010 (see panel), argues, however, that the online distribution of the talks makes up for this. “Most of us couldn’t afford to go and we can’t. But you can access it [online] – that’s how they’ve democratised it,” she says, adding that Ted has to have a sustainable business model to fund the talks.

But even if you can afford to attend, you may still not be welcome. Getting accepted to attend Ted has been likened to being accepted to Harvard, such is the rigour of the application process.

The organisation looks for people who will be a “good addition to the Ted community, someone who can contribute to the conversations and connections at the conference, and the projects that may come out of it”.

To prove you are such a person, you have to submit a detailed application form, a reflection on “who you are and what makes you tick”. This includes giving references (preferably one from a Ted fellow), giving information on your favourite websites (what you share through social media will also be assessed), and short questions such as “how would a friend describe your accomplishments? And what are you passionate about?”

Not paid

But if it’s difficult to attend Ted, getting to speak is even more of a challenge. Ted speakers aren’t paid, but the perceived pay-off is the impact it can have on your career. “You know that if you get it right it could be hugely powerful for what you do,” says Casey.

Research engineer Damian Palin spoke at a main Ted event in California in 2012 on mining minerals from seawater, after he was scouted by the organisation. He was invited to make a formal application, was successful, and invited to speak.

He found the experience “interesting and slightly surreal”, finding himself sitting a few seats from Al Gore and chatting with David Byrne of band Talking Heads.

However, he says it’s hard to say what impact doing the talk has had on his career, as he was offered his current position, in the Technical University Delft, where he is researching bacteria-based self-healing materials, before his Ted talk.

Nonetheless, the event has given him a lot of exposure. “I get one-two people contacting me each week looking to collaborate,” he says, adding that the experience has also made him a part of the Ted community, “a diverse group of super interesting people”.

But if the Ted main event is too expensive or too exclusive for you, Ted has also gone local, with a plethora of events such as TedWomen, TedYouth, TedSalon and Tedx also on the agenda.

Tedx events are independently organised local events and, since its launch in 2009, more than 10,000 such events have taken place – some of them in Ireland. Ted promotes Tedx as being like “hosting an awesome dinner party, with great food, inspirational videos, brilliant speakers and mind-blowing conversation”.

But unsurprisingly perhaps, getting a Tedx license is not straightforward, and organising a local Tedx event comes with a myriad of rules and regulations you must follow: the most you can charge is $100 and this must be approved by Ted; you must never use the Ted logo or say that “Ted’ is coming to my city”; a minimum of two official, pre-recorded Ted Talks must be shown at events which are less than half a day in length; all press and press releases must be routed through for approval by the Tedx programme’s media liaison; you should upload all of your Tedx event photos to Flickr before uploading them elsewhere (Facebook and so on); you’re allowed to organise viewing parties around your Tedx webcast, but no viewing party may exceed 100 people.


TedxTallaght is now in its fifth year and, according to organiser Patricia Fitzgerald, of South Dublin County Libraries, “there are quite a lot of procedures to it and rules to follow”.

“They are getting more strict and they do keep an eye on what your programme looks like. They want innovation mixed with hard and softer science,” she says.

As TedxTallaght is organised by the library, it did try and do a book-related Ted event but it was deemed to be too narrow, so they re-applied with a broader remit and got a licence.

If you think you have an interesting idea which you’d like to spread, TedxTallaght is recruiting speakers for its October 16th event. While it has yet to have one of its presentations make the “main stage” that is ted.com, Fitzgerald says it would be lovely if it was to happen. In the meantime, it’s a carrot that can be used to attract speakers – last year three TedxTallaght speakers flew at their own expense to speak at the event.

“The real draw for speakers is that if you do make that transition [to ted.com]But before you consider it, here’s some advice on preparing for Ted from Casey.

“Do everything I didn’t do. Even if you are the most unbelievably unplanned speaker in the world, you have got to prepare for this,” she says, recommending that speakers prepare a speech that’s a good two minutes shorter than the time slot you’ve been given.

“Also, account for the fact that, even if you’re not a nervous speaker, be prepared to be nervous and overwhelmed.”

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