Thursday, November 11, 2010

What conferences can learn from TEDxSan Diego

I was privileged to be one of about 300 people in the room at the first TEDxSanDiego. TEDx are independently organized events following the TED conference format. If you aren't familiar with TED talks, they are amazing, short, focused talks by the world's best speakers and thinkers, which are broadcast live (and recorded). (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, although the content is now much broader.) I'll cover content in the next post, as I am still digesting the amazing day of more than 20 speakers. Today I wanted to talk about TEDxSanDiego from the perspective of event management.

Many people think that conferences are a dying format, and will soon go away entirely. After attending TEDx, what I now think is that they've set a standard for the 21st-century conference. While more than 27,000 people watched the event live, and potentially millions more will see the talks once they are posted online, there was something amazing and energizing about attending live. So, here are seven things your professional conference should learn from TEDx.

1) People have to apply. They had a limited number of seats, but also they want this to be an event with intention. Having an application process creates not only a feeling of anticipation, but focuses the participants' intent on what will happen after the conference. You had to fill out an online application, which included explaining how you would spread the word about TEDx and what you learned afterwards. I heard that they received hundreds of applications. I know that I felt honored (and special) to be accepted. Before we left, we were asked to fill out commitment cards and turn them in.
Yes, I filled mine out. I pulled an extra to bring home.
2. The event started before the event. The pre-event emails were a masterful blend of welcoming language and logistical assistance. When I requested a special meal, I quickly received a warm, helpful response instructing me to let an usher know where I was sitting. Language included items like, "TEDxSanDiego concierge," "Event will start promptly with a spectacular opening," and "If you are not able to join us for the conference, please respond to this message so that we can offer your spot to another amazing person."

3. The service was stellar. The all-volunteer event was staffed largely from folks at Sharp Healthcare in San Diego, a company which is known for redefining the patient experience. A phalanx of friendly hosts awaited us, outside and in, and circulated throughout the day offering assistance.
My first impression.
Once through registration (lickety-split), delicious snacks & more volunteers awaited.
4. The materials were beautifully designed, compact, and effective. This neat little package allowed us to have everything at our fingertips. The name badge included the day's agenda on the back, and had a pen inside.
My only critique had to do with a design choice that looked great in full light, but didn't work well in the dim light of the venue. The red text was unreadable whenever the lights were down.
5. Speakers were dynamic, well-managed, and given presentation guidelines. We talk a lot about death by PowerPoint but very few conferences actually do something about it. TED has instituted the TED 10 commandments, which include giving a talk you haven't given before, not selling anything from the stage, and being humble. I think they must also give speakers guidelines on visuals, as nearly all the talks were visually stunning (or, radical notion: no slides at all—a fantastic speaker telling us a story.) They also give strict time limits... some people have 8 minutes, some 16. This helps break up the day, keep it moving, and encourages speakers to edit, edit, edit. Speakers were organized roughly by theme into sections, with 30-minute breaks in between. Slides provided a countdown (e.g. 5 minutes left in the break), while a well-chosen TED video provided the buffer to get people back to their seats.

6. They included live performance. Why don't more conferences do this? While your conference might not be able to kick off and end with global phenomenon Jake Shimabukuro on ukulele (yes, you read that right), surely you can find some local talent who would be happy to play, dance, or paint in front of a live audience. Flamenco ukulele. Bluegrass ukulele. Schubert ukelele. Wrap your brain around that at a conference.

7. They gave you guidelines for interacting with other attendees: Meet at least six new people. Ask people what they love to do, not what they do. Put down your devices and be in the room. Change your seat at the end of each break. Approach people with this idea: "How can I serve you?" instead of, "What can you do for me?" They also gave us long enough breaks to actually interact.
A huge thank-you to the TEDxSanDiego organizers, sponsors, speakers, and attendees as well as the venue Anthology... It was a life-changing experience.


  1. Hi Stephanie: I am a TED lover and a Learning and Development wonk focused on creating participant engagement - I am salivating! Just envisioning the the opportunities to bring those gems into my workshops. Thanks so much for sharing your insights.


    Natalie Currie

  2. Natalie, thanks so much for commenting. And, I'm so glad this POV on the event was helpful for you. :)

  3. Stephanie - what a wonderful post! You captured the spirit and intent of the event beautifully! I'm especially grateful of your mention(and lovely photo) of the Sharp team - they so enjoyed sharing their passion for creating memorable experiences and being part of TEDx.

    Here's to extraordinary experiences,
    Sonia Rhodes
    Sharp Healthcare

  4. Sonia, thanks for your comment and for all your team's hard work. They really made it special.

  5. Great post Stephanie! How inspiring. They seem like they really know what they're doing and I love how you broke it down for us.

    Dara Simic

  6. Thanks for commenting Dara! It was really a well-executed day.

  7. Stephanie,

    "Ditto" on Sonia's thoughts above.

    As you know, when designing an experience you hope that it stands together as a whole, evokes certain feelings in the participants and leaves a lasting impression.

    It is not often that many of the individual elements that contribute to that are noticed and connected to the intention behind them as you have done so well above.

    Thank you for participating in TEDxSD and sharing your experience with others.

    Mark Tomaszewicz
    Sharp HealthCare

  8. Stephanie,

    Great post! I research the proper timing of events in an experience and I'm a huge ukulele fan so it was great to see that the TedX conference ended on a high note with Jake. My research suggests that the overall experience of an event can be greatly influenced by the last thing that happens. It was also interesting to hear about the timing aspects and strict scheduling of speakers.

    Thanks for the good post!

  9. Stephanie,

    I'm so pleased you enjoyed our show! We worked hard to make sure the entire experience was memorable for each participant. I echo both Sonia and Mark's sentiment, and want to point out we couldn't have done it without Sharp Healthcare and their legion of talented folks.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a kind review

    Kara DeFrias
    TEDxSanDiego Show Director

  10. Kara, Mark, and Sonia,
    Thank you all for taking the time to comment, and for all your hard work making TEDxSanDiego such an amazing experience.

  11. Hi Stephanie, Great post on the TEDx SD conference. I attended too and noted much of the same great organizational strategies. Wish I'd gotten to talk to you!

    In gratitude,

  12. Anonymous11:50 AM


    This is fantastic. Great to see all of the work the Team put into this project laid out in your blog. Glad you enjoyed the event.

    Michael Esposito
    Technical Director
    TEDx San Diego