Saturday, April 21, 2012

The TED-ization of Meetings

I am a huge fan of  The success of TED Conferences and their TEDx franchise have captivated the meetings industry with a desire to create a "happening" instead of just a meeting.  Many conferences in a variety of industries have become obsessed with making their events more "like" TED.

The typical reaction is to just go to the short-format presentations.  TED talks are typically 18 minutes long, with some speakers having even less time.  The TED audiences are treated to captivating single idea nuggets from industry thought leaders.  However, there is more to the success of TED than short talks (the make up of the audience and the long-tail of their videos, etc...).  Additionally, the amount of preparation that a speaker puts into a TED conference can exceed 50 hours.  Most conference speakers put in only a fraction of that time working on their speeches for any other event (except for professional speakers, who are always working on their platform skills and can have thousands of hours invested in their presentations).

As a professional speaker I am receiving more requests to do short talks at events, as the lure of the quick delivery is pervasive throughout our society these days.  We seem to want to fit everything into a style of 140-characters (thanks to texts and tweets).  Shorter has become very popular.

But is shorter always better?

Every event is not a TED Conference, nor should it be.  Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but simply shortening the time that speakers have to share their information will not turn an event into a "happening".  Re-tooling a whole event to a trendy format is not the answer.  If all meetings shifted to this format we would stop getting enough information in sessions, as 18 minutes is often not enough time to get to the meat of an issue.  Especially if the event is utilizing industry speaker who are no experienced or skilled at connecting with an audience.  Not everyone can connect beyond the surface within only a few minutes.

Yet meeting professionals should try things to make their conferences more unique and interesting.  The PCMA Conference in San Diego in January 2012 had a fantastic opening session.  They had three very different speakers (one who was brought in via Skype), each with about 20 minutes.  But their opening talk was not the whole package.  Each of the speakers later presented a full length break-out session.  If audience members wanted to go deeper they could attend that session and learn more.  This was the best of both worlds.  What I liked about this was the PCMA did not simply "copy" TED by turning their keynote time into three TED-style talks, but they went further by adding the more intensive break-out option.

I am hosting a program at the 2012 National Speakers Association Annual Conference called "The Learning Lounge" (another idea from PCMA 2012).  The lounge is open as an option during all concurrent sessions.  One of the featured areas in this lounge will be a stage where we will have a series of short format talks. But this stage will also feature a master class on better PowerPoint during one of scheduled times, "Speaker's Corner" during another (a chance for anyone to come give a 5 minute impromptu talk), and presentations from the Youth Leadership attendees.  Mixing up the short format speeches with other programs is intentional.  There are six times when people can come to the lounge, and having only the 15-18 minutes talks during each "Learning Lounge" session would have gotten old before the end of the three day event.

Being new and different is a good thing.  But when all conferences try to be different by doing the same thing, then it is neither new or different.

Have A Great Day

thom singer

Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections.


Bob James said...

Thom, you're right to worry about "monkey see, monkey do" meeting planning. Planners shouldn't lose sight of the cardinal rule: content trumps style. They could find themselves looking as foolish as Emperer Joseph II. Remember his line from "Amadeus?" He reacts to Mozart’s brilliant opera “Don Giovanni” with the remark, “Too many notes.”

Matt Fangman said...

Good post. It sounds like conferences are doing what a lot of people in business do - trying to replicate the trappings of success instead of understanding the underlying principles of success.

TED talks are amazing because the speakers, content AND format is very, very good. I've been to speaker sessions where the content was great, but the speaker was bad at presentation. I've been to presentations that were very entertaining, but had no meat.

One thing I've yet to see done well at a conference was a format that leveraged effective one-on-one interaction. Great at the mass gatherings. Great at happy hours. Not so great at the head-to-head stuff.

Thom Singer said...


thanks for your comment. I tend to disagree with your premise that content trumps style. There is too much of that thought that leads to really smart people who deliver awful presentation.

I believe in the idea that it is NOT too much to want both content and style. When we say one or the other does not matter, we short change the potential of the presentation.


Thom Singer said...


thanks for your comment. I agree about conferences needing to improve the person-to-person connecting. People often site the "Hallway Conversations" as a best part of attending events. But organizers do not give these face-to-face nuggets the credit they deserve. We have learning objectives for breakouts, but few have a purpose for connecting.

(see for info on my program for making events better!!!)


Terry said...

It is not only conferences that want the conversations to be shorter. The “be brief, be brilliant, be gone” approach is everywhere. Maybe we can drop the “be brilliant” portion and say “be brief, be gone”. In
Recently my Professional Services team spent 4 weeks reviewing a client’s problem in his 3 production centers. The problems were complex and the solution required multiple coordinated steps with a significant capital investment. Our executive recap was 1 page with 3 pages of supporting narrative.
The Senior Executive refused to read the 1 page recap because it was too long. He was not going to read the recap unless I could make it shorter. “I am not going to waste my time. I’m a busy man.”
Off the cuff all I could come up with was, “Old equipment, outdated processes, you’re screwed.” Not up to TED standards, but I didn’t have time to prepare.
His answer, “Oh.”
In our 15 minute conversation he checked his Blackberry 10 times and his iPad 5 times. Yes, I counted how often he was not paying attention.
Quick deliveries for ever shorting attention spans. I hope this works out.

Thom Singer said...


Thanks for joining the conversation. The part about people not paying attention while in conversations is a whole other problem (yet related).

We are a superficial society. That is why it is even more important to build meaningful relationships, because they are becoming so rare they are even more valuable.