Conferences, inspiration, value

Chris Anderson is the curator of the TED (Tech...
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This post started as a comment on my pal, Linda Johannessen’s blog post about TED and conference organisers. Then it got long, so I figured I’d bring it over here. Not least because I want to discuss conference models this weekend at BarCamp Canberra 2010.

I’ll start with a story.

Attending something like TED is about as far from watching the videos (which are inspiring enough) as you can get. Spending a week in the company of a group of people for whom “impossible” is not an option and there is always a viable answer to any problem if the right people and resources can be applied to it is the most inspiring thing.

For a person like me (I’d almost call myself a card-carrying atheist, only I don’t think there’s an actual card), TED is the closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience. That week, of long, long days, inspiring talks and even more inspiring face-to-face interaction with other attendees is singularly amazing. So much so that attending has changed the way I think and act about many things in life and work.

As a living example, we all attend conferences, meet interesting people and say we’ll stay in touch. It never happens (or rarely at best). Of the many, many people I met at TED in 2009, I think I’ve had at least one conversation with almost every one of them in the year since. For some, it’s been many conversations and for those in Australia and NZ, more than one coffee meeting or meal. The community of TEDizens, is incredibly close-knit.

That’s the experience I want from the conferences I speak at and attend. Amazing inspiring events with great speakers. Outstanding organisation and production. Organisers who care passionately about the event. Meeting other attendees who I can relate to, share a meal and a story with and want to maintain a connection to after the even (and then actually do so).

One thing many folk aren’t aware of is that the big price tag to attend TED is actually used to fund the good work done by the Sapling Foundation that runs it. It’s not a profit-making business. Depending on which event you attend from 30-50 per cent of the price tag is a donation to the foundation. That’s pretty amazing considering the production values present at TED itself, which is far and away the highest quality conference production you’ll see anywhere. No other conference I’ve been to comes close (and I’ve been to many).

Now, that all sounds like a bit of a TED fanboy blast. Not so. Yes, TED is inspiring. Yes it’s amazingly well-organised. But it’s not perfect. And yes, it’s very expensive. But TED does in many ways demonstrate the counterpoint to what’s wrong with many conferences and their organisers.

The current conference model everywhere I’ve seen is fundamentally broken – (supposedly) professional event companies organising events for which they have little or no passion, charging attendees high fees to attend what turn out to be average events, boring, bland catering, not paying speakers who spend many, many hours to prepare the best work they can (on average, a conference talk takes me an hour of preparation for every minute of presentation time).

It all strikes me as driven by profit (which is fine by me, businesses have to make money) but at the expense of producing amazing events that really strive to give attendees value. How many truly amazing events are there?

Ruth Ellison
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Of course, there are some exceptions to this. From my own experience or that of friends, Web Directions in Sydney, Webstock in Wellington (which I’ve not been to, but plan to for 2011), UX Australia, many of the BarCamp-based (there are lots of variants now, for almost any sector) events, TED itself. And anecdotally, a number of the “big thinking” events like The EG and Defrag. I’m sure examples exist for industries and interests I have no idea about.

But the fact remains, many conferences are underwhelming, low in attendee cost-benefit and not well organised. It could be so much better. Here are a few ideas:

  • conferences should be organised (or at least advised) by people passionate about the subject matter (like the UX Australia team)
  • conferences should seek to add value to the attendee experience beyond simply showing up and listening in
  • conferences should be costed in such a way as to make adequate profit for the organisers (if profit is a motive) without knifing attendees, rather than being crazily overpriced
  • conferences should pay speakers where appropriate, especially if they are taking time out from their businesses to attend and speak

6 Replies to “Conferences, inspiration, value”

  1. I’ve long admired TED and its ilk, but I’ve felt that its price point often disadvantages people who come from developing countries and can’t even afford the price tag (let alone the airfare, hotel, etc etc). It also excludes young people, students, people who aren’t working in highly-paid executive positions…basically people who would greatly benefit from having the TED experience AND who have a lot to contribute, but just don’t have the money. It just creates an echo chamber of privileged people with money talking to each other. You want to change the world? Make yourselves more inclusive!

    I wrote a longer piece about this on a previous blog two years ago: No Cash? No Opportunity! The Big Thing Stopping Social Change and Development.

    1. Tiara, a lot of the big-thinking conferences like TED and several others I know of, explicitly offer cheaper or greatly discounted attendance, and occasionally full “scholarships” to attend. And more events are doing so every year.

      I get the point in your piece, though; price can be a major hurdle and if you’re not equipped to access these events for whatever reason, you and your viewpoint are effectively excluded and can’t participate in the powerful change these events espouse. These folk, are then, effectively disenfranchised. I think it’s not as bad now as your post illustrated two years ago, but it remains an issue.

      Events like the various BarCamps and those modeled on them can make a huge difference – effectively free and probably nearly as much value if you can get the right crowd along.

  2. Great post, indeed I’m quite jealous to hear of your life changing experience. Now, I’m not an atheist, but I am cynical about conventions, where walking on hot coals is a preamble to the book signing afterward. Indeed, I’m offloading my Annual Speakers Ticket at the early bird rate for this very reason.

    After reading your inspiring post I’ll not rest until I attend TED …

  3. This is is taken from the Sydney TEDx web site: “Live participation as a member of the Bay 17 Audience will be limited to a small but cross-sectional number of people: changemakers, innovators, thinkers, creatives, cultural leaders & social pioneers.”

    Which sounds like a bit of a wank to me. To be fair, they are making the pressos available as an online feed for the plebs who are not invited into the inner sanctum.

    As much as I like the quality of the presentations, it’s that slight air of stilted exclusivity that I find off-putting about TED & especially its children (who are essentially basking in its reflected glory). And why I much prefer the BarCamp / Open Space tradition.

    TED is The Eagles. BarCamps are punk rock.

  4. Matt, I’m not sure what the entire motivation of the TEDxSydney folks is, but I know the organisers and they’re good folk. TEDxCanberra will be as open as possible – we have guests we want to invite, but all the other seats will be as close to free as possible and for anyone.

    I think there’s a place in the universe for The Eagles and punk. They are different experiences, neither of which is less or more than the other. As a TEDster, I can say that I’ve had great experiences as both kinds of events, but they are very different.

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