Meeting Mentor Magazine

July 2024

What’s the TED Conference’s Secret Sauce?

The annual TED conference, held for the last few years at the Vancouver Convention Centre, is one of the iconic meetings studied by event professionals. The by-invitation conference (you have to apply) costs $10,000 to attend. In addition to the stage talks that people are familiar with from the online TED talks archive, attendees enjoy a variety of experiences, buffets and workshops.

The conference, lunched in 1984, features speakers who are scientists, artists, entrepreneurs and CEOs — all with one big idea to share in the now widely copied TED Talk format. At this year’s conference, held in April, big-name speakers included Elon Musk, Serena Williams and Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn.

Journalist Ariel Schwartz describes in words and photos highlights of the 2017 event in a piece for Business Insider. Some of the aspects she touches upon: fantastic communal breakfast and lunch buffets offering foods with detailed ingredient descriptions; eclectic dinner options, such as a “Jeffersonian Dinner,” where attendees pick a topic they’re interested in and eat with like-minded attendees at a local restaurant; and novel get-to-know-you group activities, such as a snow-shoe scavenger hunt and test drives of various high-end BMW models.

Regarding the talks themselves, Schwartz makes some interesting notes: “Many talks are just as inspirational as the few that go viral online. But there’s so much pressure involved with getting on the TED stage (online fame and even potential book deals can be on the line), that some people stumble. TED does an impressive job of editing the videos of talks that had hiccups to ensure they look good on the internet.”

Some talks are interactive. “We were asked to participate in a conference-wide thought experiment for a talk by behavioral economist Dan Ariely and neurologist Mariano Sigman,” Schwartz says. Somewhat surprisingly, there isn’t enough seating for every attendee in the convention center’s TED Theater, but dozens of simulcast screens are set up throughout the venue, along with seating that ranges from theater style in a large ballroom to bean bags in the hallways.

Schwartz doesn’t delve into the hallmark strategy of the TED Conference: organizers take exclusivity, access and inclusion to an entirely new level, engendering a vaunted “tribal” sense of belonging among attendees. This aspect is explored in a blog post by speaker and author Andrea Driessen of No More Boring Meetings. Driessen attended a TED Conference and detailed her experience, starting out with this:

“I immediately felt a palpable sense of belonging to a special tribe, an exclusive and surprisingly cohesive group, even though before arriving we were disparate individuals from every corner of the globe.”

Of the numerous ways that TED organizers facilitate intense connectivity Driessen waxes lyrical about name badges: “Most meeting badges are utilitarian, as predictable as drivers’ licenses. TED badges, though-the size of newborns, are designed to make all interactions more fluid. Names are visible from a distance, and a “talk-to-me-about” section showcases key interests to prime the conversational pump.”

Driessen observes that TED badges serve higher purposes, too. “I came to view them as talismans — representing and fostering a kindred spiritedness, a deep sense of being connected. They acted as keys to a magical, co-created kingdom, a means to a level playing field, ticketed access to a carefully curated community. They were literal and figurative door openers that gave bearers a sense of belonging and possibility. Clearly, meeting name badges can do much more heavy lifting than I’d realized.” — Regina McGee


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