TED X Edinburgh University – Review

On the 19th Feb I had two options. Attend International CONFEX again or attend my first TED X Conference. I opted for the local event: TED X Edinburgh University. I made the right decision. Every single event manager should attend a TED Talk.

As an event manager I am continually looking for inspiration, innovation and fresh quirky ideas. Unfortunately for our industry (and somewhere between a shame and a scandal) I knew that a TED format run by a score of students would be more inspirational than a show for the events industry run by a large events company.

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The TED Xperience

Mention a TED Conference to a random person and there is a good chance they will have heard of it. During the lunch break I asked the local coffee shop manager if he know about TED: “I saw my hero Rodney Mullen do one of those” (If you are like me and you and no idea who Rodney is you will find a fantastic talk from a man who defined and redefined street skating). TED is (coffee shop proof) evidently a well known brand to the man in the cafe but is it to those who should really know: the event manager?

I suppose it could be a surprise to some that as a designer of conferences I had never attended the biggest un-conference brand in the world. Or it could be that you are reading this having never heard of TED. Whichever one it is the important thing is to get to know TED.

It’s surprising how many event managers I meet don’t know about the biggest and most popular brand in our industry. To know about it is to learn from it. But to have it influence your events you really have to attend one. If this is the future of Conferences we will be OK. Especially when you see how busy it was. It was a 500 odd capacity sell out. It was very well run and was programmed beautifully. And here’s my review:

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1. “How To Be OK In The Future”

I love theming conferences. It’s always one of my recommendations for my clients and something we do at Gallus Events. It was great to see that TED X Edinburgh University had this challenging and all encompassing theme. This provided a great narrative which provided consistency and structure but crucially it wasn’t a content straight jacket. Getting this balance right is exceptionally important for any conference.

2. The “Suitcase Speaker” isn’t your only option

The suitcase speaker is the journey man one who turns up and pulls out the same old session. He was sent packing at this event! There were over 15 speakers do short slots 10 – 18 mins at the conference. There were a few big names – including Faith Liddell the Festival Director of the world’s largest cultural festival – The Edinburgh International Festival – but the best speakers were not the ones I expected.

The programmers had been very bold and had placed university students on the programme. They were exceptionally confident and assured. Clear and concise. Proving that you really don’t need to pull from the same list of suitcase speakers from whatever industry you are in to have fantastic content. Just consider if the journey man speaker you’ve just booked has the poise and delivery of this young man Jonny Ross- Tatam.

3. There were no badges, no delegate lists, no mobile app, no hashtags

As you would expect from an “un-conference” there were some normal conference staples missing. It was interesting thinking about what I really missed. Badges and delegate lists can be nothing more than a distraction so I was happy to see the back of these. Apps and social media engagement can crate a lot of unwanted noise. The theory goes that if someone is tapping away on Twitter they probably wouldn’t be paying full attention to the talks. And there is of course food for thought in this for any designer of content.

4. Limiting interaction in the theatre and maximising it outside

It was interesting to see how few of the TED X Edinburgh University student audience (those supposed social media junkies) sat tapping away on their phones. Everyone was transfixed by the content. The speakers were fantastic. And that’s why people were here.

Interaction was one way. There were no question and answer sessions. Only short introductions. No panels. No debates. Very few slides. Only messages from one person to an audience. This goes against much of the Meeting Design theory and demonstrated that even though the format is more than thirty years old it is still revolutionary.

Where we did have interaction was outside of the space. We’ve been using blackboards for our creative spaces since 2013. They provide very good, cheap and easy to manage vehicles for creative thought and there were blackboards a plenty. There were also other more formal interactive spaces looking at topics as wide ranging as eating bugs to google glass and these were great ways to increase discussion away from the theatre.

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5. Speakers don’t need to just stand there and speak in fact, they don’t even need to be there!

We also had one speaker who entered playing a Saxophone. One of the sessions was a screening of a TED talk from last year. It was great. Yes, that’s right the speaker wasn’t on the stage. In fact he wasn’t ever booked to talk. And odds on he didn’t even know he was being screened. This is an option available to everyone. Any event can be livened up with a TED talk on a big screen. At the end of the talk people clapped. This seemed a bit weird. He wasn’t there to hear. These were the same people who clap at the end of films I thought. I didn’t clap. I was too busy on my phone: people of my generation what are we like!

TED X Edinburgh University

The content was designed to open the attendees minds to the challenges of a future as yet unwritten. And in that it was no doubt very successful.

As an event manager I saw the future of conferences in the amount of time and effort dedicated to the event from both speakers and organisers. We don’t need to run a TED event or even to try to replicate the format what we need to do is to ensure that our stakeholders dedicate as much time to making their content so inspiring as they do at a TED event.

As an attendee I realised that if our future is in the hands of the students who were speaking and the attendees who were transfixed with the possibilities for a brighter future then that future is likely to be safe and secure.

If you need any help future proofing your events. Drop us a note.

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