If you haven’t been online in the last three years, it’s possible you haven’t heard of TED talks, the bite-sized presentations that attempt to explain grand ideas or theories in 18 minutes. Starting in 2006, TED (technology, entertainment and design) talks were published free online for anyone with time to burn. Presentations push ideas from experts on topics as varied as global warming, the future of personal electronics, and how to tie your shoes.
The TED organization wasn’t always an educational tool for the masses. Annual TED conferences began in 1990 as gatherings of A-list thinkers entertaining cultural and financial A-listers in Long Beach, California. Bill Gates, James Cameron and Richard Dawkins have given presentations. Anyone wanting to attend had to be vetted through an application process; those deemed worthy were charged four-figure entry fees — $6,000 in recent years.
After the videos were released for public consumption in 2006, TED’s reputation shifted. No longer a high-minded elitist cabal, TED was seen as a global educational resource. Another significant change: In 2009, the nonprofit began licensing conferences — branded TEDx — to organizers in cities around the world.
Mike Lundgren, director of innovation strategy at Kansas City—based ad firm VML, where he’s a partner, has organized the TEDxKC conference for four years, including Tuesday’s talks at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (1601 Broadway). An experience at a TED conference several years ago convinced him to organize the local event.
“Kansas City is literally rabid for TED,” he says, noting that Tuesday’s talks sold out in two hours. (The Alamo Drafthouse, 1400 Main, hosts a second showing of the conference a day later, at 6 p.m. Wednesday, August 29.) “There’s such a thirst for it. There’s an incredi-ble demand for TED and TED talks. It’s grown exponentially each year.”
Lundgren explained to The Pitch TED’s appeal and the challenge of keeping the pesky “elitist” label off TEDxKC.
The Pitch: The theme of the conference is “The Long View.” What does that mean?
Lundgren: Some of the problems that are left in the world are these really long-range, long-term, intractable ones that require more of a generational resolve. It seems like the world has just been exasperated by short-term thinking. Politics has become a short-term game.
The Pitch:You have speakers scheduled on a range of subjects, including Janine Shepherd, a paraplegic pilot, and Samuel Arbesman, a mathematician and writer. Is the trick to a good TED conference getting speakers to cover a spectrum of topics?
Lundgren: My goal has always been to find people who are talking about some of the most provocative things right now but also are great communicators. The TED or TEDx stage is storytelling first and foremost. You’ve got to be able to hold somebody’s attention. What you’re trying to do is curate speakers who have ideas worth spreading. That’s the mantra.
The Pitch: How did you decide on these speakers?
Lundgren: I go out looking for them. It’s not good when people are approaching you. Half the people who approach you have some kind of agenda, and they just want to get onto the TED stage to promote that. It [TED] is not promoting your book. It’s not about promoting you.
It’s a huge honor [to be asked to speak]. A good TED talk can be a launching pad for a career or for a book. For instance, Brené Brown, who is one of the top TED talks [on the topic of the power of vulnerability]. I worked with her agents. They were after me for about six months. I was like, “I don’t know. Shame and vulnerability? I just don’t think there’s a TED talk in that.” To their credit, I watched one of her presentations and was blown away. I introduced her to a friend who is organizing TEDxHouston. Her talk in Houston is one of the most-watched talks. This year, she gave the closing talk at the [main] TED conference. She’s gone from relative obscurity to corporations regularly call her and offer her significant sums of money to come speak. That’s somebody we discovered.
The Pitch: TED has been called an elitist organization. Is that fair?
Lundgren: We could charge a lot for a ticket, and we would have no trouble selling those tickets. But I think that would be a bit of an elitist move. We try to work through sponsorship and in-kind donations to try to get as close to practically free as possible. For your $15 ticket, which is $9 before service charges, you’re getting two parties, you’re getting a T-shirt, you’re getting to come to the event that night, and then there’s a reception afterward. It would be easy to charge $200 or $300 per ticket. We handpick only 20 percent of our audience. The rest is open to the public. That’s very different from TED.
It was entirely fair in the early days of TED [to say that] it was very elitist. It wasn’t uncommon, and still isn’t, to be sitting in the same row as President Clinton or Bono or Al Gore. This becomes the challenge. When there’s so much demand to be part of something, how do you manage that? When [TED curator] Chris Anderson took over and turned TED into a nonprofit and then opened the platform up first by publishing TED talks, then by doing the TEDx movement, those two moves alone have netted incalculable returns. There’s a TEDxKibera, and it’s literally in a slum [in Nairobi], and they string together car batteries and play TED talks off somebody’s phone and put it on a screen. That’s kind of the movement now.
The Pitch: Is it possible to give a TED talk on anything?
Lundgren: Sure. Somebody will come up to me and be like, “My favorite talk was the one where the guy taught me how to tie my shoes. My whole life, I’ve been tying my shoes the wrong way — they always come untied. That talk changed my life.”
Watch a simulcast at new.livestream.com/tedx/TEDxKC on Tuesday, August 28.