The TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design) Conference has become a worldwide phenomenon since it became an annual event in 1990. Today, TED and its offshoot TEDx are held in nearly every major city across the globe; millions of people download and listen to past TED talks on their digital devices daily. Noted information architect Richard Saul Wurman conceived the program in 1984 believing the confluence of the driving forces of technology, entertainment and design would fundamentally change the world. TED’s success over more than two decades has caused a primal shift in the how, what and why of meetings, collaborations and conferences.

What distinguishes one conference so distinctly over others? What makes it the one ticket to buy? The ultimate in creative experiences? Especially when a yearly membership is now $6,000 and is by invitation only. People clamor to attend, despite the cost and the fact that all the talks are available online. Why? We’ve come to understand that it’s the social and networking opportunities, the exposure to leading edge thinking and new possibilities, the chance to see and be seen, engage and interact that are the true drivers behind continued attendance.

The early conferences, based in Monterey, California, ran for four consecutive days and featured ground-breaking thinkers. The meetings had a very definite rhythm, starting at 8 a.m. and ending around 9 p.m. These long days were divided into three two-hour blocks with two-hour breaks in between, followed by cocktail receptions or dinners in the evening. Each session had five-six speakers who were given the stage for only 18 minutes each. Notes or reading from a script were not allowed and power point slides were generally frowned upon. Conversely, provocative info graphics and video were encouraged. The main conference was held in an auditorium and, as the attendance grew, Wurman added a simulcast room to hold the overflow. At first, this was “no man’s land,” but it soon became the most desired location because of the many seating options and postures, exercise machines and food choices that were provided there (no food was allowed in the main auditorium). In addition, it was possible to discuss what was being said in real time with fellow attendees in a relaxed, informal and comfortable setting.

Wurman always had a broad theme in mind for each day’s speakers but he rarely divulged a detailed description; he preferred to allow the audience to garner the session’s theme and meaning on their own.

It was, however, those two hour breaks and after-hour cocktail parties we mentioned earlier that were the real draw. This is where new ideas were conceived through chance meetings or convergences of people who might otherwise never have the opportunity to interact. This is where new stories were told and reactions to them gauged and then refined.

For TED, it is clear that it’s all about the social and networking opportunities — about having “The Conversation”. In fact their mission statement begins:
“We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.

We agree. It’s about “The Conversation” and access to it — that’s what truly coveted.

Creating an agenda and an environment that fosters thought, conversation, and meaningful idea exchange can be stimulated by the participants and an environment that feeds and supports that interaction. What kind of conference or meeting experiences have you enjoyed that resulted in some inspirational thinking and casual conversation that led to real revelations? Please share your “best ever” conference experience that helped change your thinking or led to discovery by writing us @Convene.

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The TED Difference:

• 18 minute talks that are delivered without a script.
• Breaks that are as long as the session itself, with great food and drink.
• Great music that sets the tone and entertainment between sessions that lighten the mood.
• Strategically placed whiteboards to encourage discussion and diagramming of ideas.
• Simulcast or Main Rooms with:

      1. Lounge chairs and ottomans
      2. Stand up height desks or leaning posts
      3. Treadmills or Ellipticals
          4. Coffee Bars and other specialty food items

• After-hour cocktail parties with heavy hors d’oeuvres that encourage your attendees to stay for the conversation rather than go out to dinner.