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TED and The Power of Live Events

by Mark French
TED and Live Events

Last week I attended TED in Vancouver. I wanted to share my experience with you and some of the lessons I believe are highly relevant to association meetings and live events.

First, some background. TED just celebrated its 30th annual event. Its first meeting was in Monterrey, California in 1984. The idea was to bring together an influential audience that was interested in TECHNOLOGY, EDUCATION, and DESIGN. For 23 years TED fulfilled its mission, gathering together influential people annually to hear an eclectic mix of scientists, business leaders, musicians, philosophers, philanthropists, religious, leaders, adventurers, and other people who were literally changing the world.

And then, in 2007, TED started posting its talks online and suddenly gained global recognition for its ability to create high-energy, fast-paced, mind-provoking events that were accessible to anyone, anywhere who had an internet connection. The brand went viral and seeded regional and specialty “TEDx” conferences that are held year-round in locations around the world.

A couple of years ago, I was having lunch with several association people who pronounced the end of live events and the opinion that “young people don’t go to events anymore.” It reflects what many of our clients feel, that people are so guarded about their time that taking time out to attend a conference is becoming more and more difficult. But TED proves this theory WRONG! And here’s why:

  • TED is a FIVE DAY event.
  • Attendance at TED is selective (you must apply to attend!)
  • Attendance at TED is expensive ($8,500 for standard registration)
  • Attendance at TED requires a commitment almost one year in advance, immediate payment, and no refund.
  • Attendees at TED are some of the busiest, most successful people on earth (think Jeff Bezos!)
  • Attendees at TED stay for the duration. There is no wave of attendees waiting to leave early and catch the next plane.
  • Attendees do not leave the main sessions to catch phone calls.
  • Attendance at TED is NOT driven by one big, blockbuster keynote speaker.
  • Attendees at TED attend almost every session (almost 200 speakers over 5 days!) And there is a rush before each session to get the best seats.
  • “Donor” Attendees who pay a premium to attend TED, are rewarded with early admission to the main sessions and get early access to the best seats.
  • TED’s resounding success and brand are no accident. I believe its formula for success is highly relevant to associations. In fact, much of what TED does can be applied to reinvent and re-energize traditional association events.

Here are the main ingredients of the TED formula:

COMMUNITY: Create a community of people with a passion for learning and facilitate connections between them.


CONTENT: Create the BEST CONTENT (and lot’s of it) in one place that is available nowhere else.


IMMERSION: Create an environment that is DIFFERENT and that engages people in a way that they feel they are in a different place.


ENGAGEMENT: Create high-energy, fast-paced events that immerses the audience in a different place.

EXCLUSIVITY: Create a sense of exclusivity. TED attendees are meant to feel very special. They take a lot of pride in attending this conference.


INNOVATION: Try new concepts and approaches and be willing to push the enveloped and reinvent yourself.


EDGINESS: Challenge the audience even if they don’t always agree with the content.

EXPERIENTIAL: Even the food is smart at TED. It looks and feels different than at most events. In addition, there are many exhibits that engage attendees from Google Glass to Handwriting analysis!)



VALUE: Create value by providing a TOTAL EXPERIENCE that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.

FUN: Attending a TED Conference is FUN!


LEARNING: Attendees at TED are exposed to ideas well beyond their comfort zone.

RESPECT for the AUDIENCE: TED respects people’s time and every session is packed with content. Announcements and administration is kept to a minimum. Speakers rigorously prepare and rehearse their presentations in advance.


VISUAL: TED creates amazing video to start sessions and underscore the theme of each session. It creates high energy and a feeling of awe.

ENTERTAINMENT: TED weaves entertainment performance throughout its sessions to engage the audience on multiple levels.


SOCIAL: TED creates social spaces and time for maximum attendee connection.


PACE: TED events have a fast paced with speaker sessions from 3 to 18 minutes.

PLATFORM: TED provides a platform for important causes to get air time while respecting the audience.

SHARING and SOCIAL MEDIA: TED shares all of its content freely. It is not proprietary. It is all available for FREE on-line. And rather than cannibalizing its success, it has greatly enhanced its brand while fulfilling an important social mission.

Here are a few of the ways TED executes that actually create a successful event:

ted-bike Attendees know who is attending in advance and have an opportunity to begin communication (through an app) with each other before the conference.

TED actively encourages people to introduce themselves to other attendees and meet new people.

Attendees know the sessions and activities in advance and can sign up for special activities ahead of time.

Each main session is followed by a 45 min break where attendees can connect with speakers and with each other. None of this is left to chance.

First-class production values to create a visual and auditory experience that is second to none.

First-rate speakers (most not famous) on a variety of topics.

Sponsors with experiential displays, not the typical booth for selling products.

Public spaces are designed to enhance opportunities for people meeting with and engaging with each other.

Social activities (from bike rides and yoga to parties) are designed to get people meeting each other

TED captures all of its content on high-quality video and shares this content online.

Leading Authorities is passionate about the power of events. We study them closely to help our clients produce programs that advance their core mission and provide extraordinary value to those who attend.

If you are interested in a conversation about how to take your event to an extraordinary level, we welcome a conversation. And I hope these observations about TED are helpful as you think about your next event. Which do you think you can re-purpose or implement into your next event?

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