TED’s Chris Anderson on the Power of Ideas and Openness

TED is accustomed to upsetting conventional wisdom. In 2006, the organization began posting free online videos of talks that attendees of its conferences paid handsomely to hear. In 2009, TED essentially gave away its brand and business model when it created TEDx, a collection of independently organized regional events over which it has limited control. Despite those bold moves, conference attendance and TED’s brand are stronger than ever.

Chris Anderson, a former journalist and entrepreneur, acquired TED through his nonprofit foundation in 2001 and has continually pushed the boundaries of the possible. He is currently musing over how to reach the 4 to 5 billion new Internet users expected to come online over the next several years.

Anderson also found time to write a book, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, in which he demystifies some of the aura surrounding those 18-minute TED talks and makes the case that the spoken word has become just as important as the written word. If the Internet was at first a giant printing press, it is now an even larger video screen, enabling everyone to become a public persona and speaker.

Anderson, who is TED’s chief curator, sat down recently with Rich Lesser, the CEO of The Boston Consulting Group, for a wide-ranging discussion. Excerpts follow.

The mission of TED is ideas worth spreading, and clearly that produces tremendous passion both in your team but also in the world. Can you talk about the mission and what you’ve done to realize that?

Well, that didn’t used to be the mission. The mission used to be just to have an annual conference about the convergence of technology, entertainment, and design. That’s what it was when I took it over. It turned out that the excitement of that convergence wasn’t just about those three industries. It was actually the excitement about what happens when you bring together multidisciplinary knowledge from any field.

Online video became viable in late 2005, 2006, and so I thought, “What the heck—let's try six talks and see what happens.” We didn’t really think it would work, but within days of these going out there, we were getting surprising e-mails from people saying, “Wow, I’m sitting at my computer crying. I’ve just had the most amazing conversation with my daughter as a result of this talk.” I did not expect this kind of passion from the online experience. That was when we said, “You know what, we just have to flip this.” We would no longer be just a conference company. We’d be a media organization devoted to sharing these ideas with the world.

You’ve also expanded the reach through the TEDx brand—in a sense giving the brand to others to use. How do you think about expanding reach and, at the same time, maintaining the appropriate level of control?

In the connected world, there are actually remarkable benefits you can get from giving something away. One obvious one is reputation. Suddenly millions of people know about you. They think good things about you. They think you’ve been generous. In the case of TEDx, we said, “Okay, we’ll give you a license to run a TED-like event if you obey a few simple rules.” To our amazement, people didn’t just obey the rules. They threw passion into it. They threw extraordinary amounts of time and sometimes personal financial risk into creating what were often really remarkable events.

How do you think about radical openness in the context of what most business leaders are dealing with in getting the right balance between chaos and control?

For this to work, it usually takes a fairly nuanced mixture of tools and rules. The rules are important, and the tools are even more important. People want to do the right thing. Can you empower them to do the right thing? Every year, we try to figure out how to empower our TEDx organizers to do their job even better.

You just had your big annual conference in Vancouver. What were the most exciting ideas that emerged?

The theme of the conference was dream, as in big, bold, audacious dreams. Part of the thrilling outcome of that was seeing a broad array of those dreams articulated. It was everything from augmented reality to a whole new art form involving choreographed drones. But there was also a sort of countertheme, or antidream, if you like. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, said he doesn’t believe in dreams at all. He said that what you need are people who don’t look at the horizon. They’re actually looking down at the road right in front of them and saying, “There’s a pot hole. Fix it now.”

You’ve tried things. Some have worked; some haven’t. Could you talk about some of the things you’ve tried in building TED that have not worked and what you feel you’ve learned from them?

The key question I just keep asking is, are we going fast enough? We may not be. You look at the probability that 4 or 5 billion people are going to come online soon. What do we do with that? That is an enormous challenge.

How do you see TED changing to deal with a world with 5 billion more people coming online?

We have to quite dramatically expand our concept of a TED talk. At the heart of TED, we are about sharing ideas through human-to-human communication. The power of the spoken word is at our heart. We have an obligation to try to find the speakers who could inspire the girl in the village or the boy in the slum to find the knowledge and the inspiration to lead a better life and maybe to provide the ideas that we all need for a better future.

You’ve got a book out on public speaking. What made you write a book to talk about public speaking? What do you want to accomplish with it?

A talk can now be amplified to the world. This has never happened before in human history, so suddenly it has the same scale that writing has had for centuries. That’s actually a very big deal. People’s incentive to do it well has gone up. It’s a miraculous thing when you think about it. An idea is this massively complex pattern that involves millions of neurons. It’s possible, in 18 minutes, to take that full pattern and implant it in 1,200 listening minds, and then a million minds on video later. There are many ways that that process goes wrong. The essence of the book is how you build an idea, piece by piece, in someone’s mind using the concepts and the ideas that are already in that mind.

About Chris Anderson