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18 minutes to change the world

TED is the great global ideas machine. Samantha Weinberg experienced the fear and excitement of speaking at one of its conferences

Samantha Weinberg | January/February 2016

It is past midnight, and I am sitting on a beach on the Iranian island of Kish, looking out over the dark, still waters of the Persian Gulf. I am with a group of strangers, who have invited me to watch turtles laying their eggs. We talk about the stars, about turtles, about our different lives in England and Iran. But mostly we wait.

A man with a torch emerges from the darkness. “Come,” he says. “Not many.” We stumble along the beach, walking in silence, until we see, caught in the beam, sand being flicked into the air. A large turtle is lying on her front, while her back flippers dig urgently into the sand. We watch for an hour as she carefully fashions a nest, perhaps three feet deep, with perfectly vertical walls. Then she starts to lay her eggs, shiny white spheres the size of ping-pong balls. We watch in awe. She stops, finally, after laying 56 eggs.

As she sets about carefully filling in her nest, one of the Iranians turns to me and says, with a smile: “So you see, this is what we get up to in the axis of evil.”

A year ago, I had never heard of Kish. Although I had long wanted to visit Iran, I had no idea how or when, or even if it was safe or sensible to think of going at all. Then, via a series of secondhand-chance meetings, I was approached by Amir Banifatemi, whose wife, Mojdeh Eskandari, was organising a TEDx conference on the island of Kish. This, Google Maps showed me, is a dot in the Persian Gulf, an ancient hub of Persian civilisation turned modern Iranian shopping resort. The theme of the conference, his email told me, was “Tipping Point”, and they were looking particularly for women speakers. He’d heard I was a travel writer and wondered whether I would like to give a talk about how travel would work in the future.

The world according to TED: Truth or Dare, the theme of the 2015 conference, was written on the steps leading into the conference centre

The idea – particularly the Iranian element – was simultaneously daunting and alluring. I replied that I had a few thoughts that I’d love to discuss, and we set up a Skype call. That January Sunday, we met, online: Amir was in the golden heat of Orange County, California, I was in freezing rural England. He was charming and articulate and explained that a TEDx conference was an independently organised version of TED proper, operating along the same lines, with the same rules: no speeches over 18 minutes, no pseudo-science or selling of any kind, all talks to be recorded and posted on TEDx’s YouTube channel and so on. Half an hour later, he had persuaded me to have a go. I wasn’t entirely sure I had something to say, but my vanity had been tickled and the idea of visiting the sunny island of Kish had become almost irresistible. I promised to produce a first draft.

I spent too little time sketching out my talk, provisionally and uninspiringly called “Future Travel”. In our next call, Amir tactfully pointed out its shortcomings, and peppered me with advice: “You need to build up a story. Share your experiences and use them as leverage to put forward an idea or a possibility. Tell us why you think it, and then put forward an argument as to how. We need to enjoy the talk, but to come away with a headline, an idea that we will remember and which will cause us to think differently about how and why we travel.” He drew out from me what I wasn’t, until that moment, quite sure I thought. “You’re talking about immersive travel. You come from an immigrant family – what if we could lead our lives as immigrants?”

“What if...”, I learn over the coming months, is a touchstone of TED talks, along with “Imagine a world where...”, and “How about…”.

Drawn into the TED world, I managed to wangle a press pass for TED proper, a five-day conference held in Vancouver. TED is not only hard to get in to – non-journalists have to apply a year in advance – but also expensive: $8,500 for regular attendees, and $17,000 for donors, a status that confers added benefits, including first dibs at the good seats. Even then, you have to work hard for your membership. Tom Rielly, a voluble redhead who started going to TED conferences as a young tech exec in 1990 and has been to every one since then, is in charge of the TED community, a role that includes “curating” the audience. “We have thousands of applications and can only fit in about 1,200. So how you choose them is really important. First you have to filter out people who would be annoying to other attendees – who want to assault them for their money. Then if folks haven’t written a good application, haven’t taken it seriously, they don’t get invited. We also want to encourage more diversity – African-Americans, Latinos, disabled folks, LGBT and women, we always want more women – so we go out to those groups and try to recruit them.”

On my first morning in the Vancouver Convention Centre – a great glassy liner of a building, anchored on the waterfront – I see few people taking the escalators; most, predominantly men, fit and glossy in their pressed jeans and winter suntans, spring up the front stairs. We’re all wearing large laminated ID badges slung around our necks, which include not only our photo and job description, but also “Talk to me about” tips, which were part of the application form. Mine says “Africa, Murder – and detection, Horses”. Although some people do talk to me about other things, these do not appear to be shared areas of interest.

We queue up for the first session of the day – “What are we thinking?” – before being let in to take our seats. It’s an impressive theatre, designed in blond wood for TED by David Rockwell (a former TED speaker and the architect of the viewing area at Ground Zero), and erected each year just for the five-day conference. The stage is backed by giant screens and the audience seats are banked up on three sides: suede sofas and different varieties of chairs in perky citrus and blue tones. I take my seat at the very top; devices, as we are reminded by TED’s chief Chris Anderson who bounds onto the stage in jeans and a waistcoat, are prohibited in all but the back two rows. “This is the attention games,” he tells us. “It’s all right to be obnoxious to people using phones.”

There are five talks in this session. At the end of each, I rate them in the programme that came with our welcome pack. On the right of each speaker’s page there is a list of adjectives, ranging from “jaw-dropping” to “obnoxious”. Laura Schulz, a cognitive scientist who calls for us to invest in our children’s development in the same way we invest in technology, is “fascinating”; while Jason Padgett, who started seeing the world – and maths – in fractal shapes after sustaining a head injury, and now wants to help others do the same, is “courageous”. But it is not until David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, rips off his shirt to reveal a vest he has designed that helps deaf people to “hear” using dynamic patterns of vibration, that a charge fizzes around the audience, conjoining us in some sort of electric field of excitement that is transmitted to those watching the live feed on beanbags at TED Active, up the mountain in Whistler, and at 210 licensed “viewing parties” around the globe. Eagleman gets a standing ovation. As we applaud, his vest starts flashing crazily as it tunes into tweets about itself from those of us at the back. I circle “jaw-dropping” in my programme.

“All of knowledge is somehow connected and one of the problems of the real world is that we’re not talking to each other”

Over coffee and various snacks – mainly vegetarian and gluten-free – laid on in the foyer afterwards, my fellow TEDsters are buzzing about Eagleman’s talk. In the audience, it later transpires, were the representatives of a handful of cash-rich, west-coast venture capital firms who scrambled to snap up Eagleman. After years of fruitlessly chasing grants from the National Science Foundation, his 18 minutes on the TED stage brought him a choice of investors and, as he put it, “we’re off to the races”. This is not unusual. TED has given dozens of innovations their ignition fuel: Wired magazine, the solar plane, and the progenitor of Google Earth were all unveiled at TED.

Originally Technology, Entertainment and Design, TED was founded in 1984 by Richard Saul Wurman as an annual conference in Monterey. Chris Anderson, then heading up Future Publishing in Britain, went to his first TED conference in 1998, and fell, as he puts it, “wildly in love”. “It struck me on the first day as a very strange thing,” he said. “Normally, you go to conferences to learn about your industry. Here you were learning about things that were from different fields. Why was I listening to an architect talk about his vision for urban renewal in Mumbai? It wasn’t until the third day that you feel the dots connect. On the fourth day I was sitting at the back in floods of tears, listening to Aimee Mullins tell her own story about possibility – having lost both her legs. What I realised is that we don’t spend time in the space where things connect – we go deep into our own thing. But that space of connectedness between different subjects is catalytic. That’s how ideas come out, from unexpected connections. All of knowledge is somehow connected and one of the problems of the real world is that we’re not talking to each other.”

He liked what he saw so much, as they say, that he bought the company, first, on behalf of Future, and then – when the NASDAQ crashed in 2000 and things went belly-up for him – for his own Sapling Foundation. Since 2001, he has been running TED full time, initially from the west coast and later from its funky downtown New York offices.

Chris – TED people are first-name-terms types – is front-of-house for most of the Vancouver conference, an articulate ball of enthusiasm, introducing speakers who range from the British software entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley (“persuasive”, “courageous” and “inspiring”) to the historian of fire Stephen Pyne (a rare “longwinded”), interviewing the hedge-fund billionaire Jim Simons (“informative”) and chairing a spontaneous, off-the-record audience-participation debate about whether we are in danger of creating a future we will hate. According to those who know him well, Anderson is an introvert (ref. Susan Cain’s TED talk: “The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”), though his on-stage confidence suggests otherwise.

Soon after taking over, he changed the focus of the conference from straight T, E and D to “ideas worth spreading”. And while there is still plenty to excite the techies, entertainers and designers, the remit now includes sex, violence and even some sotto voce rock ’n’ roll. But, as he says, “It soon became clear that TED wanted to be something more; the level of inspiration and sense of possibility after the conference was intense, but nothing was being done with that. I felt it was a wasted opportunity.” He turned TED into a non-profit organisation, which started to bring in donations from the big foundations and allowed it to ask volunteers for help (around 9,000 translators work, free of charge, providing subtitles for the on-line TED talks in 120 languages). In 2005 the TED prize was launched: $1m to a person or organisation to fulfil their wish, whether that be Bill Clinton (2007) with a plan to create a health system in Rwanda accessible to all, or José Abreu (2009) to extend Venezuela’s El Sistema programme for talented poor musicians. But it was the idea, in 2006, to put the talks free online that changed everything.

Kish is the elephant in my head, while I’m watching and grading these speakers, while my mind is being expanded and my synapses tickled. In a notebook under the headline, “What works for speakers”, I jot down notes: pictures and props; animation (movement); being relaxed and engaging; jokes; having something important to say. I underline the last note five times as Bill Gates in a pink V-neck sweater and grey trousers steps onto the stage.

Gates – I’m told later – has an autocue, which Amir has warned me will be strictly forbidden in Kish. He speaks about the Ebola crisis in terms of a global failure to devise a system to respond to such outbreaks, and how the next epidemic could be dramatically worse. But, he goes on, we can build a really good system – if we prepare for it like we do for war, with a mobile treatment corps, germ games, trained soldiers and a massive upgrade in research and development. He returns to his seat, in the auditorium, alongside other TEDsters. Several speakers later Bill Gross, founder of Idealab, explains what makes a company successful. The most important component, his research has found, is the opposite of what most people expected: timing is paramount (followed, in order, by team/execution, idea, business model and funding).

Timing, Chris admits, has always been on his side. Ten years ago he was sitting with June Cohen, until recently his senior executive producer, discussing how to take TED into more homes across the world, when she suggested putting the filmed talks free online. “We’d been pitching them as a television series to the networks, but kept coming up against resounding indifference,” she says. “When the BBC dismissed it as being too intellectual, we realised we had to find another way.”

YouTube was then in its infancy and consisted mainly of short videos of kittens doing backflips and similar fluff. “It wasn’t clear that any kind of serious content would work at scale online,” says Chris. They initially uploaded six talks. “No one thought it was a good idea, or a big idea,” adds June. “But we believed in the talks and were confident they’d find an audience online – a small, loyal, geeky audience.” At the time, there were about 1,000 daily visitors to TED.com, and they expected each talk to be viewed around 10,000 times, with the initial surge of interest tailing off over time.

Sure enough, 10,000 people visited that first day, and the same the next day – and more the one after. “It was then that we realised it was going viral,” Chris says. “And we were reading the responses: ‘Chills’, ‘Thrills’, ‘OMG, I’ve just had the best conversation with my daughter’. Within three weeks, we realised we had to flip the organisation upside down. We wouldn’t be mainly a conference – we would be mainly a distribution organisation.” One of those first talks was “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by Sir Ken Robinson. It has had more than 35m views on TED.com alone, a further 9m on TED’s YouTube channel and countless more on different platforms around the world. TED talks are viewed up to nearly 100m times a month. “I’ve come to feel that the combination of the internet and online video will come to be seen as a media revolution pretty much up there with Gutenberg,” Chris tells me, “simply because it allows the scaling of anything that someone can see, as the book did for the written word.”

By day three, I’m in the swing of things. I’ve gone for a jog along the waterfront before breakfast, test-driven the new Toyota i-Road in the huge basement, given up sugar, watched my first virtual-reality film, filled my Moleskine party bag with generous swag in the free gift cave, and, after listening to Gary Haugen’s talk (“jaw-dropping” and “inspiring”), I am seriously considering retraining as a human-rights lawyer in order to help combat violence in west Africa. At the same time, I’m getting so used to inhaling the power of the Goldman Sachs directors and Neil Gaimans of this world that I’ve been seduced into believing that I belong in the same lunchtime food-truck line as them. After a couple of days here, it’s easy to see why people pay so much to come, and keep coming – even without the mental workout going on in the theatre. Over tea one afternoon, I start talking to a frighteningly young man, who tells me that this is the second TED he’s attended, after years of rejected applications. I ask what he thinks made the difference: “Probably making it onto Forbes’ ‘30 under 30’,” he replies.

The morning session is a serially ovating success. Probably the most headline-grabbing talk is Monica Lewinsky on “The Price of Shame”, a blend of her own experiences with the greater global surge in cyber-bullying. She looks good – and she is good. I find myself in tears at the end – though when I go out, I find a few Hillary Clinton supporters harrumphing about revenge and timing (we’re a month off Clinton’s campaign launch). That night, at the closing party in a warehouse at the base of the cable-car station, I pass Monica heading towards the dance floor (Mark Ronson is DJ-ing). She’s wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and leather biker jacket. When I congratulate her, she smiles and says she’s relieved it’s all over. Her talk takes only 94 hours to reach a million viewers; eight months later, it’s passed the 6m mark.

Going viral: TED’s European director, Bruno Guissani, and Bill Gates stand in front of a picture of them visiting the pop-up Ebola clinic brought to Vancouver Convention Centre by the Gates Institute

On the plane early the next morning I try to summon up some journalistic cynicism. Yes, the conferences are elitist: attendees are largely male and white, and the tickets vastly expensive. Yet some of the $30m revenues from the conference will go to making the proceedings freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Yes, by trying to distil complex ideas into 18 minutes, the talks can be simplistic. But it is surely better that specialists try to communicate the complexity of their disciplines to lay people than that they keep their knowledge shut up in their heads. Yes, there is an artificiality to it all, with the speakers assigned a team of up to ten content curators, lighting experts and presentation coaches to make sure their performances hit the audience’s intellectual and emotional sweet spots. But what is wrong with that?

And maybe it is true that, for all the “What if…” excitement, TED hasn’t much altered the course of human existence. Thirty-five million views and a decade after Sir Ken Robinson’s talk went viral, the world’s education systems are not palpably more creative. But some things do change. I talked to Rana El Kaliouby, a young Egyptian scientist who has developed an app that reads emotions. Before her talk at 2015 TED Women, there was some interest from marketing and advertising companies; since it went online she has been approached by companies from all over the world, two of which hope to use it to develop social-training tools for people with autism, her original area of research.

And yes, in a way, you become wrapped up in a liberal, privileged TED-like view of the world that goes a bit like this: there are problems out there, but “What if” we were to do this or that, then we could combat them. That might sound pat to people who don’t have jobs/homes/food/a helicopter, or those on the frontline seeing atrocities every day, but it’s got to be better than just stockpiling more and more cash. It’s hard to argue that Bill Gates or Larry Page are sitting on their assets.

TED is also accused of being nothing more than a rather sanctimonious networking event. Certainly, there are speakers and listeners – June Cohen puts it at about half – who are there mostly to meet useful people. But since the meeting of minds is largely what makes things happen, that’s no bad thing. And people are lured to TED not only by that ego-warming sensation of being part of an exclusive and powerful club – which, as I brush past Gates and Page at the lunch buffet, is evident – but by the ideas, both for their intrinsic interest and for their currency in an increasingly tech-centred world.

That sense of connection Chris Anderson talks about – of one big idea being somehow instrumental to understanding the next – is reflected in TED’s ethos. TED is both the beneficiary and driver of a part of the digital economy. It was given its wings by the internet, which provided it with a platform and an audience – and the income it now derives from distribution deals and internet advertising. But at the same time, TED provides fodder for those hungry Valley entrepreneurs, who are all seeking the next big idea, the next Photoshop, or Uber, or Eagleman vest.

I’ve bought a book, “Talk like TED”, which I open on the plane in order to glean some tips for my, still nameless talk. It’s a self-help tome, unauthorised by TED, but clinging shamelessly to its coat-tails – and the conference afterglow is rapidly extinguished as I learn that Dr Jill Bolte Taylor rehearsed her talk 200 times (it obviously worked: it’s had over 18m views on TED.com and, after delivering it, she was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people). There are 25 days to go before TEDxKish, I’m a long way from finishing my talk, and I still don’t know what to call it.

On the plane to Dubai, I start to memorise my final, unapproved draft. Three decades after leaving school, I find it hard – that memory muscle has withered. Panic sets in. But all is temporarily forgotten on the short hop to Kish, a tadpole of green in a clear turquoise sea. I’m stopped on the way into the terminal building and politely asked to cover up. I’d been warned I might need to wear the hijab on stage, but hadn’t really prepared myself for the Islamic strictures.

With two days until the conference opens, there are technical issues and Mojdeh hasn’t slept for 48 hours. All of the speakers – now arriving in dribs and drabs, from mainland Iran and farther, mostly west-coast America – have been given a strict programme of practices with two speaker coaches. My first is with John Jolliffe, described in the programme as “Serial Innovator”, who will also act as the on-stage host. He gets me to read through my talk a couple of times, and seems happy enough with what he hears though he, again, asks me what the title will be. I shrug. Then it’s on to Stephanie Paul, a Kiwi actress, stand-up comedian and presentation coach. She’s lovely, but I keep forgetting my words and my delivery needs lots of work; apparently I need to engage my body to illuminate what I’m saying. That night, over dinner around the drained hotel pool, I meet some of my fellow speakers: a German architect who is involved in the city planning of Beijing, and Iran’s first woman triathlete, who is British-born and competes in full Islamic dress.

Amir had nearly come on stage to remove me because I had breached my time limit. I was just relieved I hadn’t forgotten the words

TEDx started in 2009, a “crazy experiment”, Chris Anderson says, born of a flood of requests by people all over the world to “bring TED to me”. Volunteer organisations wanting to put on their own TED event have to apply for a licence, setting out their aims and ideas. Around 40% of applications are approved. They then get a list of rules, or “guard rails” as Jay Herratti, who runs TEDx, puts it. These include a maximum $100 ticket price for the first event and branding compliance. Most years there are around 2,500 TEDx conferences, in locations ranging from the depths of a mine in Kiruna, to a mountaintop in Trento, Italy, from a shack in the slums of Kibera, Kenya, to 10,000 people in Rio de la Plata, Argentina.

My talk is second on the schedule in the first session of the first day. I sit in the greenroom, running through my lines and associated actions – Stephanie has taught me to mime pulling a camel into a hotel compound when I get to the bit about dissing package holidays. I feel sick with worry over getting a mind blank. If that happens, Amir tells us all, we have to apologise, collect our thoughts, and try to take up where we left off. Then it’s time to be miked up and led behind the stage. I check my hijab, take a deep breath, walk on, and smile.

I can’t remember much about the next 21 minutes; I overran, mainly because I talked so slowly, putting one word in front of the other like a blindfolded tightrope walker. I remember seeing a mullah in a long white robe and green turban sitting in the front row. I remember some muted laughter when I delivered what were meant to be the funny bits. And I remember some applause when – eventually – I finished, with an unplanned invitation for everyone to come to stay in my home. Then I was off and Stephanie was telling me that Amir had nearly come on stage to remove me because I had breached my time limit. I was just relieved I hadn’t forgotten the words.

The next two days are glorious. I watch everyone else’s talks and wish I could redo mine, better and faster. Bright young Iranians keep coming up to talk to me about their own travel experiences – or lack of them – and their desire to see more. They take me to watch that turtle laying her eggs at two in the morning, and arrange impromptu break-out sessions on the beach, where we talk about the world, and life behind Iranian closed doors. I learn more about their lot than they do about mine. I leave with email addresses and a host of invitations to surf their couches in Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz.

Two months later, my talk is uploaded to TEDx’s YouTube channel. I watch the first minute and turn it off; my voice sounds slow and uninflected. I tell only my family and very close friends, and a few weeks later, I have had 126 views. More weeks pass and I get a bit braver and mention on Facebook that I have done it, and include a link. At the same time, more by way of an experiment than to promote myself, I mention it to the Intelligent Life social-media team, who tweet the link. A week later, over 1,000 people have watched me. I keep checking in and for the next couple of weeks it keeps swelling, by 1,000 or so a day. By mid-November, I’m over 32,000.

Higher education: TEDxTrento Salon, September 2015. It holds the record for the highest altitude TEDx event – so far

In late October, I visited TED’s offices and, in a masochistic moment, I ask Kelly Stoetzel, director of content, to watch my talk and tell me – honestly – where I went wrong. She has coached most of the main-stage TED speakers, from Monica Lewinsky to David Eagleman, so it is with trepidation that I step into a small glass meeting pod in TED’s New York offices, where I, too, will be forced to watch it through for the first time. I keep glancing at her face as she scribbles notes on a large pad. I can’t help but shrivel at the sound of my voice and its monotonous rhythm. When it’s finished, Kelly smiles and congratulates me, before, in the nicest possible terms, pointing out areas for improvement: too much description, the point of my talk became clear only at 6 minutes 42 seconds (too late); implausible hand actions; too many pauses, in what she called “that NPR voice thing”. “We often tell speakers – if you’re going to memorise the talk, you have to go so far that you can walk backwards while delivering it at double speed, or on one foot with the TV blaring. Because then, when you give it, you can feel really present, and do it at your own speed.” The report on my talk from the TED office is not as diplomatic as Kelly: “The idea only picked up momentum during the final third of the talk…While it’s evident that her travels have deeply impacted her life, the idea was not deeply communicated in the talk.”

I ended up calling my speech “The Importance of Talking to Strangers”, which seemed to sum up both TED’s mission and what I was trying to say. On that stage in Kish – and now, in my tiny corner of YouTube – I spoke of my travels, and of how we, as a generation, are spending less time travelling and more time holidaying, insulating ourselves in big hotels, where the only locals we talk to are waiting on us or cleaning our rooms. What if, I asked, there were no hotels or cruise ships, and instead, every home in every country was a guest house? And what if it was mandatory, every year or couple of years, for everyone to travel, to sit down and eat with someone from a very different place, language, culture and tradition?

We would find shared interests, dreams and experiences. And we might discover what it is that some people do in the early hours, on a remote beach in the axis of evil.

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