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Changing the world, one thought at a time

Knowledge is power, and no one knows that better than Chris Anderson, owner of the global ideas exchange called TED Talks

brunch Updated: Nov 11, 2017 23:16 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
ted talks,Chris Anderson,shah rukh khan
Chris Anderson, the owner of TED, a nonprofit organisation that provides idea-based talks, says that the trick to give a successful talk is to say less and say it in depth (Aalok Soni)

Ever since journalist Chris Anderson became a publisher of special-interest magazines, he had to attend conferences and seminars on a regular basis. But the conference he attended in California in 1998 completely changed his life.

This was an annual event called TED, which stood for technology, entertainment and design, and was the brainchild of architect and graphic designer Richard Wurman. It aimed to explore new ideas in various disciplines by organising ideas-based talks and conferences.

Speakers have a way of falling into the trap of imitating previous speakers, and our emphasis is on personal conversations

“I immediately felt at home,” says Anderson. “People were ready to dream big, they were open to having crazy conversations about bigger possibilities. I am very bad at chit chatting. I can’t make small talk. So this was my kind of a place.”

Anderson’s mantra as a media professional was always to follow passion. “If you can track or see what people care deeply about, you can crack what will actually work in the market,” he explains. “As media houses, we usually measure the quantity of attention, not the depth. But if you could sense the depth of attention that would possibly be the best clue to what will work. At the TED conference, I was thrilled to notice an extraordinary level of engagement from the audience.”

The now 60-year-old media entrepreneur was so deeply impacted by the conference that a few years later, in 2001, he bought it from its founder. Today, he is the owner and curator of the hugely popular TED talks with speakers ranging from physicists, urban theorists, ‘thought leaders’, neuroscientists, philosophers, and motivational speakers, to actors and even the Pope. The annual TED conference nowadays is held in a custom-built space at the Vancouver Convention Centre and is a five-day think-fest.

Talking success

Creating such a global phenomenon out of a small annual conference of thinkers was no easy task. In fact, the first challenge was to keep the conference going.

Back then, we were skeptical whether talks would even work as online content; what worked at that point were kitten videos! Talks seemed a bit of a stretch

“In these kinds of conferences, the founder’s association is usually very strong. So I was not sure if people would still buy tickets and join the conference once I took over,” admits Anderson. Even with that struggle, he knew he needed to reach a much bigger audience. “But I didn’t know how. We tried to rope in a few television channels. But no one was interested. It wasn’t until online videos came along that the TED talks really took off, and they straightaway went viral!”

The first set of six TED Talks was posted online in June 2006, and by September, they had more than one million views. “Back then, we were skeptical whether talks would even work as online content; what worked at that point were kitten videos! Talks seemed a bit of a stretch,” Anderson says with a smile. But as soon as the first few videos were uploaded, he was bombarded with emails appreciating the effort.

Speak easy

Tips to ace public speaking:
  • Think of it as a gift, and don’t make it about promoting your company or brand or even your cause. Your goal is to give the audience something without any agenda. At the end of the talk, the audience should feel that they have learnt something. And that something is an idea. Plant an idea or transfer it from your mind to theirs through your talk.
  • Start with the assumptions of the audiences and make them open up to you and make them want to go on a journey with you through your story. An idea is a very complicated thing. And the speaker needs to build that in the mind of the audiences using the tools that already exist in their minds. Don’t throw in jargon or concepts that are foreign to them.
  • The biggest mistake is to cram a lot of ideas into one single talk, and not develop any of the ideas to its full potential. It is much better to focus on one single idea or thought. Everything else should connect to that.
  • Say less and say it in depth so that people start to care about it. Show people why you care about that topic and why they should as well. Spark their curiosity and then through storytelling, show them why it is important.

By 2015, the organisation had posted its 2,000th free-to-view talk, most of which were translated into over 100 languages. With time, the talks have evolved in many ways, but the basic tenets have remained the same. “There was a commitment from the very beginning towards high production value. One of the first sets that we put out was Sir Ken Robinson’s Do schools kill creativity? . That video still remains one of the most popular of our talks. Now we keep most talks a bit shorter: from 18 minutes long to 12 minutes, or even 9 or less. The range of topics continues to be as diverse as before.”

There have also been problems. “Speakers have a way of falling into the trap of imitating previous speakers, and our emphasis is on personal conversations,” says Anderson. “We want to encourage people find their individual voices.”

But those voices cannot work unless the speakers actually have something strong to say. Anderson hates it when speakers try too hard to be inspiring. “They stride the stage, pirouette to the audience, try to work their charisma, wait for a standing ovation, but don’t really have anything powerful to say. I hate such talks. At TED, substance matters more than performance,” he says.

So speakers are put through rehearsals to take care of issues. “We work quite extensively with speakers and give them an opportunity to get proper feedbacks on the script, help them structure it better, or help them write it in a more impactful way, before they go on stage with the final version,” says Anderson. “It is almost a three to four month process.” However, the talks team also emphasises a level of spontaneity. “It shouldn’t sound robotic, which happens when the speakers try to memorise the talk. That doesn’t come across as authentic,” he says.

In 2009, Anderson introduced the TEDx initiative, which allows free licenses to local organisers who want their own TED-like events. These also work as a talent scouting process, but there are rules and tools for TEDx organisers so that the TED quality is maintained.

“There are certain speakers we don’t encourage; there are certain formats you need to follow. But more important than these are the tools we provide. We have an extensive training process; we hold workshops to empower the organisers,” explains Anderson. “Of course there have been some disappointments along the way but the vast majority of the content we get is really good!”

Hindi medium

Anderson is in India to announce TED’s debut on television with TED Talks India Nayi Soch, which will be aired on Star Plus later this year. The show will be in Hindi, hosted by Shah Rukh Khan. “The chance to come here and record talks in Hindi that can reach a much larger population of the country was thrilling,” says Anderson. “If we come here with an English programme, a few million might listen, but we want to reach all of India including the rural areas. We chose television as a medium because in India, not many people have access to high bandwidth internet.” He adds that even if the country seems to be hooked to OTT television dramas, in India there is a deep understanding of the power of knowledge. “The first thing mothers will tell you is that they want an education for their children,” he points out.

His relationship with India or its people is not new. “I spent seven years of my school in Mussoorie in a boarding school (Woodstock School). It was amidst the Himalayas and it was a beautiful place to grow up. You are amid nature all the time, playing in the mountains, collecting beetles, and being in an international school with kids from 30 countries also opens you up to the world. Those are the years that shaped me to the ‘global citizen’ I call myself today,” says Anderson. “In fact India was so engrained in me that even when I shifted to England I was supporting the Indian cricket team in India-England matches for a very long time. My English friends were aghast!”

According to Chris even if India seems to be hooked to OTT television dramas, in India there is a deep understanding of the power of knowledge (Aalok Soni)

Chris’s picks:

The funniest TED talk:
Inside the mind of a master procrastinator’, by Tim Urban

The most popular one involving a celebrity:
Does the Pope count as a celebrity? That one was hugely popular!
Why the only future worth building includes everyone, by Pope Francis

Talks I found an emotional connect to:
Every kid needs a champion’, by a teacher named Rita Pierson

How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day’, by Tristan Harris

Three favourite TED talks in the past one year:

Thoughts on humanity, fame and love’, by Shah Rukh Khan.The reaction to him was insane. We had around 150 Indian-origin people from Vancouver outside the studio screaming his name! Although not everyone in the audience knew him beforehand, he had won them over by the end of the talk.

The surprising decline in violence’, by Steven Pinker.Pinker puts forward evidence that there is actually a decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that we are in fact living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

What do you think when you look at me?’, by Dalia Mogahed. She spoke about rising Islamophobia especially in America, and it touched a chord with everyone.

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First Published: Nov 11, 2017 23:06 IST