Go Big or Go Home

What I’ve learnt from ten years of attending TED

I just got back from the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference in Vancouver. It takes ten hours to get there, and costs ten thousand dollars a ticket, and this was the tenth time I’ve been. I’ve been asked a few times what it’s like and what I get out of it – so this seemed like a good time to reflect on why it’s worth attending.

When I first came in 2009 it was already quite well known but it wasn’t the phenomenon it is today. Now there are over 2500 talks available online, they’ve been watched over a billion times and the most popular talks have been viewed over 50m times each. The original annual conference has spawned all sorts of complementary branded properties including TEDEd (schools programme), TEDSocial and there are now ten TEDx events worldwide held EVERY DAY!

It’s been an amazing thing for me on a personal level. I’ve had cup of tea with Bill Gates, breakfast with Al Gore and a lovely (if surreal) chat about muffins with Cameron Diaz! I met a bloke who went to space (Chris Hadfield) and my hero from space (Harrison Ford). What’s the coolest TED experience I’ve had? I’d have to say it was going to a party being DJ’d by Mark Ronson WITH Mark Ronson (and the bouncer hilariously wouldn’t let HIM in because he didn’t have his badge).

So, has attending made me a better person? Dunno. Has it made me a better strategist for my clients? Absolutely. I’ve applied the thinking to every brief I’ve ever been given and been able to connect lots of colleagues & clients with lots of fascinating partners and knowledge. The range and depth of information I’ve been exposed to in the 1100+ TED Talks I’ve seen live has been invaluable. I’ve learnt a few lessons in my time so here are the top 5 lessons from watching the great and the good (and the greatest and the best) over ten years:

It’s better to be a problem solver than a problem spotter

The best thing about TED is the spirit of optimism. It’s easy to be cynical, and even easier to be pessimistic. I love the fact that the spirit of the TED community is that anything can be solved if we put our mind to it. I once watched $2m get raised for a project in the hall in five minutes. Whatever the problem – in any category or company - there is always a solution if we combine optimism, with energy, and the right brains (and wallets).

Cast your net as wide as possible

‘Never ask a fishmonger what he recommends for dinner’, as my gran said. What I love about TED is that I spend five days getting inspiration and information from the widest possible sources and drinking from the deepest intellectual well.  It’s really useful if you’ve got a problem to solve to gather a wide range of knowledge. You can filter from volume; you can’t do it the other way around.

If you want an expert solution, find an expert

The modern world is addicted to simple solutions. This is very true in marketing and advertising where we have been sold on one-stop solutions because they are convenient (rather than right). TED has the widest range of people who are total experts in often tiny fields. This is great. As long as you understand that…

The answer is collaboration

The best thing about TED is watching people from different fields put THIS with THAT to solve problems. I’m convinced that future is collaboration, and to be found in collectives of brilliant people working together. This is something that TED has taught me – that when you get experts in different fields working together on a problem then that problem gets solved quicker and better.

Go big or go home

I really hate marginal gains theory. The best ideas are the biggest ideas and the bravest ideas. TED is all about big ideas, and the belief and optimism to deliver them. Whether it is a commercial, creative or altruistic idea, they tend to get solved when we dream big and aim high.

There we go. Just a few lessons from watching all those amazing people talk about all those amazing things. And I suppose I shouldn’t finish without a list of my favourite talks from 2009-2019. There have been so many that I’ve loved for so many reasons but here are five that have always stuck with me. Enjoy!

Special mention to the first TED talk I ever watched online and the thing that got me into TED in the first place back in 2006 three years before I was lucky enough to find someone who would pay me to go (Thanks, Stu Smith):

By Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour