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Behind the Scenes at TED & TEDActive 2014 in BC

IMAG3083by Andrea Driessen, Chief Boredom Buster, Copyright 2014

Photo by Trib via Flickr

Reflect on a time when you felt truly understood, part of a meaningful community, with “your people.” Maybe a happy hour with close friends. A family reunion. A college fraternity experience. Such deep group affiliation isn’t common.

So a few months ago, I went on an intentional search for it. And found a rarified, powerful level of connection that lasted five. Days. Straight. This is a behind-the-scenes look at that experience to help us design more intentional, game-changing meetings.

When I learned that TED and TEDActive would be held respectively in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia this last spring, just a few hours north of my home-base of Seattle, I yearned to see what all the fuss was about. What happens at TED events that has the world in general, and the meetings industry in particular, abuzz? Why are people across cultures and professions drawn to a long, not-inexpensive, industry-agnostic event—one that is, in part, available for free online, and that may have no direct career dividend?

You’re likely familiar with TED. Perhaps you’ve integrated some TED-ness into meetings. Maybe favorite some online TED Talks. Or attended a local TEDx. (These are smaller, independently organized community-based events, produced now at a rate of eight per day.)

An admitted TED-Head, I applied to attend TEDActive, held at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, while TED itself was hosted at the Vancouver Convention Centre. TEDActive convenes what the group’s Twitter profile describes as “global innovators—the doers of the world making a difference, to interact and learn from one another while absorbing TED.”

By nature, most meetings have some level of exclusivity “baked” in. Whether an association convention, an internal sales meeting, or a fundraiser, particular people are drawn to whatever common purpose that gathering offers. Exclusivity and limited access help serve up the special in a special event.

But I quickly noticed that part of TED’s secret sauce is in how organizers take exclusivity, access and inclusion to an entirely new, multi-sensory, multi-modal level.

As a “TEDActivator,” I immediately felt a palpable sense of belonging to a special tribe, an exclusive and surprisingly cohesive group, even though before arriving we were disparate individuals from every corner of the globe. Our connections and conversations only grew from there—and continue now online, as many of the 800+ attendees keep the conversations begun at TEDActive alive on social media. One perfect, overheard summation: TED is “radical hospitality.”

Over five days, I met an extraordinary array of people: an experimental anthropologist, a social concierge, an inventor of space equipment—times 800! We talked about peace. The lack of peace. Nanotechnology. Fireflies. We laughed. Cried. Got TEDAches. Snowshoed. Headscratched. Zip lined. Raised glasses in late-night toasts. Watched fellow TEDActivators present their own TED talks. Active? Um, yeah.

Some specific observations:

Name badges: Most meeting badges are utilitarian, as predictable as drivers’ licenses. TED badges, though—the size of newborns—are designed to make all interactions more fluid. Names visible from a distance, and the “talk-to-me-about” section showcases key interests to prime the conversational pump.

TED badges serve higher purposes too. Without exaggeration, I came to see them as talismen—representing and fostering a kindred spiritedness, a deep sense of being connected. They acted as keys to a magical, co-created kingdom, a means to a level playing field, ticketed access to a carefully curated community. They were literal and figurative door openers that gave bearers a sense of belonging and possibility. Clearly, meeting name badges can do much more heavy lifting than I’d realized.

Purposeful crowding: Ballroom doors were opened only minutes before the start of programs. This intentional congregating raised anticipation and ensured we gathered closely together, near coffee and brain-healthy snacks, so connections and conversation unfolded naturally. Not feeling chatty? TED had us covered: nearby were art supplies to make a magnet, for example, and post it on a timeline of predictions for the future, or illustrate a personal vision for what lies ahead. (Meeting theme: “The Next Chapter.”)

Conductivity and idea-sharing also happened on large, modular, writable walls where we posted questions, ideas and attendee-organized activities. What a simple, low-tech way to boost engagement and help connect people where they are: in the hall, next to the coffee bar.

Conference a la Carte: Breakfast and lunch too were atypical. First, these were called community meals, and were made more communal because in place of requisite banquet lines, tables and chairs were walk-up spots to choose a la carte items for a carry-like-a-six-pack mini picnic basket. We simply took our “custom” lunch totes to anywhere in the hotel—whether alone, with a pre-determined entourage or among a just-formed group of new friends.

Dinners included dine-arounds in restaurants with pre-chosen “tribes,” and an all-attendee gondola ride at sunset to the top of Whistler Mountain for a partner-hosted bash.

In short, we were consistently given choices for how we took in TED. At every phase of the agenda were choices for interaction—with others, with our own thoughts, with content, with new ideas.

And we had plentiful options for experiencing each of the simulcast and live TED talks. Theater style in a large ballroom with the footage on IMAG, and seating options in half a dozen types of furniture (including bean bags). In a smaller, exhibit-rich “lab” with LCD screens and interactive, educational partner (not “sponsor”) exhibits. Also in the lab: couches and even a bed, from which we could watch talks from a screen on the ceiling (!). Added viewing options in a foyer, conveniently next to an endless flow of F&B.

Oh, yes: the TED Talks! What would a TED event be without them? Across the five days were over 70 talks simulcast from the TED event in Vancouver, plus myriad sessions staged live, in person, just for TEDActivators, in Whistler. Some TED speakers journeyed from Vancouver to Whistler to join us in person too.

My faves included Col. Chris Hadfield’s “What I learned from going blind in space.” Two surprise talks, one on privacy from Edward Snowden, beamed in on the “face” of a robot, followed by a response to Snowden from NSA deputy director Richard Ledgett. David Kwong as a “cruciverbalist.” And provocative insights from musician Sting about his humble, anti-rock-star origins. And! And!

That may sound like a lot of video-screen-viewing, but it was broken up with live programming, such as “TEDYou”—a showcase of curated participant talks. Between talks, MCs facilitated audience-curated experiences. These included a whistling contest (this was in Whistler, after all!), and some bawdy improv-style silliness that had volunteers jumping on stage to describe—in 30 seconds—their first kiss, or sharing a six-word story of how they lost their virginity. (I refrained from participating in this active piece:)

With some post-event perspective, I can say with conviction that the world needs more TED-ifying. That means one: more provocative ideas, freely shared; and two, more ready access to authentic, human connections. How ideal, then, that meeting professionals are in the perfect industry to achieve radical levels of both.

What is YOUR most meaningful community–where do YOU feel most understood?