How TED Maximizes Attendees’ Experience in their Custom Theatre

13629841034_aa82d7d706_mAn Intimate Look at the 8000-Piece “Pop-Up” Stage at TED in Vancouver

Copyright 2014 Andrea Driessen, Chief Boredom Buster

All the world’s a stage. Shakespeare knew it, and as meeting professionals, we too view an event stage as the center of a meeting’s world.  As participants, our eyes are trained to focus attention on the speakers and the action on stage, as it’s often the source of much of our meeting experience and our education.

Few events rely on a speaker’s stage presence more than TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design). So when the organization decided to um…stage…its 30th anniversary event last spring at the Vancouver Convention Centre, they capitalized on the opportunity to build a stage from scratch.

How apropos that the TED 2014 theme was “The Next Chapter,” as just the stage alone represents a new chapter in enhancing the attendee experience.

As a TEDActive 2014 attendee, and a TEDx volunteer, I savored the rare opportunity to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the VCC the day before TED started. Part of the tour—in fact, for most of us, the highlight—was the chance to see the stage before it was complete, and learn about the strategy behind its design.

One condition: no one was allowed to take photos or videos of the stage or the room in which it was built. (The photo here was taken AFTER the event started.) We did, though, have the opportunity to watch some speakers’ dress rehearsals, and hear TED curator Chris Anderson share some thoughts for maximizing the attendee experience.

In designing the TED stage from ground zero, the over-reaching goal was to connect speakers as directly as possible with the audience. To accomplish this  sense of intimacy, we learned that designers and builders immersed themselves in the history of performance, from the earliest history to present day.

They studied all site lines to ensure everyone’s view was maximized. Anderson said they were after a “story-telling-around-the-campfire” kind of feel. And rather than the predictable straight-on sight lines we typically see in a ballroom or a theater, the TED stage, since it extended into and “hugged” the audience, attendees could more readily see and interact with each other.

Watch any TED video from TED 2014, and you’ll get up close and personal to the stage. Perhaps you’ll gain fresh ideas for designing your next event to draw your audience closer to what matters to them.

The stage was made from locally harvested Douglas fir trees, cut with a computer-aided laser machine and shipped to the VCC on 50 trucks. Entering the 52,668 square feet ballroom filled with custom-built tiered seating of 8,000 of pieces of wood smelled like walking in a literal forest of pine. I found it impossible to imagine that the room was an empty shell just five days before!

And leave it to a Swiss exhibition construction company (NUSSLI) to be behind the precise and pressed-for-time construction process. Moreover, the stage can be stored and reused again for future TED events.

Whether the speaker actually spoke, sang, performed spoken word poetry or a stand-up routine, the result was a sense of closeness and inclusion, which is often hard to pull off in a room filled to the brim with 1200 people.

The next best thing to being there—a short time-lapse video of the stage construction:

Photo of TED stage by James Duncan Davidson, via Flickr