How the TED Conference Found the Next Generation of Speakers

Last year the organizers behind the TED conference embarked on a talent search in 14 cities around the world to find speakers for TED2013. Content director Kelly Stoetzel shares what they discovered and their plans for the future.

By Mitra Sorrells June 10, 2013, 12:17 PM EDT

TED content director Kelly Stoetzel

Photo: Ryan Lash

The annual TED conference uses the tagline, “Ideas worth spreading.” For this year’s event, held February 25 to March 1 in Long Beach, California, a more appropriate description may have been, “Ideas worth gathering,” as organizers embarked on a worldwide talent search to find new speakers to join such big names as Bono, Peter Gabriel, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin on the conference stage. TED content director Kelly Stoetzel says the contest was a natural extension of the conference theme, “The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered,” and it yielded 33 “amazing speakers” that the conference otherwise would not have found. Stoetzel shares the process behind TED’s talent search and plans for the future.

How did this idea for the talent search develop?
We started thinking about how we are going to find the undiscovered. That’s a challenge because if they are undiscovered, we are not reading about them or seeing them speak in other spaces. We have TEDx events, which are independently organized, TED-like events put together by people who apply for a license. So we thought it would be interesting if we partnered with some of these organizers and gave them a little budget, and they produced these events for us.

You held these talent-search events in spring 2012 in 14 ­cities around the world. What did these events look like?
We put out a call in every region we went to. For example, [when] we were going to Johannesburg, we tried to get awareness of the event in the southern part of Africa in lots of different countries. People applied to participate in these talent-search events, and we went through a few thousand applications and selected 20 to 30 speakers for each event. The talent search lasted for about three months. Over that time, we heard from 293 speakers total. We told them they had up to six minutes to speak—some gave samples of their talks, some gave us information on why they should speak at TED. When we went to each city, we would have a day of rehearsals the day before the event. Sometimes it was in the venue; sometimes it was in a conference room in a hotel. All of the speakers would rehearse with us, and we’d give them feedback—sort of a chance to tweak their presentation. Hopefully that would help them do even better the next day.

How did you evaluate the presentations?
We put all of the talks online on and invited people to score them on content and presentation and to add comments. We had almost 16,000 ratings and about 10,000 comments on the talks in two months. It was a good way to see them through the eyes of other people. We used the voting to help us form the conversations, but ultimately we made the final decision. So we chose 33 speakers and performers to be in the main stage program.

After the selections, how much communication did you have with these speakers before February’s conference?
We’d have sort of a back-and-forth, which varied by person and what their topic was, how far along they were. We worked with them to come up with a way of telling it that was clear and reflective of themselves and the things that were most important about the story to them. Then we did rehearsals over Skype, and, of course, they rehearsed on site once the event began.

Are you pleased with how the talent-search speakers performed?
They added a real depth to the program that we may not have had otherwise. They were people that we clearly wouldn’t have found any other way. What was exciting, too, was we were able to show off really big creativity happening all over the place, and some truly incredible young people. We had a number of kids in the program, and all of them we found through the talent search. The youngest was Richard Turere, who is 13 years old. He is from Kenya and is Maasai, and from ages 6 to 9 he was responsible for keeping the family’s cattle. During that time he came up with this system, which he has since perfected: The cattle were being eaten by lions, so he took some motorcycle parts and flashlight parts and put together a security system that keeps the lions away with 100 percent accuracy. He was amazing. We heard excellent feedback about all of the talent-search speakers. The really rewarding part is to see attendees there connecting around these speakers’ ideas and applying them to their own thinking.

Tell us about your overall program-development strategy.
Ahead of finding names for the program, we start to think what topics are really important to cover—for example industrial design or emerging technology or the global economy. Then we start to think of what that four-day narrative might look like, what types of things would happen. TED has for a long time been 12 sessions, so we’ll start to think about what kinds of speakers might go into those sessions, and then start thinking about who is the right person to have speak to each of these things. We also save room for topics that come up. It doesn’t all get set in stone at that time. It’s still a really malleable process. The way we invite speakers, too—it’s rare we do a straight invitation. Usually we’ll have a conversation with someone and say, “We’d like to explore the possibility of having you speak.” So we can make sure it is truly going to be a fit and we don’t get into a position where it’s not and then we have to back out of it.

Will you be doing a similar talent search for TED2014?
Doing this was an incredible amount of work, but I think it really yielded 33 fantastic speakers. We are really happy we did it. I’ve noticed since then a lot of TEDx organizers are trying to do this. It’s a great way to get people together who will be at your event later on. It gave us time to get to know the speakers and for them to get to know each other. That gives them a level of comfort that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

I don’t think we’ll do it again the same way we did it. It’s just physically quite hard. We are a pretty lean team. To be gone for three months is a lot. But in doing it, it gave us some great ideas for how we can work with TEDx organizers to achieve the same results, without having to do quite as much travel ourselves. There are people around the world doing these great events—they bring in amazing speakers we wouldn’t have found who are living and working in their own communities. It was definite evidence there is no shortage of great work and great ideas happening all over the place. So if people start to feel like they are running out of speakers, it may be time to look in other places—we got so excited by all the amazing people we met along the way.

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