Is it time for a new twist on the TED model? The esteemed Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference, soon to be pushing 30, has become a juggernaut—what with sellout events, the viral success of online TED Talks, and the spin-off of smaller TED-X conferences. But the conference’s original founder, Richard Saul Wurman, is working on a new creation that radically overhauls the formula used by TED—much as TED itself reinvented the standard business conference model when Wurman launched it in 1984. Wurman, who is no longer affiliated with TED (he sold most of the rights to Chris Anderson’s Sapling Foundation back in 2002 and broke off his remaining ties with the spin-off TEDMED Conference earlier this year), recently announced plans for his new WWW.WWW conference, slated to debut in Fall of 2012. So far, he has lined up some heavyweight collaborators—R/GA’s Bob Greenberg and @radical.media’s Jon Kamen are on board, GE is an early sponsor, and Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock will see to the music. Featured guests are still to be determined, though Wurman promises that the conference will be “like a dinner party with a hundred of the world’s greatest minds having a conversation, two at a time.” But here are a few things the show won’t have: Speeches, slide shows, or tickets. Wurman’s plan is to stage a series of improvisational one-to-one conversations, held in front of a small invitation-only audience and then disseminated to the outside world via a high-quality, for-sale app that captures the event.
Wurman hopes the result will be “intellectual jazz.”Can a conference succeed without slick presentations? Wurman acknowledges that the best TED talks can be “fantastic,” but he feels a format built around prepared, time-limited speeches lacks a certain spontaneity. “The idea here is to not give a PowerPoint presentation you already know by heart, and not to rehearse an 18-minute speech so you’ll get high marks on it,” he says. By exploring ideas and subjects “in conversational modality,” Wurman adds, “you’re more likely to have those shared moments of epiphany. You can get closer to the truth.” In his original design of TED, Wurman sought to strip away some of the conventions of the business conference in an attempt to make things livelier and more engaging. For instance, he dispensed with the podium: It made it too easy for speakers to read from a script, and, as Wurman puts it, “it made the speaker feel less vulnerable because his or her groin was protected. I wanted them to feel more vulnerable.” Wurman also decreed that speakers at TED were not supposed to promote their interests or organizations in any way. “I didn’t want to be sold anything, not even by a charity, “ he says. “Which of course is what’s done at a lot of conferences now, including TED — they’re up there selling ‘doing good.’” TED presentations, in Wurman’s original vision, were supposed to be more conversational and “unrehearsed,” but if that was ever true it didn’t last: Today, there are even guidelines, including those posted on the TED site, for how to prepare a great TED speech. (Point 4. Connect with people’s emotions. Make us laugh! Make us cry! Point 10: Rehearse your talk in front of a trusted friend.) The emphasis on performance no doubt yields pithier talks, but it can rankle, too: Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has described TED as “a monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” With his WWW conference, Wurman intends to supply a challenging premise or question for each pair of speakers to address — but they won’t know what it is in advance. And where they choose go with that topic, or even how long they talk, also will be undetermined. Wurman is hoping that the result will be, in his words, “intellectual jazz.”
One author calls “a monstrosity that turns thinkers into circus performers.”The format may or may not work — most likely it will depend on the delicate chemistry between the pairing — but in some ways, Wurman’s “conversation-over-presentation” approach seems in keeping with a current trend toward applying collaborative inquiry and discussion to today’s big issues and challenges. Of late, various types of innovation salons and conversational events have been popping up: Recently, Seth Goldenberg (a Bruce Mau Design alumni) launched the “IDEAS Salon,” initially in Rhode Island in April with a follow-up Silicon Valley event this fall. Instead of giving presentations, the high-level guests joined together to grapple with weighty questions; Goldenberg wanted to get away from what he dubs “the sage on stage” model used at TED and other conferences, in favor of a more conversational format. Similarly, the design firm Method has been hosting a series of salons in New York to explore big ideas in a more open and freewheeling manner. Not that anyone believes the slick-presentation conference approach will go away, nor should: Wurman thinks TED and other shows will continue to be crowd-pleasers. But he sees it as a 20th century model. “What I’m trying to think of,” he says, “is how to do the best conference for the beginning of the 21st century.”