The Creator Of TED Aims To Reinvent Conferences Once Again

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 via a high-quality app.

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’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."

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  • Jean Tideman

    Are we to live on words alone? There are mighty and precious spheres beyond words.  
    I would like to see Ted Talks continue with a better visual format. Declutter the stage ie the pristine design of Apple Stores. Retain a whole flat wall (the screen) for visuals, a speaker with a wireless hand device to manipulate the tech stuff, the speaker on a nice clean, unrumpled, cable-free floor. Clean up the visual stuttering. Make the speaker, his words and music and visuals the viewer's experience. 
    We're simply talking good design here.
    Can't we have both/and? A discussion with intellectuals + the creative critters 
    "as is" on a White stage continuing to shower us with ideas etc.?
    (I can visualize Jill, neurologist, telling the story of her stroke and recovery in a that pristine environment. And others.)   

  • Kiran R. Gulrajani

    This is so awesome. Thanks Warren! Something I have known for years and is at the core of the work we do. (just a webpage.. full site under construction). Shifting from sage on stage to a conversation. The reality is revealed in the moment in the togetherness which allows something larger to emerge. There is a chemistry in a conversation. A synergistic possibility. 

    One to one spontaneous conversations have a great dimensionality and reality that make rehearsed speeches seem prehistoric. They have a place in today's world. But when you have seen beauty of nature, why would you settle for a plastic flower?

    Wurman is a futurist. And the future is now. 

    And I would like to tell Wurman that there is a next step. Many to many conversation. Open Space Technology is a great example of that. Awaiting The www Conference and what lies ahead. 

    Thanks again Warren for this piece of news and wisdom. 

  • Morey Bean

    This will be so good... As an architect, my best work only comes with deliberate collaboration, not my work, not a clients requirements but the timely mix of both...

  • Technicalbeat

    This past weekend I enjoyed a lot of the TEDYouthday presentations. I hope that the great minds behind TED begin to consider reinventing the format of youth sessions to bring out their optimum inventiveness and inspire young people to get deeper involved with and committed to innovation.

  • Jeffrey Bradbury

    This is an amazing article about a very inspiring concept.
    I love watching the TED talks. I hope to see one live someday.


  • Tim

    Is this really going to deliver anything new?  Monocle and Monocle 24 are delivering plenty of content with distinguished guests and features.  Recently launch app delivers plenty of content.

  • Dan Farfan

    I predict that if this succeeds it will create a vocabulary and protocol that  revolutionizes so called white collar, so called knowledge work. 

  • Toby Butterfield

    I like this idea a lot. It has the potential to bring about insightful intimate conversations that could move both the participants and the audience. The world needs more of this. Get the heart in there as well as the head. Take a risk, discover something new, get vulnerable, dare to be changed. As someone who is both a teacher and a student of improvisational theatre, I know the enormous pay offs that can come from going without a script. I also know that this can scare the pants off of people. If this model is to reap all the potential rewards the participants may need some reassurance to feel safe. This is especially true if you are dealing with people with a reputation that they are risking. So how can this be done? Most easily with a gifted facilitator. Such a person could take them through some steps beforehand, reassuring and encouraging them to let it evolve, explaining his or her role, conduct sample conversations with them, and so on. A riffing, playful, yet profound atmosphere can be created and these are the optimum conditions for the most compelling conversations.

  • Patrick J. Quinn, FAIA

    I have followed Mr. Wurman since he was a student. Watch out when those eyes twinkle, because something is coming that may make you uncomfortable at times but will certainly open your eyes and encourage you to open your ears.

    Patrick Quinn.

  • Technicalbeat

    I am a longtime fan of Saul Wurman and as such am obligated to follow whichever path he blazes for conferences. I am fed up with them as they are and now only attend any virtually, which I believe is the most cost and resource effective utilization of the technologies now at our command.

    I am also interested in exploring new methods of presentation, information discovery and discussion.

  • fustian

    The problem with Intellectual Jazz is that it may require the participants to be actual intellectuals capable of supporting a riveting dialogue without an array of minions and PAs to feed and prepare their positions.  Not all TED caliber speakers would do so well in that context.

    As for intellectuals themselves - there is a reason that most lecturers prefer to perform as soloists, but the idea of an rich exchange is intriguing.

     I applaud the notion that this won't be just an0ther place to plug your book, speaker series or other self-aggrandizement. 

    I just hope it avoids being a) a polemic debate b) a superficial skimming of a banal "issue" and that c) it remains entertaining. 

  • Todd Horinouchi

    Have always been a fan of TED talks, but the idea of a one-to-one impromptu conversation is intriguing. However, the people speaking need to be pretty skilled at conversation for it to be interesting. A favorite conversationalist of mine in the entertainment industry would have to be William Shatner. His Raw Nerve show on the Bio channel shows his skill at listening and asking questions that get deeper into a particular subject or interviewee's psyche. Looking forward to what www.www can create.

  • Daniel Séguin

    Sounds interesting; I like the idea of "Intellectual Jazz", but where's the orchestra?  This is still a 'sage on stage' format, but now with two sages.  Let's move beyond the fish-bowl format and create conferences in which knowledge is co-created.  For the the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation's final Think Again conferences (final cause Harper closed the Foundation), we created Master Class sessions, which I think could be a great model...: The 120-minute sessions were learning
    spaces in which participants  (18 per group) wrestled with current beliefs and
    perspectives.  The explorde and
    co-created new knowledge through deep and meaningful dialogue.  Invited speakers offered a 20 minute provocation
    that served to ignite small group dialogues on the subject.  These dialogues layed the foundation for a
    45 minute facilitated discussion.  

  • Suzanne Lainson

    The University of Colorado's Conference on World Affairs, which has been going on for 64 years, is like this. It brings together about 100-150 experts in a variety of fields and puts them on panels to discuss subjects that they may or may not know well. It's like a big week-long dinner party that is free and open to the public.

  • Charlotte

    Somewhat excludes us 'up-and-comers' who can't afford this, with all the other conferences, presentations , podcasts and seminars out there.

    It has to be paid for somehow. I wonder how expensive it'll be...

  • Lloyd Lemons

    "Intellectual Jazz" I like the feel of that. Conversation. We certainly need more of that. Rants, raves and monologues don't work anymore--if they ever did.