The Creator Of TED reinvents conferencing again

updated on Oct 22, 2011. Conference figures from The Guide to Hosting a Better Conference added.

A Geneva-based Zimbabwean writer and international trade lawyer Petina Gappah informed the world that her friend Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa (the woman behind the community and activist website has realised her dream of bringing a TEDx event to Harare.

On 19 August, TEDxHarare will hold its conference at Gallery Delta. Joseph Bunga of Hello Harare! will be attending. Petina will try to make it too.  You can register for the event on their Facebook page.

In view of this development, we decided to take a look at the latest trends in conferencing and get more ideas from the TED guru. has revealed Richard Wurman’s plan 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.

Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TED.

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.

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.”

To conclude, here are some statistics on the conference world from Monocle‘s survey The Guide to Hosting a Better Conference:

1. Europe has remained the most popular continent for conferences, with about 54% of meetings in the world organised there in 2009. The outsider used to be Africa, but it now surpassed Oceania.

2. The estimated total number of participants at all 2009 conferences was over 5.2 million compared to the almost 4.9 million conference delegates the year before.

3. North America, and more specifically the US, has been the region where conferences have had the largest average numbers of participants over the past decade with around 655,000 participants at almost 600 meetings in 2009.

4. Conference participation reached a peak at the turn of the century, as an average of 800 delegates attended each conference in 2000. Ten years later there are around 600 delegates per conference.

5. Vienna, Singapore and Paris have been recurrent fixtures in the top 5 for the number of international conferences organised there over the past decade.

6. September has consistently been the favorite month of the year for organising meetings.

7. Since 2005, hotels have gained momentum against the classic convention centres, and now constitute almost 45 % of the venues used. Greater competition is also coming from universities and unusual locations for conferences, such as castles, boats and theaters.

8. The field that still spawns the biggest number of conferences in the world is medical science. Closely following are conferences on science and technology.

9. The average income from registration fees reached almost $360,000 per conference in 2009, with delegates spending a total of $1.6m per meeting.

10. Delegates spent over $13.5bn on conferences globally between 2000 and 2009.

11. It’s becoming more costly to attend conferences: the average registration fee has been steadily increasing. It averaged around $600 per delegate in 2009.

12. In Britain, the conferences and meetings sector, with around 25,000 businesses, is worth about 18.8bn pounds. That includes revenues and the wider economic benefit to conference destinations.

13. A delegate coming to the UK for a conference spends 700 pounds on average on overall costs.


And several facts on the price tag of some talks:

1. Bill Clinton can earn up to $500,000 a talk.

2. Estimates put Tony Blair as earning up to $10,000 a minute.

3. Donald Trump: up to $1.5m a speech.

4. Since leaving office as Alaska governor, Sarah Palin has demanded as much as $100,000 a speech.

5. Alan Greenspan: former chairman of the Federal Reserve can expect around $250,000 a talk.


2 thoughts on “The Creator Of TED reinvents conferencing again”

  1. Hello
    Just a small correction I am not the woman behind Kubatana, I just work here. Kubatana was founded by Bev Clark and Brenda Burell in 2001 with the aim of increasing the ICT capacity of the Zimbabwean NGO secotr. The website has grown to host over 270 organisation in the directory and over 17 000 documents about and authored by Zimabwes civil society. Please visit the site on

    TED is an amazing initiative and I am very glad that they allowed me to organise the very first TEDx conference in Zimbabwe. I am also happy let you and your readers that Nobuntu Ndlovu has also been grated a TEDx license and will host TEDxBulawayo on November 3rd.

    You can find photos from TEDxHarare on
    please get in touch with me if you would like any information about TEDxHarare.

    Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa

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