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The Day TED Might Have Died, by Chris Anderson

Stashed in: #TED, LinkedIn, #happiness, Awesome, Jeff Bezos

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About 800 people attended every year, and most of them seemed resigned to the fact that TED probably couldn’t survive once Wurman departed. The TED conference of February 2002 was the last one to be held under his leadership, and I had one chance and one chance only to persuade TED attendees that the conference would continue just fine. I had never run a conference before, however, and despite my best efforts over several months at marketing the following year’s event, only 70 people had signed up for it.


I spoke from the heart, with as much openness and conviction as I could summon. I told people I had just gone through a massive business failure. That I’d come to think of myself as a complete loser. That the only way I’d survived mentally was by immersing myself in the world of ideas. That TED had come to mean the world to me — that it was a unique place where ideas from every discipline could be shared. That I would do all in my power to preserve its best values. That, in any case, the conference had brought such intense inspiration and learning to us that we couldn’t possibly let it die … could we? 

Oh, and I broke the tension with an apocryphal anecdote about France’s Madame de Gaulle and how she shocked guests at a diplomatic dinner by expressing her desire for “a penis.” In England, I said, we also had that desire, although we pronounced it happiness, and TED had brought genuine happiness my way. 

To my utter amazement, at the end of the talk, Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, who was seated in the center of the audience, rose to his feet and began clapping. And the whole room stood with him. It was as if the TED community had collectively decided, in just a few seconds, that it would support this new chapter of TED after all. And in the 60-minute break that followed, some 200 people committed to buying passes for the following year’s conference, guaranteeing its success.

If that 15-minute talk had fizzed, TED would have died, four years before ever putting a talk on the Internet.

I’ll share why I think that talked ended up being effective, despite its evident awkwardness. It’s an insight that can be applied to any talk.

There were many things wrong with that talk, but it succeeded in one key aspect: It was the idea that what was truly special about TED was not just the founder I was taking over from. TED’s uniqueness lay in being a place where people from every discipline could come together and understand each other. This cross-fertilization really mattered for the world, and therefore the conference would be given nonprofit status and held in trust for public good. Its future was for all of us. 

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