The TED Conference

The phone rang and a man's voice told me that he wanted The Raspyni Brothers to appear at his conference. It echoed the hundreds of calls that had come before it, and laid the path for hundreds more that I hoped would follow it. Then he said something that drastically veered from the normal script. It caught me off guard and I asked him to repeat himself.

"We don't pay presenters at TED," he said.

... "We don't pay presenters at TED," he said.

That was what I thought he said. I asked him if it was a benefit for some organization and he said that it wasn't. I told him that we weren't interested and thanked him for the call.

"Let me send you some literature about it and see if you still feel that way," was his reply. Two points for persistence.

The literature arrived via Federal Express the next morning. I called him back that afternoon and asked him if his offer was still on.

TEDX (acronym for the 10th Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference) took place on February 23 - 26 this year in scenic Monterey, CA. Touted as a gathering of "unfailingly interesting presenters" and "...750 enriched minds in a highly charged energy state", TEDx lived up to its reputation and hype.

Now, trust me, this isn't the kind of conference you see in the local newspaper and decide to pop into for the day. For one thing, it's expensive! A pass that gets you into the auditorium so you can hear the presenters, including The Raspyni Brothers, will set you back three thousand dollars! And then there is the issue of availability. Sign up while you're there for the following year's conference and if luck is on your side, you won't get stuck with a blue tag. That one costs the same as the red tag but it will only admit you to the overflow room where you'll have to absorb the wisdom in two dimensions - on big screen TV.

My First Day at TED

Walking down the hallway I pass Tom Brokaw. He looks just like he does on television and I say, "Hello" to him in a tone that makes it sound like I see people like him everyday. I don't. He takes a glance at me, then at my name badge, and says, "Hello" in a voice that makes it sound like he sees people like me everyday. He does.

Drew Mason, the publisher of WIRED magazine, is enjoying a chilled frappachino while talking to Norman Lear. I wonder if I could buy a transcript of that conversation?

Michael Milkin enters the room and looks like a man who came to a 4-way intersection and can't decide whether to go, or wait for someone else to make a move. He sees Art Buchwald and walks in the opposite direction. Art must have been an old client, I assume.

Sitting at a high-tech barstool (nothing is average at this place), I see Dean Kamen. I hadn't heard of him until yesterday when he introduced a wheel chair he invented that can climb stairs, lift its passenger to reach an item on the top shelf in a market, and remind a double amputee how nice a solo stroll on the beach at sunset can be. He's on his laptop writing an email that, for all I know, contains another brilliant idea that will make the world a better place.

I walk into the Break Out room and see a gathering of about 300 people imbibing the many varieties of Starbuck's Coffee being offered - gratis. Michael Eisner, Noah Wyley, Arienna Huffington, and a gaggle of young Dot Com millionaires are deep in conversations with lots of people whom I don't recognize -- surely a shortcoming of mine, as opposed to a lack of earned notoriety on their part.

I start to laugh because eight months ago I was one sentence away from blowing off the invitation to be here.

New rule #1: Don't ever turn down an opportunity just because it doesn't pay.

In the corner of the room, I see a portly knight holding court. He is wearing a dark brown scarf - the heavy woven type - wrapped around his neck and both ends of it hang down his chest over a light gray sweater. I move closer and recognize the bright eyes that dart wildly across the faces of those surrounding him. His smile is contagious, like the flu in February, and I feel the corners of my lips turn north. He is bigger than I thought he would be. Granted, I had only seen pictures of him in magazine articles, but he didn't fit into the mental box I had reserved for him.

Richard Saul Wurman - the guy who invited my partner and me to be here. He paid our transportation, food, and hotel bills in exchange for 25 minutes of our time. He saw a tape of ours last year and felt that we had something to offer his affluent group of followers. Flattering? Yes. Believable? Only because I was standing there looking at him.

RSW, as he is often referred to, is an architect by trade. Twelve years ago he began noticing a symbiotic merger taking place in the fields of Technology, Entertainment, and Design and conceived TED. His intention was to bring leaders in these fields together to share new ideas, discoveries, and theories with like-minded individuals. Today, his invitations to present are considered a rite of passage by those who receive them. He encourages speakers to, "tell a story you haven't told before, without notes, without a lectern -- and to be vulnerable."

None other than the conference's patriarchal leader emceed each of the four daily sessions. He set the tone for each day's proceedings with what seemed to be a completely improvised monologue that wasn't aimed at any particular target. At some point during the homily, the wet concrete began to cure and it was obvious that it wasn't a stream-of-consciousness babble. He was indeed pouring a runway from which each speaker could safely takeoff. To have a single ring master for a four-day conference is a bold decision to make. To have the audience look forward to that person's next appearance on stage was a remarkable sight.

Richard does not believe in long introductions at TED. Every presenter is highlighted in the beautifully designed book that is given to each attendee. A photograph and biography let's you know who the next speaker is, and by the end of the 1st sentence of their biography, it is obvious why they were chosen to present:

"As President and CEO of Adobe"

"At the age of 12 she was granted her first patent"

"After the 5th edition of her book entitled The Annual Report of America"

It dawned on me that I was in a room full of people who don't spend Monday through Friday in anticipation of the weekend. These people were self-starters and highly motivated doers that were elated to be there. These were individuals who were 100% tapped into the fact that this is an exciting time to be alive. More accurately - many of these people MAKE this an exciting time to be alive.

I've seen more professional speakers preaching to the audience that they must go to bat for "the team" than I could ever remember. An experienced orator can usually fan the dust off of my skepticism long enough for their efforts to be rewarded with a hearty ovation. The speakers at TED are so inspirational because most had long ago found that the team couldn't keep up so they went on to create their own leagues.

On Stage at TED

It didn't make any sense. My mind to tried to negotiate with what my eyes were seeing.

I was holding the wooden handle but the sharp and dangerous part of the garden weasel was flying through the air. I watched, but it seemed to be happening in slow motion. The head of an implement made for removing weeds flew forward, away from the $350,000 computerized piano behind me, past a quarter million dollars worth of hand-blown glass that lined the front of the stage, and landed just short of a guy who invented a clock that will run for 10,000 years.

Tragedy diverted to comedy due to fact that no one, or nothing, had been hit by a flying garden weasel.

Improvisational zingers abound about the errant weasel since, by the time the audience realized what happened, the danger was over. I could tell that a portion of the audience had concluded that it was a part of the act. Unfortunately, there isn't enough technology in the world (and, certainly not in that room) to blueprint where a ball of pointy spikes that has been poorly attached to a handle will land when it finally releases.

New rule #2: In most instances, an extra gob of glue is a prudent investment.

"There is something wonderful about being in a group this large and being the only two that still fly coach." It was our opening line and it was a good one. The crowd exploded. Two things you can do to put an audience at ease: Let them know that you are one of them, or, better yet, that they are better than you are.

So were we vulnerable? We were probably the only two people to walk onto the stage at TEDx without one or more of the following: a patented invention, a college degree, a major publishing deal, a Grammy, a group of on-site friends or colleagues, a Power Point Presentation, a biography that absolutely had to be more than three paragraphs, or a bunker full of low-priced stock options.

But humor is the great equalizer and when we left the stage 25-minutes later to the conferences' first standing ovation, none of those things mattered.

A TED conference is about bringing what you have to the table and letting it mingle. It is a place to give your thoughts permission to roam - sans judgment or ridicule - so that they might meet, shake hands, or even dance the night away with the ideas you never even dreamt about.

Not a bad environment in which to find yourself surrounded.

Indeed a place where no one would dispute that rules are made to be broken.