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Reporter's notebook: Behind the scenes at the 2019 TED conference

Reporter Maryse Zeidler covered the 2019 TED conference in Vancouver, rubbing elbows with global researchers, top-tier Silicon Valley executives and (mostly American) elites who spent up to $10,000 US to attend.

Here are 5 things I learned from rubbing elbows with the global elite

Yeonmi Park, who escaped North Korea with her sister, was a last-minute addition to the TED conference this year. (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

It was Thursday night and there I was, sipping whiskey in a secret room decorated like an English library. Next to me sat a man wearing an elaborate outfit that combined chainmail, silk and yellow feathers. 

"How did this happen, and how did I get here?" I wondered, sipping my drink. 

That's sometimes how things go at the annual TED conference, which wrapped up in Vancouver on Friday. The week-long intellectual extravaganza is home to the famous TED Talks, broadcast online throughout the year. 

This was my second year covering the conference, rubbing elbows with global researchers, top-tier Silicon Valley executives and (mostly American) elites who spent up to $10,000 US to attend.

Here is what I've learned in my time behind the scenes. 

Events like the closing evening party at the TED conference are designed to help people connect and network. (Lawrence Sumulong/TED)

1. It's a giant networking opportunity

I used to wonder why anyone would pay so much money to attend the conference.

I mean, sure, there's the free chair massages, the fancy snack stations, the gift bags and the late-night parties. But does that make the price tag worth it?

No. The reason why attendees dish out so much cash is because TED is an excellent networking opportunity.

TED attendees at the farewell picnic on Friday. The conference features group activities throughout the week. (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

The conference makes it easy for people to find and contact each other through an app that lists every attendee, along with their interests and expertise. There are also group activities throughout the week, including workshops, dinners and yes, parties. 

Many of the attendees I met were there to make connections, find collaborators, or pitch investors. 

2. Everyone is selling something

Speakers are explicitly told not to pitch their product or organization during their talk. The reality is that nearly everyone at TED is there to sell something. 

Ideally, that thing is an idea worth spreading — which is the tagline for the conference. TED research fellow Claire Wardle gave a thought-provoking talk about misinformation online, for instance. 

Claire Wardle gave a rousing talk about misinformation online at this year's TED conference. (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

But sometimes talks are just promoting a speaker's website, organization or book. 

For example, actor Joseph Gordon-Leviitt's talk about getting — versus paying — attention, seemed more like a thinly-veiled advertisement for his pet project, an online collaboration tool for artists.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave a talk about getting vs paying attention at the 2019 TED Conference. (Bret Hartman/TED)

3. Not all the speakers are great

Many of us have heard the stories about the countless hours of practice that go into rehearsing a TED Talk. 

Indeed, some of the speakers told me they began rehearsing their talks as early as last fall. Others weren't booked until as late as last week — yet they still managed to give rousing talks.

Gangadhar Patil speaks during Fellows Session at TED2019: Bigger Than Us, on April 15. Patil is working to support local journalism in India. (Ryan Lash/TED)

But sometimes the talks are just not that great. Either the speaker is stiff and can't connect with the audience, the speech itself lacks focus, or the subject matter isn't that interesting. 

Many of the speakers also freeze or verbally stumble onstage. But the audience is forgiving. And the talks are edited before they're published online. 

The audience at the TED conference is often very forgiving of speakers who freeze or stumble during their talks. (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

4. But some of the most unexpected speakers are really great

There are always some TED Talks that are guaranteed hits. Hannah Gadsby's superb talk about making her Netflix comedy special Nanette, for example. 

But it's the unexpected talks that are sometimes the most delightful.

Daniel Lismore's TED Talk was an unexpected hit at the 2019 conference. (Bret Hartman/TED)

That guy in the chainmail-and-feathers outfit I sat next to in the secret whisky bar? His name is Daniel Lismore and he had just given an amazing talk about being what he describes as living art. 

Another gem included last-minute addition Yeonmi Park, who escaped North Korea with her sister. 

5. TED still struggles with diversity

TED curators are obviously alive to the need for diverse speakers from different backgrounds.

This year's stage featured speakers who espoused ideas from ghetto gastronomy to gender inequality in Pakistan.

The audience, however, still largely consists of white people in jeans and blazers walking around drinking kefir water and eating coconut chips. 

Some people at the TED conference noted the lack of diversity in the audience. (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

Some of the speakers even told me they felt a palpable chasm between them and the people listening to their talks. 

Given the conference price tag, that's probably not a huge surprise. But it's an issue TED needs to consider — if it hasn't already.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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