Reporter's notebook: Behind the scenes at the 2019 TED conference
Here are 5 things I learned from rubbing elbows with the global elite
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The audience, however, still largely consists of white people in jeans and blazers walking around drinking kefir water and eating coconut chips.
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.