How to Put on a TEDx Show in 10 Easy Steps

Photo: Travis Houston.
Last Monday, we put on our TEDxSanDiego to 325 people at Anthology in Little Italy and 27,330 worldwide who tuned in via the live telecast.

Never heard of TED, or TEDx? From their site: In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.

In the spirit of sharing, here are a few of my thoughts on why the day was so successful, from my perspective as director of the show (there are a million other things that go into a successful show...but this is just about the production itself). If you're inspired to put on your own TEDx show, I hope they help you in planning:

Our set piece. Photo: Travis Houston.
1. We treated TEDxSanDiego as a show, not an event. It became apparent early on that our TEDx was going to grow beyond just a few people getting together to watch a speaker or two. Our curator, Jack Abbott, and co-founders Chuck Longanecker, Andrea Kates, and Adrian Hong, put together a fantastic vision for the day, and I was lucky enough to execute that. Once we saw how big it was, there was a conscious decision to treat this as a show, not just an event, and that came through in the production quality and execution. We utilized confidence monitors and countdown clocks, and put together a production staff that included a show director, tech director, talent relations manager, stage manager, and presentation manager, to name a few. Also, having worked on the Oscars and Emmys, I know a good show is a well-timed show, which brings me to...

The show bible, aka my rundown
notebook. Photo: Travis Houston.
2. Create - and follow - a show rundown. We knew we had spectacular agenda we had to live up to. When I came on board about 10 weeks before the show, I took that outline and flowed it into a minute by minute rundown (based on a format used in my TV and sports days). Not only did we start on time, but we were actually running 5 minutes ahead at a few points. Our breaks started and ended precisely, and the show itself ended exactly when it was supposed to. It's because we had everything scheduled to the minute. Each line on our rundown includes segment time, cumulative time, activity, speaker, script, PA activities, and audio/visual notes. (If you'd like to use the template, hit me up at spamkara at yahoo dot com.)

Jake Shimabukuro rocks the ukelele.
Photo: Travis Houston.
3. Create a single point of contact for the show schedule. The key to the rundown working: 1 person owns it. (Ideally, whoever's calling the show.) Any updates go through said owner, which cuts down on churn and dramatically decreases the chances of anything getting lost. Another key? Lock it down at 5 p.m. the day before rehearsal. Tell folks if they have any updates after that point, they must print them out and bring you a copy. This is good for 2 reasons: 1., you get to go to bed at a decent hour (instead of people emailing you at 3 a.m. to say, "Please update to include my changes.") and 2. ensures no one shows up at rehearsal and says, "Oh, well I sent that to you."

4. Have a tech rehearsal. The day before the show, we had a full cue to cue tech rehearsal. We started off with our tech load in, then marked all our speaker spots on stage, followed by our emcees running their lines. Speakers began showing up in the afternoon, some running their full talk, others just clicking through and getting a feel for the stage and the venue.

Kurt Gray on "Doing Good." Photo: Travis Houston.
5. Get the speakers on the same, page. At the end of tech rehearsal, we had a formal Speaker Orientation, and went over a couple of high-level points. The biggest was timing. The best advice (which came courtesy of our Tech Director Michael Esposito) was this: "Hey guys, the best reason to stay on time and respect the countdown clock? That's the only way you'll potentially get on - they don't post talks that go over." (Whether or not that's proved to be motivation enough: only 1 out of 22 went over.) We also showed them what a proper emcee to speaker (and vice versa) handoff looked like: emcee stands center stage and waits for speaker to get all the way to them before shaking hands and walking offstage. Same for when the speaker's done talking: wait in the middle of the stage for the emcee. It not only cements connection, but it's good for the audience to see that handoff. Now about speaker timing...

6. Have a plan for speakers who go over their time. Finally, we showed with the speakers how we were going to handle it if they went over their allotted time. I stood on stage acting as the speaker, and the emcee did her part. We told them at 0:30 over, the emcee walks onto the stage and stands down stage left (to give them a peripheral visual cue). At 1:00, the emcee walks toward them and kindly says something witty, such as, "We could listen to you all day..." All the speakers agreed it was a fair, elegant solution and it worked out well for us.

Simon Sinek on the power of connecting.
Photo: Travis Houston.
7. Stay on time. When I say we had things timed down to the second, I wasn't kidding. The beauty of having a timed rundown was we always knew where we stood. If things were running a minute behind, I could easily have the emcee cut out a follow-up question. If we had a little extra time, we started the breaks a little early, giving folks more time to mingle and connect.

8. Use the pre-recorded TED talks to come out of break. This one was key. Knowing we had a big venue, I didn't want there to be too much shuffling of folks getting back into their seats while the speakers were talking. So we gave a 5 minute VO warning over the PA system (accompanied by the onscreen PowerPoint counting down from 5 minutes left until 1 minute left). Then we came out of the break with the emcee introducing a pre-recorded TED talk. That worked out well, because by the time the speaker hit the stage everyone was comfortably seated, relaxed, focused, and ready to listen. And speaking of the required 25% TED talks...

Our set pieces: some pig and the X. Photo: Travis Houston.
9. Be choiceful in your TED talks. As for the order of pre-recorded TED talks, we showed the longest TED talk (18 min.) early in the day, and they got shorter as the day (and people's attention spans) went on. So it was 18 min. > 9 min. > 9 min. > 6 min. Also, if you do follow our Break > TED talk > Speaker format, be aware of which talk you show after lunch -- people are going to be in a food coma, so I recommend showing a funny/inspirational one. Our two 9 minute talks were Annie Lennox and Adora Svitak; Annie's talk is heavy and not a great post-lunch talk. We ran Adora Svitak's talk, and it worked like a charm. Annie's talk was after the first afternoon break, and worked well. Sebastian Wernicke's talk was after the last break, and got everyone in a great mood for the last part of the day.

Best crew ever. Sonia Rhodes, Me, Michael Esposito, Lynn
Kelly, Anthology, Anthony (L-R). Photo: Travis Houston.
10. Your show's only as good as the team that works on it. Lucky for us, we had a fantastic team. From the founders (we referred to them as Executive Producers, even if they followed the more PC TED terms of curator all the time) to the show day staff, each and every person was committed and passionate. We were also fortunate in that we also had the privilege of working with the Sharp Healthcare event experience team. They helped elevate us from a good show to a great one. (And their answer to every question was, "Yes." Awesome.)

Finally, don't just take our word for it. Browse the Twitter stream (hashtag #TEDxSD), which has a lot of beautiful, positive commentary.

I've gotta say, that of all the shows I've worked on, and events I've produced, TEDxSanDiego is by far my favorite. If I two favorite quotes about the day, from the speakers:

TEDxSanDiego curator, Jack Abbott, closes the show.
Photo: Travis Houston.
"This feels like a real, actual TED show." - Overheard between two speakers backstage after the first break

"I've never seen a show run so tightly on time. Kudos. I'd work with you again in a heartbeat." - Tom Yelllin, former ABC News and biz partner of Peter Jennings

I adore each and every person who I had the luck of working with on TEDxSanDiego, and miss them already. I woke up the next day with a smile on my face, and almost a week later, it's still there.

My key takeaway? Never underestimate the power of a small group of people with a big vision.


Show overview:
Venue: Anthology (Little Italy neighborhood | San Diego, Calif.)
Date: Mon. Nov. 8, 2010
Time: 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Speakers: 22 (including 2 performances by Jake Shimabukuro)
Attendance: 325 in person | 27,330 via live webcast

Other shots:
"Sure Travis, I'll smile. But I have to get back to the tech
rehearsal cue to cue now." Photo:Travis Houston.

We had nametags, so it must be real. Photo: Travis Houston.

The good-natured Jake Wood from Team Rubicon, who put up
with entirely too much ribbing from all of us who kept calling
him "The Other Jake" (in reference to Jake Shimabukuro, who
was also was at the show). Photo: Travis Houston.

Inventor of the cell phone, Marty Cooper. Yes, that's the original
cell phone, all 12" and 3 pounds of it. Photo: Travis Houston.


Anonymous said…
Thanks Kara! Great job all around and some insightful tips from behind the scenes. :)
Kara, Great rundown of how to do a TEDx event from someone who is Ultimately Quaified to do a TEDx Event. You truly masterminded the production of the show down to the milisecond. Exceptional Job. I was proud to be working with you. Cheers.
Kara DeFrias said…
@anonymous - You're welcome!

@Travis - You are too kind. :) Great pics!
Kara. Thank you for inspiring us all!
Luiz Mello said…
Great guidance for us at TEDxYouth@ISB who are running a TEDx event for the first time. Thanks a lot!
Kara said…
You're welcome, Luiz! Have a great show. :)
Kat said…
and the next one is...?
Brian Rangell said…
These are great thoughts, Kara. I was event coordinator for TEDxCMU in Pittsburgh and ran into some of these issues during the show. I'm starting work about now for next year's show, so these are really great things to think about as we try to move beyond "campus student activity group" and toward a more fully produced event.
Kara said…
@Kat - December 3, 2011

@Brian - Congrats on your TEDx event! Glad you found the tips useful. :)
musicgirl27 said…
Thanks, Kara. I will be stage managing our "show" and your guidelines are excellent. I will email you for a copy of that timing template.
Kara DeFrias said…
@musicgirl27 - Thanks for the compliments. :) I'll be happy to share with you.
TEDxMizzou said…
I'm producing TEDxMizzou at the University of Missouri, Columbia. These are some awesome tips.

I had a quick question. I'm planning to put together a team of 5 students to work on my event (limited to 100 attendees).

What was the size of your team?
CaliforniaKara said…
Hey TEDxMizzou! I executive produced TEDxIntuit a few weeks ago, and we only had 100 folks at that. My crew was about 15 people, including me. For a big show like TEDxSanDiego I think we had about 70 volunteers? (Jack Abbott would know the exact him on the TEDx Google group.)

Break a leg!
Thanks for these great tips. We are preparing our own TEDxTepian in Samarinda, Indonesia. We surely will follow your tips :-)