TED 2016 brought good news for those of us who can’t afford the $7,500 minimum attendance fee. This year, for only $20, we got courtside seats to the opening night at local theaters all over the USA. Thank you TED. I bought two tickets and dragged my teenage son along. After 15 years of watching curated content on the superlative TED website and coaching TEDX presenters, the “live”, at-the-source experience was surprising, inspiring, distracting and occasionally disappointing. Here are my main takeaways:

Best Reason to Fail. Google X (now called X) is in the business of finding the world’s biggest problems and solving them. And how do they do this? By trying to kill their projects as quickly as possible. Astro Teller, head of their “moonshot factory,” shared the audacious ideas his laboratory explores to address the needs of our planet. In order to advance a project they tackle the toughest, most intractable problems first. They are financially incentivized to “kill these projects,” and only if they can’t kill it does it advance. Loon Balloons (enormous balloons following wind/satellite currents) could bring internet access to the 4 billion people on the planet who currently are without connectivity. This project is alive and well and you will be rooting for it!

Best Use of Props EVER Riccardo Sabatini wanted to show the genetic operating instructions of the human genome. Like a magician waving his cape, five people appeared and wheeled out carts of books. There were 175 oversized books. Sabatini opened one and showed how each page had thousands of lines of dense code. Then, he highlighted a string of 8 letters on one page of one book and said, “Here’s the sequence that determine this individual’s eye color.” And then to another page of another book, “and see here if these two letters are out of order, the person has Cystic Fibrosis.” It was the best use of a prop I have ever seen. Extraordinary! Bravo! But then, weirdly, his talk went downhill. He lost his focus and his final message was vague and unclear. I was surprised that the TED speaker coaches let him end such a dramatic presentation with a “meh” finale.

TED Un-Edited TED live had some problems. I share these not for a “gotcha” but to point out that even the best hit the wall, especially with technology. But how do we handle it? When you’re onstage presentation is streaming live all over the world? (Singer Adele says if she wasn’t on TV during her Grammys microphone problem, she would have stopped and fixed it, but millions were watching so she kept singing. “Big mistake,” she told ELLEN two days later. “Never again.”)

Shonda Rhimes had technical difficulties. She was in the zone with her poetic presentation about how she had to change her life (i.e. save her career) in order to get her “hum” back). She was in dramatic, theatrical performance mode when she just stopped. And waited. And then spoke to the technicians from the stage. “We are out of sync, you need to back up.” She didn’t tell us what was happening. She waited. We waited. We figured out for ourselves (ah, a teleprompter crisis) what was wrong. Silence filled the space. “Keep going back,” she said. The audience tension was palpable. It took at least 90 seconds to realign. And then Rimes nodded and picked up right where she had been. I can’t decide if it was a brilliant response or if in keeping the 4th wall alive during this glitch, she had lost her connection to us. But, she made a choice and stuck to it and I admire her steadfastness in every presenter’s “nightmare.”

Bill T. Jones performs at TED2016 - Dream, February 15-19, 2016, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Bill T. Jones performs at TED2016 – Dream, February 15-19, 2016, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Best Performance. Dancer Bill T. Jones  (this clip is from TED 2015, but you get the feeling) closed out the night with a mesmerizing fusion of movement, story and philosophy. He exemplified, physical control, intellectual command, and vulnerability. His construct, “process is performance” integrated 21 unique poses into choreographed storytelling. He moved through these 21 poses three times, weaving stories about himself (it was his 64th birthday that day!), the recent death of a mentor, his sexuality, his homosexuality, how he watches people react to him as a black man and round and round and on and on. His breathing got labored, he perspired. He was exposed, poised, purposeful, powerful.  Watch this TED performance when it goes on their website!

 Best Distraction. The TED cameras pan from the speaker to the audience throughout the presentations. And that’s engaging because watching people who are watching people is it’s own pleasure. And I Recognized Someone I Know. In prime seating real estate! It was a thrilling jolt. “Look!,” I elbowed my son, “There’s our good friend…..isn’t that crazy?!” He hissed back, “OMG, you are so loud, be quiet, mom!”

It’s amazing that we can distinguish one face in a crowd of thousands. I confess it was distracting and delightful. Which leaves me with this, it’s people and faces and stories that we love best and TED has led this charge for more than 30 years and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Here’s to TED,


On March 14th,  SpeakWell Partners is running a free Business Storytelling workshop in downtown Boston. Click here to join us or find out more.