More Than Just Talk

How schools can make the most of TEDx events.
More Than Just Talk

Christine Porath of Georgetown University speaks at a recent TEDx talk organized by the University of Nevado Reno. (Photo courtesy of Tim Dunn)

 

TED TALKS—CONFERENCES and online videos focused on technology, entertainment, and design—bill themselves as promoting “ideas worth spreading.” Over the years, they have provided millions of people with insights into creativity, motivation, statistics, and other topics. Universities and other nonprofits have adopted the same model with sponsored TEDx programs that allow organizations to share knowledge and ideas from their own fields.

For business schools, TEDx programs offer a chance to create impact on their communities, improve engagement with stakeholders, and promote innovation in their regions—in other words, to support the three pillars of AACSB International’s mission.

Impact, engagement, and innovation were among the goals we had in mind at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR) when we organized our inaugural TEDx event in January 2013. As we held that first TEDxUniversityofNevada presentation in a small campus theater for an audience of 100, we didn’t know how much our audiences would grow, both in-person and online. By comparison, our January 2018 event was presented at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center for an audience of 1,300, and the 120 videos we’ve posted from our six events have been viewed online 42 million times. Some of the talks have been translated into 32 languages. This exposure has given our College of Business truly global reach.

We’ve grown in scale and sophistication as well. When our dean, Greg Mosier, helped us launch that first talk, we funded the whole event with ticket sales and a US$15,000 donation from our EMBA program. Our organizing team consisted mainly of students and staff from the College of Business. For our 2018 event, 30 community sponsors joined the College of Business to help us cover a budget of more than $100,000, and about half of the 50-plus people on our organizing team came from the Reno-Sparks business community.

Organizing a TEDx talk can be both challenging and rewarding for a university. In our experience, schools can pave the way to a successful and sustainable series by following these three steps:

Realize that TEDx is a licensed event. It’s a prerequisite for administrators at your school to thoroughly read the licensing rules provided at TED.com, which explain everything you need to know.

Start small, but dream big. For all organizers who obtain a license, the size of the first event is limited to 100 attendees. We knew we would have to pursue a growth strategy for TEDxUniversityofNevada if we wanted to create a sustainable event. We also knew there was probably a limited supply of great local people with “ideas worth spreading.” Therefore, we strove to create a destination event that would bring in speakers from all over the world. So far, we have hosted speakers from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the U.K. While our talks have addressed a broad spectrum of ideas, every year we try to include a few presenters who focus on business-related issues.

Secure administrative support. Organizing a TEDx event is a lot of work and leadership buy-in is important. At our school, the dean gives the organizers credit for service productivity and even intellectual contributions, and the events wouldn’t be possible without his backing.

After six years of experience, we’ve compiled this advice for professors interested in participating in TEDx events:

Understand the format. A TED talk is very different from a standard academic presentation. First, it’s a maximum of 18 minutes. Second, it will be delivered to an audience that is largely unfamiliar with the professor’s area of research expertise or even the extant literature.

For TEDxUniversityofNevada events, we seek out speakers who can clearly articulate compelling ideas, rather than “topics” for talks. These ideas should be as relevant to people living in Rotterdam or Seoul as they are to people in Reno. We tell our speakers to think first about the global issue, next about an innovative solution, and only then about a local example.

We also advise our speakers that they shouldn’t approach the event as if they are giving a talk in front of a live audience and it happens to be recorded; they should approach it as if they are producing a video of a talk that is being broadcast to the world but also just happens to be in front of a live audience.

Look beyond your own campus. If your university is not organizing TEDx talks, see if other schools are. First check to see if your city, state, or region has hosted such events; if so, watch online videos to check out the quality. If you like what you see, contact the organizers and present your ideas. Many TEDx organizing teams are eager to work with accomplished academics who can translate complex research into easily understood ideas.

Make sure you’re prepared! Most of the speaking we do as academics is neither scripted nor rehearsed, but a good TEDx talk is both. Consider hiring a coach to help you get ready. At the very least, ask for advice from other faculty who have done successful TEDx talks. For example, in 2017 Christine Porath of Georgetown University delivered an exceptional talk for us based on her civility research. She not only reached out to other speakers for advice, but also hired a professional company to help her develop her slides. That talk has now been published on TED.com and has been viewed more than 1 million times.

Is organizing a TEDx event worth all the time, effort, and preparation? For both universities and individual professors, we think the answer is yes. UNR is not the only school that has reached a massive audience with its events. Hult International Business School hosted TEDxHultAshridge in September 2017. One of the talks from that event, “Why Driverless Cars Need Philosophers” by professor of entrepreneurship Alessandro Lanteri, has garnered more than 170,000 views.

In 2014, Amy Edmondson of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education gave a TEDxHGSE talk on psychological safety in the workplace, and it has now been viewed more than 262,000 times. Speaking at the independently organized TEDxEast in 2013, Wharton’s Adam Grant discussed powerless communication— and racked up more than 140,000 views. After Grant and Edmondson were invited to speak at the main TED events, their subsequent talks attracted nearly 13 million and more than 1 million views, respectively.

For UNR, the TEDx events bring together students, faculty, staff, and community members to consider ideas that originated in our university, in our community, and all over the world. We give audience members an experience they cannot get anywhere else. And as millions of people view our videos, we gain evidence that the rest of the world values the work we do locally.

So, here’s an idea worth spreading: More AACSB-accredited institutions and faculty should be leveraging the TEDx global communication forum to help fulfill their missions and share their knowledge with audiences around the world.

Bret Simmons is an associate professor of management and Jeffrey A. Wong is a professor and chair of accounting at the College of Business at the University of Nevada Reno.

View a TEDxUniversityofNevada video.

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