Engagement + Marketing

Context and Content

Would TEDTalks be as popular as they are without TED conferences?

It’s a good question — with implications for hybrid meetings (as Barbara pointed out), and also for the nature of conferences themselves, because it makes you — okay, me — think about whether they’re defined more by their programming or by their format. In other words, content or context?

We touched on this question in our December 2008 issue, in a package of stories about how digital technology was changing how — and where, and when — meetings were organized: “Digital and online media are changing the way people relate to information, to the point that what they learn is affected, and in some cases determined, by how they learn it.” Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post Magazine writer, explored some of these notions in much broader fashion a few years ago in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article about a stunt he conducted in a Metro station in Washington, D.C. Weingarten had Joshua Bell, a world-famous violinist, dress as a street musician and play during a typical morning rush hour, to see if people would stop and listen. Short answer: They did not. From that simple experiment, Weingarten launched an exploration of beauty, art, and context:

Mark Leithauser has held in his hands more great works of art than any king or pope or Medici ever did. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the sale.'”

Leithauser’s point is that we shouldn’t be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

Now think about your meetings. You’re not just providing information for attendees. You’re framing that information; you’re delivering it at a certain time, in a certain place, in a certain manner. You’re providing a context in which it will be appreciated to the maximum extent possible. So, to answer Barbara’s question: No, I don’t think that TEDTalks would be as popular without TED conferences, because they would be content without context; they would exist for their own sake, without the promise of relevance.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.