One On One

One on One With TED’s Katherine McCartney

Last month, participants attended the 31st edition of TED — the conference devoted to spreading great ideas. TEDsters must apply to be accepted, and then pay a hefty registration fee to attend. Convene spoke to Katherine McCartney, TED’s producer, to learn how an innovative design supports the event’s compelling content — year after year.


First held in 1984 as a conference about the convergence of technology, entertainment, and design, TED has pushed past those original topic areas to embrace speakers from every field — musicians, religious leaders, scientists, philosophers, educators, philanthropists, and others. The event has spawned independent TEDx conferences around the world — more than 1,000 are planned for this year alone — and an archive of nearly 2,000 TEDTalks, which can be viewed online for free.

The in-person, once-a-year event, however, comes with a sizable price tag. Prospective attendees must apply to be accepted, then shell out $8,500 to join 1,200 fellow participants at the sold-out program. While the process and fee no doubt contribute to TED’s exclusivity, the experience itself is what seals its brand status.

For the past 12 years, Katherine McCartney has played a huge role in delivering on that promise, lending technical and creative expertise to TED’s design and on-site execution. That makes her an important part of the TED enterprise, which is owned by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation. Revenues from the North American conference are funneled back into the organization’s work and mission, funding big projects like making TEDTalks available for free, and supporting the independent TEDx community around the world.

The 2015 TED conference, held March 16–20 at the Vancouver Convention Centre, was themed “Truth and Dare,” and sought “to challenge core beliefs in search of a deeper truth, while celebrating the thinkers, dreamers, and mavericks who dare to offer bold new alternatives.” Applicants were invited to “make new friends, explore innovative experiences, contribute to discussions, and see what impact you can have.” 

Convene spoke with McCartney to learn how TED’s conference design supports its cutting-edge content — and the spread of great ideas, every year.

Presenting at TED is highly competitive, and the talks are the core of the event’s success. What is the process for selecting the presenters?

There is a curation team based in New York City [where TED is headquartered] and [there are] others who are remote who actually select the presenters. Every year, the conference has a theme. Speakers are selected based on a number of criteria, one of which is whether their subject fits well into the theme. The curation team “scours.” There is an online app at where you can nominate people you would like to see onstage. Those [who are] interested can go online and nominate a speaker or nominate themselves. 

We do our own research, and the curation team makes the final decisions and then moves forward with the presenter list. We don’t announce who the speakers are until the end of January for the March conference.

Do you give weight to the person’s ability to communicate?

The selection is heavily focused on the ideas themselves rather than on the presenter’s ability to communicate.

TED has unique titles, such as “Curator,”  “Brain Trust,” and “Satirist.” Can you describe these roles?

The Curator actually is the owner of TED, Chris Anderson. The Brain Trust is a group of members of the TED community who serve as a valued source of advice on issues of importance to TED’s future.

I notice that the Brain Trust is a high-powered group, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founders; Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO; and marketing guru Seth Godin — and others with titles such as physicist, inventor, designer, futurist, venture capitalist, anthropologist, and connector extraordinaire. I’m still curious about the Satirist’s role.

The Satirist is currently Julia Sweeney, who has been in this role for several years. The Satirist basically watches the entire conference and then is given an 18-minute slot to summarize major ideas in a humorous manner. This role continues to be brilliantly executed by different satirists, and is a highly successful and appreciated session.

TED is known for its meals and after-session events. What are they like? How do they foster participant interaction (aka networking) — which is so highly prized at TED?

I can’t answer completely on the part of TED, but as the producer of the event I can say that people who attend TED know they are coming to an event that from the moment they arrive is a fully inclusive program. The sessions, luncheons, and evening events are all designed to work as one continuous program. Participation in all of the sessions ensures that attendees get the most out of the event because it’s a single-track conference. Everyone is watching the same presentation at the same time. So when there’s a break, the whole community of attendees is able to have the same conversation about what they just saw on the stage.

Are questions taken from the stage?

Questions are not typically taken from the stage — only rarely. For one thing, when the speaker leaves the stage there’s an opportunity during the breaks to talk to [him or her] personally and ask any questions one on one.

What was the thinking behind TED’s 18-minute-session format?

Eighteen minutes is not the session length, but the length of most presentations. Sessions last one hour and 45 minutes, and presentations within the sessions are not all 18 minutes long, although most are. Some are [as short as] three minutes. It really depends on what the idea is about and how long is required to tell the story. That’s the driver of the time allocation. 

What ideas do you have about innovative meeting design and room sets? What is the process for rethinking or creating fresh spaces for attendee interaction each year?

[We’ve held the last two TED conferences at] the Vancouver Convention Centre. We didn’t have a theater we could use in the center, so we created one [in 2014]. Lots of press has covered that theater, as it’s absolutely beautiful and purpose-built. It has unique seating in that there are about 12 different types of chairs, meaning that attendees can choose the way that they want to watch the conference and take advantage of the choices. That’s part of it.  

Then we simulcast the presentations in viewing lounges. Steelcase, our partner, provides furniture for these lounges. Together we collaborate on simulcast seating that’s outside of the theater. It’s like sitting in a living room — comfortable, [with] cozy furniture.  Attendees have screens in front of them and get to watch with other people. They can talk while the presentations are going on and use their laptops. In the theater, discussions, laptops, and cellphones are not allowed, because the idea is that [everyone’s] complete attention should be on the stage. So we provide a choice for how people want to watch the presentations. Our goal is comfort for every single attendee.

What is your biggest challenge as you shape the meeting logistics?

Our company, Procreative Design Works, has been at this since 2002. We produced the first conference under Chris Anderson’s ownership in 2003. We joined him then and have been producing the conferences ever since. It gets easier because we’re so familiar with the requirements. The challenge, of course, is coming up with new and creative ideas all the time and keeping things fresh. But overall, the logistical component in many ways has gotten easier because of our experience, commitment, and understanding of the audience.  We work very hard at this.

How did your company get selected for such a key role at TED?

We got selected because I had a relationship with Chris Anderson from a previous event that I produced for him. When I found out that he had purchased TED, I called him to express interest in producing the TED conference. I submitted a proposal, and we were very fortunate that he accepted the proposal and moved it forward, and we’ve been producing the conferences ever since.

At that time, TED was one single conference, and since then we’ve moved into two and then three conferences a year, and others here and there. So as TED has grown, the need for production has grown as well, which meant that our company grew.

We’re very good at producing this type of an event, and we’ve produced conferences for other clients as well. We have great attention to detail, and an understanding of the conference and what the attendees look for. We also offer complete technical and creative production.

We work with [other] clients on obtaining speakers, but we don’t do that for TED, because they have the curation team. We have 40 employees and work with a mix of contractors. At times, we can have 55 people in the office. 

What is your title as it relates to TED?

The title TED has given me is director of operations, but I’m actually producing TED. Our company is delighted to still be producing the TED conferences. We’re motivated and inspired every day, because TED is such a wonderful organization. It’s extremely easy to feel excited about getting up in the morning and being part of building TED. But that doesn’t preclude us from looking at other clients and being excited about what they’re proposing as well.

What lessons can meeting professionals learn from TED to make the events they oversee extraordinary in the eyes of the attendees?

I think it’s essential to make conferences and events simple. Simple for an attendee to get to, arrive at, and participate in. Comfort is key — comfortable in their surroundings and with what’s going on at the conference.

Attendees also want to be excited about what they’re seeing and by the community of which they’re a part. They want to trust that the producers have taken care of all the details. We make it simple for attendees, so that they don’t have to do much more than to absorb and connect.

And it’s so important to have the right facilities and venues that are going to usher that whole process well. And then, of course, regarding the programming, it’s necessary to think through every second for the attendees, so that they really don’t have to think too much when they’re there — except [about] the ideas. The communication about every single detail has to be well thought through also.  

What about the food?

The food is very, very important. And today, with the coffee culture the way it is and everyone having their favorite type of coffee, you can’t just put out plain coffee and tea for days on end. We create a barista-style experience and offer barista bars at all conferences. We offer sustainable, local, healthy food — not your average cuisine. We collaboratively plan menus with the chefs and rarely would take an off-the-shelf menu. 

There’s no question that we’re thinking of people’s energy levels, in the morning, afternoon, and night — and about what we should be doing to assist the energy level to keep it healthy and high. So we pay a lot of attention to the food and beverage. A great deal of effort is spent on making sure we offer variety. We also have snacks throughout the entire day, so if someone needs something to eat or drink, they don’t have to leave the venue to get it. Most of the meals are provided at TED. 

What kind of social events do you offer? Do you bring in outside entertainment?

There are social events throughout the conference and every evening. It’s not about outside entertainment — which we don’t have. It’s more about giving the community an opportunity to get together and talk about whatever they wish to discuss. It’s simple. At that point the speakers they have seen onstage who excite them are part of the community.  We carefully create an environment in which they can interact with the presenters and with each other.

Many people won’t have seen each other since the last TED event, so being able to reconnect in a social environment that doesn’t impede on their ability to have conversations is super-important. So, we create environments more than anything else.  Some of the environments are created by the selection of restaurants. Some are in meeting venues. We did some amazing things over the years, but it’s more about creating an opportunity where everybody can connect and be comfortable. It’s about creating an environment conducive to meaningful interaction. We never schedule a themed party — that would get in the way.

Registration has just opened for TED 2016, which will also be held in Vancouver. We like the venue, and it’s too hard to move [the conference] around. We book the space for a long period of time, so TED will be held in Vancouver in 2016 and for years beyond.

Susan Sarfati, CAE

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC.