THE BLOG

Embracing the Power of Accessibility: TEDxToronto

02/19/2015 12:01 EST | Updated 04/21/2015 05:59 EDT

In June of 2009, I received a phone call from my friend Tyler. He called to ask if I would be interested in helping him start a new conference in Toronto. The conference would be affiliated with the global ideas brand TED (which stands for Technology Entertainment and Design). As a long time TED-enthusiast and currently working as a corporate event producer -- it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

Looking back on the past six years, the team is often asked how we managed to grow a simple 100-person event organized in just eight weeks to a 1,000+ person conference, streamed to thousands more online, which has become the most watched TEDx event in Canada and one of the largest in the world.

Actually, the answer isn't that complicated. We were fortunate to work with an already established brand in TED that was growing exponentially in popularity. This made the event a magnet for attracting some of the best talent across the city -- passionate volunteers all driven by a shared belief in the power ideas have to change the world.

Perhaps a better question is: If you could identify one value or design principle that led to the growth of the TED (and later TEDxToronto brand) -- what would it be?

My answer? Accessibility.

This started in 2001 when TED was purchased by media veteran Chris Anderson. Prior to Anderson's involvement, the conference was largely private and known as an exclusive gathering of the world's leading thinkers and doers to discuss the latest innovations in technology, entertainment and design.

Upon purchasing TED, Anderson embarked on a new journey for the TED brand; guided by a philosophy he called "radical openness." This approach first began with TED sharing its videos online. The concept was "radical" at the time since it made the content freely available despite the conference costing its delegates thousands of dollars to attend. One might think this move would cannibalize ticket sales to the event given that now people could access the same content for free; but the opposite occurred -- more people heard about TED and wanted in -- and the brand began growing exponentially.

TED's 'radical openness' continued with launching its Open Translation Project in 2009, creating a way for its videos to be translated by TED enthusiasts around the globe; ensuring language barriers would not hinder the proliferation of great ideas, and making them accessible to new communities worldwide.

Later that same year TED launched the TEDx program by creating a framework by which these same TED-enthusiasts could apply to host locally organized TED events by simply following a set of brand guidelines and essentially 'franchise' the conference in their own communities. This move made an already well-respected brand even more open and connected to its followers who never previously had access to attend a "TED-style" event.

Since the inception of TEDxToronto in 2009, our goal has always been to create a consistent "TED-like" experience -- while embracing the power of accessibility to make TEDxToronto a brand the Toronto community would connect and engage with. At its core, the TEDxToronto brand was built on four pillars of accessibility: the event, the speakers, their content and our community as a whole.

Making the Event Accessible

For the first three years, TEDxToronto was free to attend. All event costs were offset through community sponsorships. Delegates applied to attend and our team did its best to select a diverse and passionate audience who represented an eclectic cross-section of Toronto.

As the event grew, so did our costs -- and we began charging for tickets. However, despite the ticket price, accessibility still remains a core value that has led the team to offer subsidized or free tickets to over 20 per cent of our attendees each year. This makes TEDxToronto unique among many large conferences of its caliber in the city, many of which cost several hundred (if not thousands) of dollars to attend.

In addition, each year TEDxToronto is available for individuals to watch online free of charge. Last year we streamed the event to over 35,000 viewers globally.

Making the Speakers Accessible

Making the speakers accessible to our audience is a core part of the TEDxToronto experience. We achieve this in two ways.

First, we allow the Toronto community to submit speaker nominations telling us which speakers they would like to hear from. This crowd-sourced feedback helps our programming team discover individuals who otherwise may go unnoticed.

A second way speakers are made accessible is by encouraging them to mingle with the audience throughout the conference and during conversation breaks and over lunch. Many conferences tend to keep their speakers in a green room or backstage. Yet allowing speakers to meet the audience creates a meaningful connection for both the audience member and the speaker -- and is easily one of my favourite aspects of the TED / TEDx format.

Making the Ideas Accessible

TED's motto is Ideas Worth Spreading. Yet ideas are unable to spread if they aren't accessible to begin with. The TED format offers an effective framework to help achieve this. For starters, every TED or TEDx talk can be no longer than 18 minutes in length. This helps ensure a focused and succinct delivery from each speaker.

In addition, speakers don't stand behind a podium but rather on a circular red carpet at center stage. A podium creates a subconscious barrier between the speaker and the audience. Removing it adds a level of intimacy between the speaker and the audience -- allowing the speaker's ideas to come through in a more relatable, more human way.

Finally, a fundamental way all ideas are made more accessible is through storytelling. It's no secret that human beings are natural storytellers and that we turn everything into a story to make it more easily understood. From newspapers, to our Netflix; from a sales pitch to a Sunday church service -- we can't help telling stories because narrative is what allows us to make sense of the world. Therefore it follows, that taking a relatively complex and inaccessible idea and turning it into a short and compelling narrative - is a key ingredient in what makes the TED format so successful.

Making TEDxToronto Accessible to All

To make anything truly accessible, it's important to ensure whatever is being built is accessible to all - especially those who may find it difficult to access the normal channels created.

As TEDxToronto moves into its seventh year as an organization we are more focused than ever on making our event accessible to all. This means making content more readily available to those who are challenged by hearing or visual impairments. It also means getting TEDxToronto talks translated into more languages other than English, so ideas can reach the many multicultural and multiethnic communities of our great city.

A strong example of seeing an opportunity to create a more accessible future was demonstrated at TEDxToronto 2014 by speaker Tarik Sayeed. His company, BabyTaxi built an impressive piece of software using gesture recognition technology to translate American Sign Language into corresponding text & voice. In addition to learning sign language, people now have a way to communicate with hearing impaired members of their community.

Embracing the power of accessibility - and radical openness -- has been instrumental in the growth of both the TED and TEDx brands. These examples illustrate that by giving people access to something they otherwise wouldn't have access to -- ignites their passion and creativity and gives them permission to contribute their talents to what is being built. The larger application and impact of crowd-sourced innovation is only just beginning -- and its outlook is exciting.

When TED curator Chris Anderson was asked at a recent TED event in Amsterdam: "What will TED look like in 10 years?" He responded with the following:

"We don't have a roadmap for the future. TED is not a top-down organization, like a factory. Instead, we navigate by compass, not by map. We aren't the controllers of TEDx events, but we nurture an ecosystem. My job is that of a gardener, maybe planting a few seeds and pulling out a few weeds, but mostly to step back in amazement as this beautiful thing grows."

Let's all embrace the power of accessibility and then just as Sayeed's BabyTaxi suggests, 'together we can change the world.'

Interested in volunteering with TEDxToronto? For more information, visit http://www.tedxtoronto.com