IDEA SELLER

CHRIS AN­DER­SON IS PEREN­NI­ALLY IN SEARCH OF IN­NO­VA­TIVE WAYS TO IN­SPIRE MANKIND THROUGH THE TED PLAT­FORM.

Business Today - - CONTENTS - By Ajita Shashid­har

Chris An­der­son is in search of in­no­va­tive ways to in­spire mankind through the TED plat­form.

If you ask TED cu­ra­tor Chris An­der­son about his favourite TED talk, he in­stantly says that some of his favourite talks are yet to come into the pub­lic do­main. An­der­son is re­fer­ring to the Hindi ver­sion of TED Talks, sched­uled to be aired on Star Plus later this month. It is the first time TED Talks will be in a lan­guage other than English. And An­der­son is ex­cited. He has been per­son­ally in­volved in not just the se­lec­tion of speak­ers, but also in speaker re­hearsals to en­sure that they present the most trans­for­ma­tional ideas. “There are some amaz­ing talks com­ing up,” he says.

Those who might have imag­ined that the brain be­hind the pop­u­lar TED Talks show would be, like most me­dia per­son­al­i­ties, flam­boy­ant, and overtly out­spo­ken, are se­ri­ously mis­taken. The 60- year- old TED cu­ra­tor, once a jour­nal­ist, comes across as a shy per­son. Most of us watch a TED talk not just for

in­spi­ra­tional ideas but also to lift our spir­its on days when ev­ery­thing has gone wrong. An­der­son is, in many ways, TED per­son­i­fied. His first ad­vice to any­one who is new to TED is to type ‘ hap­pi­ness’ and start watch­ing what comes by. “The talks that have changed me most are about hap­pi­ness,” he says.

His favourite ad­vice on hap­pi­ness is what was of­fered by Amer­i­can philoso­pher Dan Den­nett, who, in a TED talk, said that the se­cret to hap­pi­ness is find­ing some­thing big­ger than you are. An­der­son claims he is work­ing for that. As you en­gage in a con­ver­sa­tion with him, he comes across as a warm and charm­ing per­son whose sin­gle- minded goal is to bring about change in the world and in­spire peo­ple to live life dif­fer­ently through TED.

This trait of giv­ing back to so­ci­ety, in his case, through pub­lic speak­ing, is some­thing he has in­her­ited from his doc­tor par­ents, who spent a large part of their lives in In­dia, Afghanistan, and Pak­istan, do­ing eye surg­eries free of cost.

Ever since he took over the reins of TED in 2002 (from its founder Richard Saul Wur­man), An­der­son’s com­mit­ment has been to make TED Talks truly global and ar­tic­u­late new ideas. He has al­ready done so by launch­ing TEDGlobal, a sis­ter con­fer­ence, which is held across the world. He also lo­calised TED with the launch of TEDx, which are TED-like talks that en­cour­age shar­ing of great ideas at the com­mu­nity level.

A trained scribe, his jour­nal­is­tic instincts come alive as he is con­stantly talk­ing about look­ing around for world-chang­ing ideas. “He is al­ways look­ing for new ways to grow the busi­ness. He is a good lis­tener and the same time has an in­tel­lec­tual brain. He wants TED to be at the pin­na­cle of thought lead­er­ship,” points out his col­league Juliet Blake, Head of Tele­vi­sion at TED.

There­fore, when the largest tele­vi­sion net­work in In­dia (Star In­dia) ap­proached him to do an In­dian ver­sion of TED in Hindi, An­der­son was ob­vi­ously in­ter­ested. “Be­cause of the sub­stan­tial size of the au­di­ence in In­dia, we were in­ter­ested,” he says.

A stick­ler for per­fec­tion ( he cu­rates all the talks for the main con­fer­ence in Van­cou­ver), he took over six months to fi­nally sign on the dot­ted line. “There are nu­mer­ous TV chan­nels that have ex­pressed in­ter­est in do­ing some­thing with TED. Twelve years ago, we wanted to be on TV, and no one was in­ter­ested. Once the talks started tak­ing off on­line, TV com­pa­nies ex­pressed in­ter­est, but what they were propos­ing did not feel right. But what was ex­cit­ing was that the more we spoke with the team at Star In­dia, the more we un­der­stood that they were se­ri­ous about do­ing it the right way.”

Gau­rav Ban­er­jee, Pres­i­dent and Head of Con­tent Stu­dio at Star In­dia, was pleas­antly sur­prised when An­der­son spoke a full sen­tence in Hindi when they met at the TED head­quar­ters in Van­cou­ver. Hindi is not alien to the chief TED cu­ra­tor as he stud­ied at the Wood­stock School in Mus­soorie in the 1960s un­til the age of 13. “Be­ing in In­dia dur­ing my early years is a huge part of my iden­tity. As a boy, I used to fol­low the In­dian cricket team. Pataudi was the cap­tain, Chan­drasekhar, the leg-spin­ner, and there was Bis­han Singh Bedi, and In­dia un­for­tu­nately al­ways lost,” he smiles.

Wood­stock, an in­ter­na­tional school, at that time had stu­dents from over 30 na­tion­al­i­ties, and An­der­son at­tributes his abil­ity to think global to his early life ed­u­ca­tion in In­dia. “My iden­tity has been global, and I am grate­ful for that ex­pe­ri­ence as I have grown up with peo­ple from other coun­tries. It has been a big part of my agenda to glob­alise TED and make it avail­able to peo­ple any­where.” To­day TED Talks are de­liv­ered across North Amer­ica, Europe and Asia in var­i­ous for­mats such as TEDGlobal, TEDx and so on, though the main TED con­fer­ence is in Van­cou­ver ev­ery year. TED to­day is a $62 mil­lion not­for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion. Its rev­enues

come from con­fer­ence regis­tra­tions, spon­sor­ships and do­na­tions. Al­though TED Talks are free on­line, to at­tend the an­nual TED con­fer­ence in Van­cou­ver or a TEDGlobal con­fer­ence in other parts of the world, one has to cough up a whop­ping $8,500. An­der­son’s first-ever TED con­fer­ence was held in 2000 in Cal­i­for­nia. The game-chang­ing mo­ment was a talk to­wards the end of the con­fer­ence, by the dis­abled ath­lete Aimee Mullins. “She un­screwed her legs and re­placed them, she talked so con­fi­dently and openly about her dreams, and it just changed my thought of be­ing dis­abled. She was su­per en­abled. I was sit­ting at the back shed­ding tears, I never had this kind of an ex­pe­ri­ence at a con­fer­ence, maybe once or twice at church, but never at a con­fer­ence,” he rec­ol­lects. Mullins’ talk made a deep im­pact not only on An­der­son but also on ev­ery­one at the con­fer­ence. “I never imag­ined a con­fer­ence would make such a deep mark on peo­ple’s psy­che as ev­ery­one I spoke to, had a sim­i­lar feel­ing. I cer­tainly did not have an idea that it would get to this scale, but it was clear that what was hap­pen­ing there de­served a broader au­di­ence. The ques­tion was how to get that au­di­ence.” It led him to walk into the of­fice of TED founder Richard Saul Wur­man in 2001. The lat­ter was aged 65 and wanted TED to find a good home. “My main con­ver­sa­tion was to keep the key val­ues of the con­fer­ence, about be­ing com­mit­ted to fol­low ideas and not sell out to cor­po­rate in­ter­ests.” The talk also gave courage to An­der­son to come back into ac­tion from the brink of bank­ruptcy. His me­dia em­pire Fu­ture Pub­lish­ing, which had close to 150 special in­ter­est mag­a­zines and web­sites, suc­cumbed to the dot-com bust in the late 1990s. Con­se­quently, he had to lay off close to 2,000 em­ploy­ees. “After 15 years of en­tre­pre­neur­ial suc­cess, the dot-com crash was ter­ri­fy­ing. I lost more than 95 per cent of what I thought I had, and I shifted from think­ing of my­self as a tal­ented busi­ness per­son to a loser. So, to take on an­other big project was very scary. On the one hand, I was des­per­ate to find a new land­ing place, but on the other, I did not have the courage.” His first step when he took over was to take TED on­line, and within the first few years, it man­aged to get 100 mil­lion views on the In­ter­net. An­der­son says Kelly Stoet­zel, TED’s Head of Con­tent, is fa­mous around the TED of­fice for say­ing they do not nav­i­gate by map, but by com­pass. “That is what we do, and I think it has served us well.” His col­leagues say that the best part about work­ing with him is that he is not a mi­cro-man­ager, but em­pow­ers peo­ple to think in­no­va­tively. “He in­dulges in a lot of con­ver­sa­tion around be­ing self-crit­i­cal so that the team can come up with out­stand­ing work. He is ex­cit­ing as a boss,” re­marks Blake.

Lessons Learnt

The two big lessons that An­der­son has learnt dur­ing his en­tre­pre­neur­ial jour­ney is not to tie one’s hap­pi­ness to one’s busi­ness and sec­ondly, drive pas­sion and not so many num­bers. “The rea­son I got ex­cited about TED is that I saw the depth and pas­sion there in the re­sponses of peo­ple to en­gage in the con­tent.” His prob­lem with most me­dia busi­nesses to­day is their ten­dency to mea­sure the quan­tity of pas­sion and not the depth of pas­sion. “We are very good at mea­sur­ing cir­cu­la­tions, rat­ings, clicks, but not as good in mea­sur­ing deep re­sponse. It is a prob­lem with the In­ter­net right now. Ev­ery­thing has de­volved to try­ing to max­imise click base, and that is very dis­ap­point­ing, shal­low and ugly. What we need to go back to is find­ing out how much peo­ple care pas­sion­ately, re­flec­tively.” He cites the ex­am­ple of Ap­ple. “Ap­ple, in 2003, had fail­ing busi­ness num­bers, but if you look at the pas­sion of its users, you will have a whole dif­fer­ent story. You will see that was the most ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity; there was a pas­sion that was not de­tected by the mar­ket.” For the time be­ing, An­der­son is anx­iously await­ing the con­sumer re­sponse to the In­dian TED talk se­ries on Star Plus. “If this works, it will take TED to an­other level; we will take it to other coun­tries in other lan­guages.” He plans to visit In­dia soon and this time to shape the ideas of the en­trepreneurs in their twen­ties.

Pho­to­graph By RACHIT GOSWAMI

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