Business Today

Idea Seller

Chris Anderson is perennially in search of innovative ways to inspire mankind through the TED platform.
twitter-logo Ajita Shashidhar   New Delhi     Print Edition: November 19, 2017
Idea Seller
Chris Anderson (Photo: Rachit Goswami)

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 not-for-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.



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