TED is all TALK: The importance of the “text to speech” innovation

TED is all talk. And I am glad it is. In fact, I think that TED is almost singularly responsible for a new wave of disruptive innovation about to crash down on conventional publishing. For brevity’s sake I will call this the “text to speech” innovation. We are only just starting to feel the effects of its disruption, but if I am right, the 300 page paper book will shortly be in its death throes. This is a good thing, too, because I think paper books have become the Public Enemy #1 of innovation.

Just as the advent of Johannes Gutenberg’s press became an accelerant of all kinds of democracy, the TED Talk has become an important democratizing force in a not-too-recently obscure area of modern business: innovation.

You may not yet know what TED is, though if you are reading this blog that’s unlikely. However, even if you are extremely familiar TED and the amazing and compelling short videos from TED conferences, you may not have ever thought watching made you part of a disruptive technology.

That technology is…wait for it…conversation. And in the instance of TED there have been two very clear periods in the development of this technology.

The original TED, founded in 1984 by design iconclast Richard Saul Wurman was private, elitist and draconian its approach to content: 18 min talks with no questions. Wurman designed the constraint that became one of TED core innovations: we now simply call it the TED Talk. Wurman intended for the original TED event to be a kind of intellectual fantasy island for creative thinkers of every stripe. TED stands for Technology Entertainment and Design, and the once closed door annual gathering of 500 people became the hot ticket for those interested in front row seats to the new new thing and lucky enough to get an invitation to this exclusive retreat.

Chris Anderson bought TED from Wurman in 2001. Not surprisingly Anderson came from magazine publishing, and ran a successful company called Future Publishing, whose titles included the important but now defunct San Francisco-based Business 2.0.

Anderson’s killer app, the innovation of TED that explains why I am writing this blog post, was the decision to “give it away”. By making TED Talks freely available, in the sense of both being free of charge and easy to access by anyone with an Internet connection, Anderson created a hugely influential brand, a colossally successful media company (operated as a not-for-profit foundation) and redefined what a magazine is. He also created the condition which allowed Wurman’s content innovation, the 18 minute talk, to become the gold standard for knowledge publishing.

A simple survey of some of the most popular TED Talks is enough to establish the credibility of the simple but powerful claim I want to make about TED Talk technology: that any subject no matter its nuance or complexity can be described and conveyed in as much detail as any layperson or non-expert needs to know or could handle processing. Consider neurologist Jill Bolte-Taylor’s amazing first person account of having a stroke, education reformer Sir Ken Robinson’s remarkable and funny plea for creativity in education, MIT student Pranav Mistry’s incredible Sixth Sense technology demo, and countless others as evidence. Then ask yourself, why you would ever spend more than 18 minutes in “read” mode on almost any subject.

I have proposed that this 18 minute standard translates to something like 20-30 pages of text, and realized a while ago that TED had taught me that to spend any longer either writing or reading (non-fiction) any one person’s perspective was wasting time. This waste of time has been relatively uncontroversial for a long time, but we are increasingly in need of a greater and more pluralistic literacy. This is particularly so in business and is the core insight of the best of what is called design thinking: which points precisely to this need to become more literate and more fluently polymath in our knowledge if we are to be successful in confronting complexity.

Last year, Chris Anderson himself gave a talk at TEDGlobal in Oxford. His talk was called, How web video powers global innovation. In it, he points to an interesting example of kids who are learning and teaching each other how to dance by posting and watching each other’s videos. What’s important about what’s going on in Anderson’s examples is that people are having conversations, sharing knowledge and building new things together. But Anderson is wrong about video being the source of this power: web video is just the pipe, the infrastructure that innovation knowledge is traveling on.

There’s an important underlying point about how web video has been able to scale as a result of advances in bandwidth, dropping cost of storage, better compression technologies, and so on. The value of video as a medium has to do with the powerful compression of information when knowledge, visual language and thinking and  story or narrative are brought into powerful 18 minute collisions. But what Anderson is really excited about is created by the core innovation of TED: the short and free 18 minute talks about just about everything that are driving innovations from text to speech, from knowing to doing.

At Moso, we are inspired by TED, but also know that it alone cannot save the world of work. We are excited, however, by those who are using insights from TED to create new business models and platforms for linking knowledge and creative acceleration. The Kickstarter funding platform, for example, is using conversation to fuel the funding of projects that might not ever see the light of day otherwise. The recent project by MINIMAL, an industrial design studio in Chicago, which set a goal of $15,000 to get started making a watchband product that worked with the new iPod Nano and raised almost a million bucks is an amazing example. The product wasn’t produced by a conversation, but its path to market sure was.

We need and want to know more, but not just to fill our heads with cool ideas. We want to do more with what we learn. We are increasingly interested in knowledge that is produced and packaged in ways that shorten the distance between thinking and doing. We don’t just want one or the other, we want to think AND do, not as the exception in our experience, but as the new rule.

Publishing that moves us from text to speech, from thought to action, is an important beginning, but it is only the beginning.

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