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Before its 2,000-plus videos had been viewed 8 billion times, TED was an annual conference for wealthy eggheads. Starting in February 1984, 1,000 people who could afford to pay $4,000 (and up) would gather in Monterey, California, to hear 18-minute lectures on technology, entertainment, and design. (TED, get it?) Then, in 2006, TED started posting the presentations on its website, transforming a once-exclusive conference into a viral think-piece factory. As TED kicks off its 33rd conference this spring, here’s how the talks went global.

Ken Robinson Educator and early TED talker

Chris Anderson TED chief executive

June Cohen Former executive producer of TED Media

Jason Wishnow Former director of video at TED


Ken Robinson: Back then it was a very unusual conference—more like a club. There was also a kind of mystique around the speakers. Most conferences, people tend to be checking their watches for the next coffee break. At TED, people were desperately keen to get into the next session. They were jockeying for the best seats.

Kelly Stoetzel, TED content director: Inviting speakers to come to TED before video was like a sales job, though: “Give up five days of your life to come make a speech. It’ll be to a closed room of a thousand people. But I promise you’ll love it.”

Chris Anderson: We believed from the get-go that something special happened in the room. The question was how to allow that magic to escape. At first we thought that the best way to do that was TV. But then it turned out that no one in TV was interested.

June Cohen: The BBC told me it was too intellectual. When you hear that from the BBC, where else do you go?

Jason Wishnow: I didn’t think anyone was going to rush home on a Thursday night at 8 o’clock to see a brainy, academic lecture either. So rather than bringing TED to TV, the first conversation I had with Chris and June was about bringing TED to the internet.

David Pogue, tech columnist at Yahoo Finance and early online TED speaker: I thought it was probably more of an experimental vanity project than anything that would really change the world. Sure there were a few people then with internet pipes fast enough to stream video. But it wasn’t an everybody sort of thing.

Chris Anderson: It did feel risky. People were paying a lot of money to come to TED, so to give it all away for free … But at TED in 2005, people like Clay Shirky gave talks about the web’s ability to facilitate collaboration, so we kind of drank our own Kool-Aid.

June Cohen: We decided to launch with six videos that covered the breadth of our content: Ken Robinson, David Pogue, Al Gore, Hans Rosling, Majora Carter, and Tony Robbins. We wanted to make the speakers look like rock stars, and we made probably a hundred technical decisions to support that.

Jason Wishnow: The key thing on my mind was: How do you create the sense that someone watching a video at home has the best seat at the conference? How can we really draw a viewer in through lighting or camera angles? So the first thing I did was double the number of cameras in the room.

June Cohen: There’s an invisible grammar to how we shoot the talks. If the speaker is making a point and they open their arm to the left, we’ll do a cut that marries with their motion. If they’re talking about something intimate, we’re up close. If they’re making a sweeping gesture about the world, we pull back.

Chris Anderson: I think we thought the success would be if, I don’t know, 10,000 people viewed the talks. We got 10,000 or so that first day in June 2006, but instead of following a decaying exponential curve that would trend to zero, the videos had more views on day two than on day one, and more on day three than on day two. This was just people forwarding links to friends.

June Cohen: A big surprise was that Ken Robinson and Hans Rosling were so popular. They gave what became two of our most popular talks of all time.

Ken Robinson: I’m always amused by that phrase, “the most-viewed TED talk of all time.” It’s only been the last 10 years! It’s not the most-viewed message since the Dead Sea Scrolls. I think it’s currently just over 43 million views.

Jason Wishnow: A few weeks after those videos were posted, Chris said, “I’ve rethought our business plan. We’re now a media platform.”

Chris Anderson: That was the biggest decision we made—to invest a lot of money in building a new site with the sole purpose of distributing all the talks for free. We knew it might upset enough of our audience to make it hard at the conference, but we just said, this is it. Here you go, world: Take it. And that decision had huge consequences for us, because we became obsessed with this idea of radical openness, of giving everything away for free. That led to us giving away the TED brand itself, in the form of the TEDx conferences, a couple of years later.

Ken Robinson: Even when they gave the brand away, with TEDx, it just made more people want to go to the conferences and more people want to watch the videos. It’s funny: In my talk, I mention I was writing a book called Epiphany. But about three months after they shot my talk we decided to change the title to The Element. Since then my TED Talk has done wonders for books called Epiphany, but it’s had no impact on mine. I’ve often thought I must get back to Chris and see if they can do an overdub.

MOST-WATCHED TED TALKS:

Ken Robinson, educator: “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (44 million views)

Amy Cuddy, psychologist: “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” (39.6 million views)

Simon Sinek, motivational speaker: “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” (31.1 million views)

Brené Brown, researcher: “The Power of Vulnerability” (28.7 million views)

Mary Roach, writer: “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Orgasm” (21.4 million views)

This article appears in the May issue. Subscribe now.

PHOTOGRAPHS: REDUX (ROBINSON); AP IMAGES (ANDERSON); HIROKO MASUIKE/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX (COHEN); CRAIG BARRITT/GETTY IMAGES (WISHNOW); BADGE: SUNDAY BÜRO

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