The 2nd and 3rd of November marked the second TEDx Bristol – a two-day celebration of critical thought and radical insight.

With ‘Dare to Disrupt’ as its central theme, speakers, musicians and performers delivered a packed programme. Day one – ‘Disruptive Bodies, Disruptive Minds’ – featured talks on subjects ranging from autism to human trafficking, while day two – ‘Disruptive Innovation, Disruptive Planet’ – explored law, history and robotics.

We were there to take it all in. And it got us thinking: What is it that makes TEDx so special, and what can we learn from the series as marketers?

Technology, Entertainment, Design

After more than three decades, TED’s dominance on the international speaking circuit is well-established. 2012 revenues for the organisation were more than $45.1 million. TEDx spin-off events – like the one hosted in Bristol – are run on a not-for-profit basis across the globe, generating 30,000 films and presentations from 130 countries to 2014. Much of this content is available free at TED.com – which has also given birth to clubs, a publishing imprint and a radio station.

TED is content, distributed online and cleverly recycled in different formats for maximum mileage. The organisation itself curates – but doesn’t create – insight of its own.

Yet the series is more than the sum of its parts. TED culture has a life of its own, drawing diverse crowds – and speakers – to its events at a premium price. The brand is peculiarly powerful for four good reasons – each of which offers an important lesson to marketing teams.

1. Tell a story

Music and poetry performances aside, most TED talks follow the same format: an extraordinary story. Nura Aabe’s moving tale of how she confronted her son’s Zak’s autism closed the morning of day one with defiance; Martyn Ashton’s recount of his recovery from a spinal injury was absurdly funny; and Antonia Forster’s speech (then rap) on sexuality in the animal kingdom was set in the context of her personal experience of sexual discrimination.

In each case, the speaker’s story built an emotional bridge with the viewer, making them invested in the speech by reference to their own emotional life. Every brand has a story to tell, and their content should weave in colour, life and empathy to truly connect with an audience.

2. Be bold and authentic

TED doesn’t do glib. At many points in the day, I was struck by the fact that for many of the speakers, getting on stage and telling their story was a cathartic experience and a milestone in their life.

Some were visibly moved by having an audience for their cause and insight. And their emotional experience was shared by the audience – members of which I saw, at points, crying, laughing, wincing and gasping along with their speaker. The audience – if they knew what to expect from TED – had paid to be moved.

Brands shouldn’t milk their audiences and prey on their emotions. But they should be bold and authentic. The right people will listen.

3. Be intelligent

TED doesn’t shy away from the tricky stuff. Day one of the Bristol event covered mental health, research ethics, human trafficking, pornography, employability in the robot future, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and slugs that are simultaneously male and female with slimy unicorn penises.

The speakers didn’t assume knowledge of their audience, but they didn’t patronise us, either. It was refreshing to be spoken to like an adult; not told how to feel, or have complex issues sanitised by commercialism. Consumers are distracted, sure, but they aren’t stupid. That’s why long-form content and in-depth studies continue to attract traffic online.

4. Don’t bang on about it

Every TED speaker is given 18 minutes to tell their story. And the format works wonderfully, because audiences are engaged long enough to care, but not long enough to doze off – even when the subject discussed is not something they’d thought about before. At TEDx Bristol, it was the speeches about things I knew nothing about that left me with the deepest impression – like the link between crime and pornography, or everyday racism that’s hidden in plain sight.

It helped that the speeches didn’t involve gimmicky, distracting PowerPoints, too. Just scintillating, compact stories with soul.

So there you have it. Tell a story; be bold and brief, and don’t look down on your listener. Your move, marketers.

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