TED visits Oxford

Lucy Mair finds out how students brought the ideas conference to the university

A cursory glance at TEDxOxfords Twitter feed will tell you that the team of students behind this yearÂ's conference definitely got something right. Â"Incredible opening talkÂ", Â"Congrats on amazing design and a phenomenal speaker listÂ", and Â"Inspiring talk and great tips on management and leadershipÂ", tweeted three of the 600 attendees at the second annual TEDxOxford event.

The team put together an impressive roster of 12 speakers, including Kids Company founder-director Camila Batmanghelidjh, Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom and classical pianist James Rhodes. And TEDxOxford founder and chief organiser Chris Toumazis, a final-year biology student whoÂ's been running the show for the past two years, established an act thatÂ'll be tough to follow.

Talking to TED

TED is a nonprofit organisation founded to bring together speakers from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design at annual conferences in the US. Over the past 25 years, itÂ's also established a number of offshoots, one of which is TEDx Â- independently organised TED events.

Â"The idea behind TED is that itÂ's an inter-disciplinary conference which discusses a number of different industries and tries to make connections between them,Â" explains Chris, whoÂ'd watched Â"hundredsÂ" of TED talks online before applying for a licence to set up TEDxOxford in 2010. Although TED makes content from its conferences available to everyone on the internet, Chris was eager to experience live talks.

Â"TED has grown into an amazing online community, but its conferences are still pretty exclusive and you need to pay a lot of money to go to them,Â" he says. Â"I was disappointed that as a student IÂ'd never be able to attend a conference. So I wanted to democratise the experience and bring a TED event to Oxford.Â"

TED gives independent event organisers a set of guidelines to stick to, online support and, most importantly, its brand. But thereÂ's still a lot of freedom to take a conference in your own direction: Â"They leave you to organise an event of whatever size and scale you like,Â" says Chris. And the size and scale of TedxOxford grew six-fold between its first conference in 2011, held in a small lecture theatre for 100 people, and its second this November at the Oxford Playhouse.

Tricks of the trade

TED events are all about the speakers, who have just 18 minutes to wow the crowd. In choosing who to invite to this yearÂ's event, the TEDxOxford team looked for the Â"unsung heroesÂ". Chris explains: Â"We looked for the people who you may not know but should, because theyÂ're doing fantastic things.Â" The team of 15 involved in organising the event are studying a range of subjects, from economics and engineering to philosophy and politics, so Chris says it was easy to reach out to a diverse mix of speakers. Â"ItÂ's great because we have ideas and opinions from all disciplines, so we could spread the net quite wide.Â"

Narrowing down who youÂ'd like to speak at your event is one thing, but getting them to say Â"yesÂ" is another. Luckily, Chris found an approach that seems to be working: Â"Last year I invited all the speakers by hand-writing letters to them, and I encouraged my team to do the same this year.Â" He picked up the trick while gaining work experience in New York with Kelly Cutrone, one of the worldÂ's preeminent fashion PRs who represents the likes of Valentino and Vivienne Westwood and also appears on reality TV shows The Hills and The City. Â"Every handwritten letter she receives, she hand-writes one back,Â" Chris explains. And, luckily, Kelly accepted ChrisÂ's handwritten invitation to speak at TEDxOxford in 2011. Â"I think hand-writing letters is quite extraordinary. ItÂ's the most effective way of approaching someone, because it really shows that youÂ've put time and effort into an invitation.Â"

But Chris says it also helped to have two strong brands behind him: Â"WeÂ've got TED, which is a famous, global brand, and also the University of Oxford, which is well-known and respected.Â" Then, it comes down to a numbers game. Â"If we approach 100 people and 20 say Â'maybeÂ' and 10 say Â'yesÂ', thatÂ's all we need.Â"

Overcoming challenges

ItÂ's easy to apply for a TEDx licence, but Â"the difficult thing is the organisation, getting people involved and finding support for the eventÂ", says Chris. The conferences take a full year to organise, from seeking sponsorship, finding a venue and securing speakers, to arranging the staging, lighting and filming of talks, publicising the event and setting up on the day.

One of the biggest challenges the TEDxOxford team faced initially was finding sponsorship. Although TED events are nonprofit, the team needed funding to pay for the venue, production equipment, speaker hospitality, wristbands and so on. Â"When we started contacting sponsors, we didnÂ't have anything to show for ourselves,Â" says Chris. Â"We approached so many companies and got so many rejections. But I fundamentally believed that we could pull it off and, luckily, we found a fantastic sponsor in Neptune Investment Management, who believed in us too.Â"

There were also personal challenges for Chris. Â"IÂ'd never led a team before. Doing so has been a fantastic learning experience for me,Â" he says. Â"At university everyone is so busy and to get a team of 15 phenomenal people involved has been amazing Â- and itÂ's heart-warming to see that theyÂ've enjoyed it as much as I have!Â"

Overall, the aim of TEDxOxford is to Â"inspire young people to do incredible thingsÂ" and Â"promote a holistic approach to ideasÂ", and Chris thinks it was achieved: Â"We had 12 different talks on subjects ranging from marketing to philosophy to classical music... and I hope the attendees were inspired by it.Â"

HeÂ's reluctant to name a favourite speaker: Â"They were all great, I enjoyed them all,Â" he insists. But, returning to Twitter, thereÂ's overwhelming enthusiasm for James RhodesÂ's talk and performance: Â"Goosebumps after hearing @JRhodesPianistÂ" writes one, Â"James Rhodes fantastic on why classical music should stop apologising. InspirationalÂ", chimes another, and, to sum up the mood, one attendee tweets: Â"Just wowÂ".