TEDucation

TED's 18-minute talks have become a global phenomenon. Hamish Birrell reports from an event hosted at his university

It all started with red balloons. They were marked with an "x" and emblazoned with the word "Oxford". My curiosity was piqued. Articles in the student press and a TEDx flavour of ice cream (white chocolate and raspberry, since you ask) followed. Next, tantalising videos started appearing on the event's Facebook page. Lured by such innovative marketing, I signed up and waited to see if I would be on of the lucky few allocated a ticket to TEDxOxford.

TED - standing for Technology, Entertainment and Design - is a global phenomenon. Ostensibly, it's nothing more than a series of conferences, albeit with hugely impressive speakers. But the true genius of TED lies in two features common to every event: talks are limited to 18 minutes, which helps stop rambling and focuses ideas; and the best talks are put on the internet, meaning those who can't afford the hard to come by and sometimes prohibitively expensive tickets (some have changed hands for as much as $6000 (£3760)) can still get access online. They've proved startlingly popular, with more than 500 million talks watched remotely.

Some TED events feature famous names, with Gordon Brown, Al Gore and Bill Gates among the most renowned, but the best talks often come from figures that might otherwise have escaped the attention of the wider public. Swedish statistician Hans Rosling is a prime example. His use of graphics to illustrate statistics grabbed the attention of viewers around the world, illuminating often surprising global development trends in a beautiful fashion (his talk on population growth was particularly inspiring).

Such grand names and ideas may makes TED sound pretentious but, in truth, the initiative is anything but. TED is prepared to address issues that other media sources are either scared to tackle, or unwilling to comprehend. With their idiosyncratic red aesthetic, the informality of their speakers' attire, and the freshness of their distribution (they've harnessed social media better than nigh on any other channel), TED has helped make learning "cool" for a generation often accused of a lack of interest in the wider world.

Thankfully, I got my ticket to TEDxOxford. The one-day event was billed as an attempt to bring TED to the masses. The 'x' stands for independently organised, and those behind Oxford's event wanted to aim the talks at 16-25-year-olds - precisely the age group most likely to have grown up with TED online. The day's mission statement - "to inspire the outliers of tomorrow" - could, in the wrong hands, have ended up being hyperbolic, but with the quality of speakers on display, it was a genuine possibility.

The first thing that struck me about the lineup was its variety - we were to be treated to talks from both the impossibly stylish hairdressing genius Vidal Sassoon and the impossibly odd cybernetic professor, Kevin Warwick. Yet, rather than jarring, all the speakers complemented each other wonderfully well, ensuring nobody was found shifting in their seat. Almost every talk proffered a fresh idea, presented with levels of passion not usually found in your average university lecture hall.

Marcus du Sautoy captured the spirit of the day arguably better than anyone else. His proposal - that we should destroy the fallacious boundary between the arts and sciences - was provocative, and his talk was fantastic. The audience were also captivated by Alan McGee's tales of excess and genius (McGee founded the iconic 90s record label Creation and is the man credited with discovering Oasis). The wonderfully hirsute gerontologist Aubrey de Grey proposed something akin to a paradigm shift in our treatment of ageing, and was an enthralling speaker. Even if many remained sceptical of his proposal that someone who is alive today could live to be a thousand years old, you couldn't fault his effort and the quality of his delivery. Lucid and entertaining, he made complex science accessible to those, like me, who very much needed the help!

One of the most enjoyable elements of many TED talks is the way in which the seed of a new perspective is planted in your mind. Even the talks that failed to fully convince in Oxford were still thought provoking. Kelly Cutrone, probably best known for her appearance on MTV show The Hills, left the audience a little baffled with her forays into Eastern mysticism and tarot readings. Yet her constant reinvention of herself - from nurse, to actress and, finally, fashion publicist - was a welcome reminder that no rut is ever quite as deep as may be feared.

Others, such as Vidal Sassoon and Alan McGee, showed how important it is to keep searching for the job you love. The level of enjoyment both men still get from their careers shone through, as it did with most of the day's speakers. Sassoon's talk proved to be particularly inspiring. His moving monologue - he spent parts of his childhood in an orphanage, separated from his brother - was a tale of victory against all odds; his presence itself at the event a sign of how far he had come.

But the event wasn't just about the talks. Merton College was a perfect venue for such mind-expanding conversation, resplendent in all its thirteenth century glory. And the venue's small size - there were only 100 attendees - meant that guests mingled, discussing the event with one another and, indeed, with the speakers. Seeing advertising genius and behavioural economics guru Rory Sutherland expound on charitable yield management to an enraptured group of ten students was a unique experience. I know I will be applying for tickets to TEDxOxford 2012.

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