A collaborative approach to find great ideas for your stage

TEDxTUM shares their process to collect, prioritize, and select ideas for their stage by leveraging the unique perspectives of their individual team members.

Dr. Dora Dzvonyar
Part-time Optimism

--

By Monika Wirthl & Dora Dzvonyar.

A great idea is the only essential prerequisite for a great talk. Let’s repeat that: A great idea is the only essential prerequisite for a great talk. You can have a speaker with optimal confidence, exquisit delivery, and flawless rhetoric, but if there isn’t a great idea at the center of it, the talk is not worth the listener’s time. Conversely, if the idea is there, confidence, delivery, and rhetoric are aspects that can be practiced and acquired. At TEDxTUM, we are firm believers in searching for great ideas above all else; over the past 7+ years, we have developed and formalized a process that leverages the unique perspectives of our team as well as our community members to collect a wide variety of ideas and corresponding speakers, which we then rate and prioritize based on predefined criteria and use to assemble a balanced lineup. While this might sound overly structured , we hope we can walk you through it and help you build or improve your process by adopting the aspects that apply to your situation.

This article is for you if…

  • You are a (fairly) new TEDx organizer looking to bring your idea game to the next level and invest more energy in curation
  • You are a veteran TEDx organizer looking to shake things up, specifically make the curation process more democratic
  • You are any kind of community or event organizer looking to do any of the above — we write from a TEDx perspective, but the concepts are applicable to all kinds of different content!

A note to new organizers: TEDxTUM (https://tedxtum.com) was founded in 2014 and we have had around 100 speakers and performances on stage since then. We are not new and due to regular turnover on our volunteer team, we have always taken special care of formalizing and documenting our processes to make them replicable. Don’t feel like you need to do the same, especially if you are a new organizer! While we believe curation is one of the most important things you can focus on from the start, take it step by step and don’t try to do it all from the beginning.

The process in a nutshell

Ideas for the TEDxTUM stage come from two main sources. Let’s have a look!

Idea bank

The main source of our lineup is our ever-growing database of ideas and speakers, which we clean up, structure and prioritize each year. It’s in a giant Trello board with columns as topic areas and idea-speaker combinations as cards. We use a specific template for each card to make sure we have done enough research to determine if the idea is suitable.

Applications

We hold applications once per year, early in the process. Check out our application page to see what kind of information we collect. Although not all of these ideas are suitable for the TEDx stage or for TEDxTUM specifically, our experience has shown that true gems can be found — and then we already have a speaker on our hands who is not only willing, but excited to share this idea! Also, this process allows us to consider ideas we would not otherwise have thought of. When we select applicants, we consider if we have a better option in the idea bank (see below), but if this isn’t the case and we want the idea we consider an application the better option. Typically, we get 10–30% of our lineup from speaker applications and fill the rest from the idea bank, which is what the remainder of this article is about.

How we work with our idea bank

Click the links to jump to the detailed description of each step!

  1. We find and collect ideas from various sources
  2. We add new ideas to the idea bank and update existing ideas
  3. We then preselect ideas for voting using predefined criteria
  4. Finally, we discuss and select candidates

The result of this process is a potential lineup (including accepted applications and first-choice candidates from the idea bank) as well as alternatives for each idea/candidate in case the first choice is unresponsive or unavailable.

By the way, we also wrote a detailed article about how we find and prepare performances for our stage!

Our situation and perspective

The context in which we work in order to pull off this process is the following:

  • Our curation team consists of 8–12 people, while our overall organizing team consists of 30–40 people.
  • Our curation team members are highly motivated to invest at least 1–2 weeknights with additional brainstorming and idea rating sessions. We consider the composition and motivation of the curation team to be an integral part of idea selection and we will describe how we select our team members in a separate article soon.
  • We typically start curating around February-March for our main event in October-December.
  • Our events are held in English because of our largely international community, so we do all of our speaker communications in English instead of German. Many of our speakers are international as well so this is necessary, and we benefit a lot from the fact that even our German speakers are typically fluent in English. This works for us but doesn’t have to work for you — the preferred language for TEDx events should be the language of the community!

The process in detail

1. Finding and collecting ideas

The first step is to collect as many potentially good ideas as possible to really fill up the idea bank. We do this at the beginning of the year when we have just recruited new team members who are excited to add their perspective to the mix and the veteran team members have recovered from the last event and are ready to roll again.

Our team takes a week or two to think of ideas they would love to see on stage. Sometimes they remember that person with the exciting project that they have met, other times they have heard of this interesting thing going on in their neighborhood and sometimes it’s a cutting-edge idea from their field. We also ask them to think about books and articles they have read that inspired them, to go back through their likes on social media networks, and to keep an eye open when reading local news, listening to podcasts and so on. With our diverse team, this approach already brings us quite a variety of new ideas.

In addition, we also do structured research on the TUM university websites: are there exciting new research groups, professorships or projects? Has the university been (inter)nationally recognized for an achievement? Has there been a development in a research field where TUM has also made a contribution? Is a student initiative doing something to make the world a better place?

We also research current developments in the region, but of course it is much more difficult to cover everything; these ideas typically emerge during the year and team members note them down to add them to the idea bank when we start curating our next event — so this is the moment when they go back into their notes and see if this idea still gets them excited.

Finally, we also ask our overall organizing team to add their ideas and we might also go to our former speakers and/or our community and individual networks for suggestions. In these cases, we typically need to do the majority of the research described in the next step ourselves and keep the bar low for them to contribute.

2. Adding ideas to the idea bank

All new ideas are added to our idea bank — a giant Trello Board (https://trello.com) that is structured as follows:

  • Topic areas are represented as columns (e.g. “technology”, “hard science”, “health, body, mind”, “behavioral and neuroscience”, “education”, …). New ideas are always added to the Inbox column.
  • Idea-speaker combinations are represented as cards. Each card has a picture and the most relevant information at a glance in the card title. The content of the cards follows a set structure (see below) to ensure reliability and comparability. Some cards contain an idea without a speaker (in this case, we need to locate someone qualified to present it on stage or find another way to include it in the program, e.g. through a video or community discussion).
  • We use labels for criteria we want to be able to search for (e.g. “female”, “local”, “far away”) or to see the history of this idea/speaker at a glance (e.g. “nominated by team”, “nominated by community”, “contacted before”).

You might have noticed that we use idea-speaker combinations in the idea bank, which means that we actively search for a speaker who is qualified to present the idea if we don’t already have one. Our process is idea-driven as opposed to speaker-driven and it’s something that we enforce in all of our discussions. In reality, most ideas come with a speaker already, but the person behind it rarely matters at this stage of our process — it’s just important that we have one or more suitable candidates who could make the talk a reality. Ideas we love but haven’t found a speaker for are added to a special column in the idea bank in the hopes that we get lucky.

In order to be considered as a potential idea for stage, a card has to contain up-to-date information on the criteria we feel are relevant to our decision process. We have created the below card template in the Trello board to make it easy for team members to add new ideas according to this structure. You can see that the card title shows the most important information and the card content gives more context. All of this is crucial information that has to be provided to be able to assess whether the idea is suitable for our stage, but more often than not it’s not so easy to find everything. We also make sure that each card has a picture, either of the speaker or relating to the idea, because this makes it a lot easier to recognize it on the giant board.

Only ideas that contain all information make it out of the inbox column, and we also make sure to update existing cards (e.g. if the corresponding speaker has done a TEDx talk in the meantime).

The TEDxTUM template for an idea-speaker combination

Once the idea bank has been filled, our dedicated Idea Bank Leads (1–3 curation team members) go through the new ideas and check whether the information is complete and if it is, they move the cards from the inbox to their respective topic columns.

At this point we also take a look at the bigger picture of the idea bank and discuss whether we are missing any topic areas or diversity criteria — after all, one cannot expect to curate a balanced lineup out of an unbalanced pool of ideas. Each institution, region, and team will come with its own biases and this is the time to actively correct for them. For us, the fact that the TUM is a large technical university with an entrepreneurial orientation means that we get a myriad of ideas in research and technology out of our direct community — which is something that both we and our audience love and wouldn’t change! But this also means that our community needs to get impulses from ideas around mental health, society, history, and many other areas. Wherever you are curating, you should keep this in mind and find a balance that is right for you early in the process.

3. Preselection of ideas

At the beginning of this stage, our Trello board typically contains 100–150 ideas — way too many to discuss as a team! This is the point where we divide and conquer: we distribute the idea bank among the curation team members and have them rate the ideas according to our set of criteria. The goal of this step is to find the “best” ideas in each topic area, which is why we make sure that all ideas in one Trello column are assigned to the same team member so the ratings within one topic area are easily comparable and they become an “expert” in that area. This approach enables us to look deeper behind each idea without every curation team member having to be familiar with all the details of every card in the idea bank.

If you want to adopt this process, defining what constitutes a “good” idea for your team is crucial. These are ours:

  • Local/connected: Since TEDx aims to share local ideas, we rate here the extent to which the idea and/or speaker are local or connected to our event’s community. We recruit speakers from in and around Munich with only very rare exceptions for when the speaker has very strong ties to TUM or we feel our community absolutely needs to hear this idea from this exact speaker, and while our idea bank already reflects that, this criterion makes sure we honor this goal by prioritizing local or connected ideas.
  • New: This criterion captures the novelty of the idea in the world.
  • New to the audience: Here we assess how surprising and new the idea is to our audience. The natural biases of the community described above play a big role here.
  • Transferable to different places/areas: We want to know what the audience can take away from this idea, specifically whether it can be applied in their own work or life, or whether it can be transferred to other topic areas or geographic locations.
  • Sparks discussion/call to action: Imagine it is the break of your event or right after. Can you imagine your audience leaving the room and starting to discuss this idea? Or would they just forget about it?
  • Needs a platform to be shared: We see it as our calling to give a stage to ideas and people that wouldn’t otherwise have the chance. This criterion challenges our team members to think about the necessity of this idea being released into the world.

You can also consider the criteria in the TEDx organizer guide which inspired this list along with our own experience that we have gained along the way. We also recommend that you consider the different types of talks described there to create a more nuanced experience for your audience.

But back to the process: Our team members rate each idea assigned to them on a scale from 1–3 for each criterion (the higher the score, the better). The rating is done in Google Sheets available to the whole curation team and we quite often leave comments for each other to justify our decisions (see below for an anonymized version of such a table). Ideas that are too close to already accepted speaker applicants are excluded from moving to the next stage. For all others, sum up the points and obtain a ranking of ideas in each topic area, from which we pick the overall best 2–4 ideas to discuss with the whole team, ending up with 30–35 prioritized ideas.

Example rating sheet for ideas according to our criteria

This stage ends with one last step: the personal favorite. Each team member has a “get out of the idea bank free card”, which means that they get to pick any one idea that they are passionate about that wouldn’t make the cut just by its rating to be considered in the group discussion nevertheless. This allows team members to feel that their individual opinion counts and it also helps prevent the loss of great ideas that don’t perform well using our system (e.g. because they are exceptional, but only as measured by 1–2 criteria so that they don’t end up with a high overall score).

4. Discussion and selection

Finally, it’s time to decide — or, rather, to discuss, re-discuss, and then discuss some more! The basis of the team discussion is the pre-selected pool of highest-rated ideas as well as the personal favorites, which amount to around 35–45 ideas. This amount is certainly manageable, so we ask all of our curation team members to look into each of them and make up their minds about whether they should be in our lineup. We are typically looking for 6–9 speakers depending on the number of applicants we accepted but we also want suitable fallbacks in case the person we contact first doesn’t respond or cannot make it.

Our team members capture a yes/no/maybe vote for each idea in another table before we meet so that we can use the general tendency of our collective opinion as the basis for the discussion. This also helps us identify candidates with very heterogeneous ratings, which are typically the ones that need to be discussed the most.

From here, the discussion flows as we see fit. We try to go by descending rating, but sometimes we end up discussing alternatives that are further down the list or diverge and jump around for other reasons. During a series of several 2–3 hour discussions, we discuss, argue, hold passionate speeches defending our favorite candidates, and try to arrive at a lineup that is exciting, novel, local and globally applicable at the same time, diverse and worth spreading.

The outcome is a list of people to contact now as well as a list of alternatives to move on to once someone cancels or doesn’t respond in the time frame we set them. Thanks to our process, we also have a clear suggestion for an idea we would love to have on stage — as well as the reasons why. We make sure to include this in the contact email to the speaker candidate to make them feel like we really want their specific idea, making them feel seen.

That’s it!

Thanks for bearing with us during this long description of our process. As already mentioned, feel free to adopt anything you like and throw away the rest — it has to work for you, your team and your community. We’re curious to hear what you end up with. Let us know if you have any questions or want to share your idea finding process, as well as if you have feedback!

Special thanks to Monika Wirthl for formalizing much of this process and for compiling the content for the article!

Check out other articles we wrote for TEDx organizers here!

--

--

Dr. Dora Dzvonyar
Part-time Optimism

Science communicator & event curator. TEDxTUM organizer, TEDx Ambassador. Doctorate in Informatics from Technical University of Munich. She/her.