How do you plan a successful TEDx?

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Tunisia’s TEDxCarthage is one of the biggest TEDx in the world with more than 2,500 spectators at each event and tickets selling out in just three minutes. In Morocco, TEDxCasablanca is also a success; its most popular video has been viewed more than 250,000 times. Yet both had their share of challenges at the beginning.

We met with Houssem Aoudi, founder of TEDxCarthage, and John Toutain, co-founder of TEDxCasablanca, to ask for their advice and secrets on how to organize a successful TEDx event. 

Start small for better growth

In September 2010, only 100 people were present at the Mohamed Sekkat University library where TEDxCasablanca was held. TED imposed this constraint in order to monitor the quality of events. After this first event, the organizing team, headed by co-founders Reda el Ourouba and John Toutain, was gradually allowed to accommodate more people. This year, the TEDxCasablanca team intends to gather 600 people in order to fulfill its mission: providing tools for Moroccans to change their country.

One of the challenges the team faces is to go up one level each year, according the John Toutain. In their first year, they launched a live stream, he explains. The following year, they found a larger venue. The year after that, they set up a coaching program for the speakers. And this year, they will try to invite more speakers from the Moroccan diaspora. 

TEDxCarthage 2014 "The Differences We Make", photo credit: TEDxCarthage

The key to success: Good speakers

Getting the word out about TEDxCasablanca has never been a challenge; however, the two men told me, the quality of the talks has made any press campaign absolutely useless. “People come for the speakers. They come to get a slam in the face and leave in wonder,” explains John Toutain. In any case, journalists have had difficulty understanding the event, says Toutain. For the first editions of TEDxCasablanca, they invited the general press, but the journalists who attended did not understand the identity of the event, its stand-up aspect, and staging, a far cry from the usual “lectern, Powerpoint, and note-reading” conferences.

“The videos are our press releases,” says the co-organizer. “We count on our videos for buzz and it works.” 

So the biggest effort for both teams has been to find the right speakers, people who have a message that will hold the attention of the public. At TEDxCasablanca, Soraya Joundy is in charge of this task. She begins her search for speakers six months before the event by listening to the radio, reading the press, and, most, of all talking to people.

In Tunisia, where a culture of silence and discretion prevails (we talked about this in our status report of the country), the hardest part is to convince people to go on stage. “There are people that I have been trying to persuade for four or five years now,” says Houssem, “it takes a lot of work and connections.”  

TEDxCasablanca 2013 "Fly Me to the Moon", photo credit: TEDxCasablanca

Months of training

A great entrepreneur or innovator sadly doesn’t always translate into a great speaker, so the speakers receive extensive training to ensure the quality of their performance on stage.

“We coach the speakers as soon as we have found them, as many as four to six months before the event,” explains Toutain. Both groups of event organizers, during a first meeting with a speaker, present TEDx values and format, then assign a coach. At TEDxCasablanca, this is normally a member of the organizing team, who is either a professional coach or a communication expert; at TEDxCarthage, it’s a professional trainer who is responsible for coaching the speakers.

In both cases, many meetings follow to review the progress of each talk and rehearse it. The TEDxCarthage coach goes as far as working with the speakers once or twice a week for three months prior to the event. The objective of these meetings is for speakers to learn how to speak well on stage (with a microphone in hand and lights pointed at them), to find the best way to convey their message, to structure and dramatize their speech, or even to lay out their presentation. “It’s not the easiest task to do [here]; while stand-up is deeply rooted in the American culture where TEDx was born, it is not necessarily the case in Morocco,” says Toutain.

Before the big day, a general rehearsal is held during where all the speakers meet each other. “This creates something special,” says John: a pre-existing event day camaraderie between speakers, who advise and encourage each other in an atmosphere of collaboration.

Houssem Aoudi, of TEDxCarthage, tells us that he organizes two rehearsals with all the speakers present. During one of the two rehearsals, all of them sit in a circle and provide each other with feedback, a technique that was first tested during the TED@Tunis, organized by TED with the help of Aoudi.

These sessions are a prerequisite for a successful event. It’s out of the question for a speaker to go on stage without having passed through the rehearsals. “If you don’t do the rehearsals, you don’t go on stage; if you don’t do the training, you don’t go on stage,” says Aoudi.

Even the Tunisian Minister of Tourism Amel Karboul had to jump through the hoops. After the organizing team explained to her their reasons, she followed (almost) the same path as the other speakers and gave a beautiful speech (watch the video here).

And if TEDxCarthage’s founder ever finds that someone is not up to the level, he doesn’t hesitate to talk to them about it in order to dissuade them from going on stage, a proposal that speakers usually take well, aware that their image is also at stake, he explains.

Convincing sponsors: not a problem

“Now it’s automatic; the sponsors come to see us,” explains TEDxCasablanca’s Toutain, for whom sponsorship is not a problem (read this article in which he lists 15 ways to organize a TEDx on zero dirhams). “We co-funded the first edition with all the team, and after that we chose not to be very greedy with the budget. We recorded the talks with a fixed camera without stage management, brought local speakers to save on hotel accommodation costs and the venue was offered to us free of charge.” He concludes: “If you have excellent speakers, the public will forgive you for anything.”

The contagious enjoyment of the organizers is evident amongst several individuals that could have talked for hours about their encounters with the audiences and their experiences. As Aoudi adds: “Tunisians are thirsty, thirsty for knowledge, thirsty to see people who get things done, to see new faces.”

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