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How To Run a TEDx Conference
According to TEDxToronto Chair Afshin Mousavian

Afshin Mousavian

TEDxToronto Chair Afshin Mousavian has ideas on how to spread ideas. Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, TEDxToronto is Canada’s largest TEDx event. This year’s theme is Choices We Make, and Mousavian is bracing for the best.

Mousavian has given his own TED-esque talks, based on choices he made to get to where he is. While this conference is a volunteer venture, Mousavian made his mark professionally by taking risks. The university drop-out decided to start up his own company in North York. It took some serious cajoling to convince his small staff to take a hefty pay cut in order to relocate offices downtown. It was a risk that required some lean years — but it paid off, big time. Mousavian now leads Business Development and Strategy at Jet Cooper, arguably one of the most successful UI design agencies in Canada. Through the process he learned to make decisions based on “intuition and the feeling and vibe you get from people.”

The one-day conference on September 26th is expected to draw an audience of 900 to Koerner Hall, with exponentially more experiencing the event online. TED, which was founded in California in 1984 with the intention of spreading novel and compelling ideas around the fields of technology, engineering and design, has drawn critical acclaim, global support and lucrative sponsorships. TEDxToronto, like all TEDx events, is an independently organized event. 

Mousavian has some key advice for running a fantastic TEDx conference.

Fundamentally, he says, the event has to be geared to “allow people to rethink or even question their own perspective.” By focusing on topics that have local and global significance, the speakers should posit their message in story form, so that people can recall it without having to remember specific details.

The next step is selecting a team that can select great speakers. This year’s batch of orators were narrowed down from 750 nominations and referrals. The list was then narrowed down to 12 speakers. They include Ti-Anna Wang, who has become an advocate for her own father, who was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in China for his role in political activism, and Dr. Brendan Frey, whose work explores the “genetic codes that determine the fates, sometimes good and sometimes bad, of the cells in our bodies.” Mousavian’s oversees a small army whose tasks vary from planning logistics, to building community, to coordinating the speakers and coaching them to pare down and focus their talks (often a 12-minute speech is perfect while an 18 minute speech is tedious).

Speakers should seize attention from the get-go, Mousavian says. His most memorable TED talk was Brian Goldman, a Canadian doctor who compared gauging patient mortality (as a doctor) to batting averages (as a ball player).  “He took the stage and said ‘I’ve killed two people when I was practicing medicine. And here’s the story of how that happened.’ From that sentence onwards, everyone else was at the edge of their seat trying to understand what is he trying to say and where is he going with this,” said Mousavian. 

Finally, it has to be easy to disseminate the talks as quickly as possible after the event. Mousavian’s team has put a concerted effort towards creating the policies and procedures to pull off the event (and disperse the information afterwards). “Any conference that you go to, you walk away at the end of the conference super excited. If you go to the conference on Friday, on Saturday, you’re at 80 percent, on Sunday, you’re at 70 percent. By the next Friday, you’re lucky if you have 10 percent of the motivation and inspiration you had. How can we remind individuals of the inspiration that was with them after the conference? If the content really resonated with them, we do our best with our video partner, bizmedia, to release the contents ASAP, so people can re-watch and re-share. Secondly, we created an application called Connect, which is all about providing a private contact list of anyone who makes it to the actual conference. You can quickly look them up on the app and request their contact information afterward. It allows people to connect with the same people that were in that building that were experiencing the same things with them throughout the day — it’s one way of allowing them to maintain the inspiration that they have.”

Ultimately, Mousavian says, TEDxToronto thrives because Toronto is the way it is. “[Toronto is] one of those cities that is fond to adopt new technologies and communities. Part of that is because we have a multicultural community, and people getting together from a variety of cultures bring together so many different things and they produce something unique. Our city is really the golden city, because we bring in so many mysterious backgrounds and we put it together in this vessel, the city of Toronto, and we produce this amazing result. Everyone is hungry to learn more, and to relate more to things that are unknown.”


Tiffy Thompson is a regular contributor to Toronto Standard & The Grid. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

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