Speaking at TED2016

25 February 2016
By Parag Khanna

TED has become the world’s most iconic new secular religion, and its flagship Vancouver conference each February is the postmodern era’s most prominent pilgrimage.

Last week was my third appearance at a major TED conference, having spoken at TED Global in 2009 and guest-hosted a session of TED Global in 2012. This time I kicked off a session themed “Imagine there’s no countries…” and spoke about the ideas presented in my new book Connectography.

Paradoxically, with TED one gets more nervous with experience rather than less. For days beforehand, I felt like I was going into a life-or-death surgery: calm and resigned yet intensely nervous at the same time. Over the span of four days of onsite rehearsals, my emotions swung the pendulum between “I’m gonna crush it!” and “I better pack up and leave before it’s too late.” The night before I went on stage was the only sleepless night I’ve had in years -- and it wasn’t the jet-lag.

The tension inherent in performing at TED comes down to which presents a greater challenge: Memorizing 2000 words or speaking live in front of 2000 people. For some, public speaking is more nerve-wracking; for others, brain freezes are a greater obstacle. The two are of course interrelated, but either way, once it’s showtime you have to nail both. Cue John Lennon’s “Imagine” and there’s no turning back.

A running joke among speakers during rehearsal was that Google Glass would solve all our problems: Having the script scroll down invisibly in front of one’s eyeballs without anyone noticing could free up the mind to focus on the body, the expressive audience engagement that makes TED feel so intimate. I slyly asked the TED organizers whether they thought Google Glass would enhance or detract from the speaking and viewing experience, but they just shrugged it off. It’s a holistic situation, not something that one technology or the other can make or break.

TED adapts to the times, from its nostalgic hippie-like origins to the high-tech auditoriums and virtual reality demos of today. One thing that is beyond dispute: The overall standard continues to climb, and TED’s leadership and content team has an admirably relentless commitment to excellence. If I can speak on behalf of everyone who appeared on the TED stage this year -- from 10-year old Ishita Katyal to former vice-president Al Gore -- I believe we would all agree that there is something special about TED that makes it an order of magnitude more spine-tingling than any other gathering of global society.