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The Standing O at TED

I went to TED yesterday.

Kind of. Actually I went to a movie theater in Austin, Tex., at 8 a.m. and watched a simulcast of two sessions of TEDGlobal, which is taking place right now in Edinburgh, Scotland. I sat through nearly four hours of presentations, and it was, like all TED events, a heady commingling of ideas.

Where else can you hear Shohei Shigematsu, an architect, muse on the power of the box, followed by Niall Ferguson, a Harvard historian, explaining why some countries fail and others succeed (science and property rights are two of the five reasons)?

But I left thinking more about applause than anything else.

Here’s what I mean. One of the presenters, Kevin Slavin, calls himself an Algoworld expert. Slavin runs a company that makes apps, and his presentation was about the power of algorithm. It was everything you wanted in a TED lecture—funny, surprising, quirky. He had good slides. He made up a word. He’s got the whole nerdy hipster thing going. It was perfect.

And then there was Allan Jones. Jones is a brain scientist, and he runs a project that’s trying to create a “high-tech bridge between brain anatomy and genetics.” Basically they’re collecting piles of fresh, recently used human brains, slicing them up like deli meat, and trying to figure out how they work.

His presentation was not as funny and surprising. He wore a blazer. He didn’t seem all that hip.

Slavin got a standing ovation, while Jones received fairly enthusiastic but still-seated applause.

So what does that indicate? Well, here’s what a blog post on the TEDActive site has to say:

The standing ovation is the original test of crowd wisdom. The audience reaction (and soon the online reaction) seems like a good predictor for which ideas at TED will stick and have a lasting impact on large scale.

Really? I enjoyed Slavin’s presentation and thought it was entertaining and insightful. I enjoyed Jones’s presentation, too—though, to be honest, not as much because he’s stiffer on stage. But the dude is thin-slicing the brain, people. I’m going to argue that what he’s up to has the potential to have a more lasting impact on a larger scale than the clever stylings of an app maker.

The rise of TED in recent years is amazing. Asking smart people from diverse fields to present their most brilliant ideas in 18 minutes is, in itself, brilliant. It’s awesome that there can be viral videos, like this one, that are about education and creativity rather than overly dramatic chipmunks.

But I think whether TEDsters leap from their seats and slap their palms together says more about the polish of the performer than the staying power of a particular idea.

(My colleague Jeff Young actually got to attend TED in person this year, and he wrote about the presentation that got the biggest standing ovation of the day. This post gives advice on how to inspire a standing ovation at TED. And here is a paper on the mathematics of standing ovations, which I read but didn’t really understand.)

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