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TEDxZurich: From Silicon Valley to Switzerland

December 3, 2021

reading time: 8 minutes

by Laura Gianesi, LGT

TEDxZurich

Hanna Brahme and Florian Bucher, co-leads of TEDxZurich, talk about how they select speakers, their volunteer work and their plans for the future.

Theirs is a story of passion. Passion for exchanging ideas, for uniting people from all walks of life, and for sharing and deepening knowledge. When you talk to Florian Bucher and Hanna Brahme, even if it’s via video chat, their enthusiasm radiates right through the screen. Together, Bucher and Brahme are responsible for TEDxZurich; they organize these local TEDx conferences as part of the global TED brand.

TEDxZurich
TED only takes place thanks to its volunteers. © TEDxZurich, Martina Piteo

“This is volunteer work, which means we all full-heartedly enjoy what we do, otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” Brahme explains. And Bucher adds: “The salary of our volunteers is the event – the unforgettable feeling you get during the conference and the rush of endorphins are unbelievable.” Without this strong enthusiasm, it would be impossible to manage their workload: in addition to organizing around six TEDxZurich events per year, Bucher and Brahme both work full-time – the former as a product manager and the latter as an engineer. On average, they work about ten hours a week for TEDxZurich, although this figure fluctuates significantly during the course of the year.

Who hasn’t heard of TED? Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and Elizabeth Gilbert have all given talks at TED conferences. The most popular TED talks include British author Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do schools kill creativity?”, which has over 70 million views on the TED website alone, and psychologist Amy Cuddy’s “Your body language may shape who you are”, which has been watched by more than 60 million people. TED talks inspire, inform, thrill and entertain – their motto, “Ideas worth spreading”, is fitting.

From Bill Gates to Elizabeth Gilbert

Who hasn’t heard of TED? Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and Elizabeth Gilbert have all given talks at TED conferences. The most popular TED talks include British author Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do schools kill creativity?”, which has over 70 million views on the TED website alone, and psychologist Amy Cuddy’s “Your body language may shape who you are”, which has been watched by more than 60 million people. TED talks inspire, inform, thrill and entertain – their motto, “Ideas worth spreading”, is fitting.

TED: From Silicon Valley out into the world

First held in Silicon Valley around 30 years ago, TED is an American media organization that organizes talks that are 18 minutes long and usually focus on topics relating to technology, entertainment or design. The organization publishes its 18-minute talks daily on TED.com, making them available to a global audience. The annual TED conference takes place each spring in Vancouver, but independently organized TEDx conferences have sprung up all over the world, making the event more local and accessible. Although many talks are held in the global lingua franca, English, they are translated into 115 languages to help ideas cross borders.

Being knowledgeable is, of course, a prerequisite if you want to be invited to speak at a TED conference. Equally important, however, is your ability to talk about complex issues in 18 minutes in words that everyone understands; from a hands-on carpenter to a creative musician, and from an entrepreneur to an absent-minded professor. There is one other key ingredient: passion for your cause, whatever that might be.

Hanna Brahme
"TED shares ownership – and responsibility." © TEDxZurich, Martina Piteo

So how did TED find its way from Silicon Valley to the small city of Zurich? “The original TED conference is only held once a year, in Vancouver. So the number of people that this amazing and inspiring conference reaches is very limited,” explains Bucher. “By opening up the franchise via a license system, TED makes itself available to a wider audience. It shares ownership – and responsibility.” Although TED sets some rules for the local TEDx conferences, these conferences also have a lot of freedom in designing their own, local versions and identities. TEDxZurich was one of the first 300 conferences to receive a license. Today, around 3000 TED events are held annually around the world.

The values of TED

Most TED volunteers have a full-time job, but the spots are in high demand and Brahme is by no means the only one who had to apply twice to become part of the TED family. Despite the extra workload the commitment brings with it, TEDxZurich has no problem finding volunteers. “TED is such a strong brand that it’s easy to recruit good people,” Bucher says.

Florian Bucher
"If you want people to listen to you, you have to work on being as comprehensible as possible.”

“As leaders, a lot of our work relates to strategy and ideas, but also to people,” Brahme explains. “We want to make sure we can deal with whatever our volunteers are going through, the human factor is so important. This aspect takes up a lot of time, but it’s something we enjoy doing. And it aligns with the values of TED.”

It might be surprising, but Brahme and Bucher both point out that they don’t draw on their network when recruiting. So why do they reject the credo followed by so many companies that “great employees recruit great employees”? “We really try to involve people from diverse backgrounds and mindsets. People tend to know people who are like them; friends usually have fairly similar backgrounds, mindsets and characters. We try to be as diverse as possible, so we open up and let everyone apply – that fosters innovation and is so much more rewarding,” Brahme explains.

Diversity is key when it comes to volunteers. And the same holds true for the speakers they invite. How do the organizers of TEDxZurich choose the topics of their talks? “The topic should be something that as many people as possible can relate to – preferably a local issue that has global scale,” explains Bucher. “We usually look for new or unheard-of ideas that are scientifically proven.” Brahme and Bucher’s favorite TED talks both fulfill these criteria: Hans Rosling’s “The best stats you’ve ever seen” and B.J. Miller’s “What really matters at the end of life”.  

TED delivers science in 18 minutes

Unheard-of and scientifically proven ideas that change your view of the world – delivered in just 18 minutes? Is it even possible to present solutions to complex issues in such a short time span? “Well, if you want people to listen to you, you have to work on being as comprehensible as possible,” Bucher says. “Of course, some of the complexity gets lost along the way, but complexity is not our goal. The goal is to convey your central idea to a wide audience. If you do your work as a thinker and speaker, then you can give a great 18-minute talk about even the most complicated issues.” Brahme adds: “This debate reminds me of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘I apologize for such a long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one.’ Getting straight to the heart of a matter is not superficial, it’s extremely challenging.”

Brahme also underscores the fact that although the talks are short in duration, they require a lot of work before they are ready to be presented: the speakers have to submit their script to the TEDxZurich team, which then dedicates a lot of time and effort to proofreading and thoroughly fact-checking the text. “We want every single talk to hold up to our rhetoric and scientific standards.”

LGT sponsors TEDxZurich

LGT has been a sponsor of TEDxZurich since 2015, thereby fostering debate and promoting new and inspiring ideas. Heinrich Henckel, CEO LGT Bank Switzerland, says “TEDxZurich offers an excellent platform for the inspired minds of today. With their innovative ideas, they provide new stimuli and identify solutions for overcoming society’s challenges. I’m very pleased to be supporting this platform.”

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