The TED and TEDx conferences have become synonymous with outside-the-box thinking designed to motivate people to think or act differently. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with organizing a TED event. Merely taking on the challenge is substantial, though not enough. Success hinges on a lot.

I have to admit I had some concerns about today’s conference long before arriving this morning. The website featured speaker bios but no session titles, descriptions or sequence. Of even greater concern, few people I would expect to know about today’s event (including previous TEDxOttawa event organizers) had any clue it was taking place. Also, I was surprised the organizers hadn’t invited previous organizers as advisers. A second hand story I heard suggests one former organizer’s offer of assistance was politely declined.

Having said that, the organizers and volunteers working on today’s TEDxOttawa event were clearly committed to atmosphere. The facilities were fantastic — very well suited to the event — and the greeters were outstanding; helping people register, check in and understand what lay ahead. Then it was a continental breakfast and interesting conversation until the speaking program began.

They pretty much lost me after that.

The program lacked the punch I’ve come to expect from all levels of conferences. For an event that billed itself around the theme of “Creative Action”, creativity was missing from the first half of the day. The speakers clearly lacked the stage experience associated with most knock-out talks. Rather than communicating ideas through compelling stories, they simply recited experiences; and there were no “reveals.” TED is not Toastmasters. Those who know the brand expect to be captivated from the very first word.

There were a few good moments: Steve St. Pierre reminded the audience the obvious to us may seem incredible to others and Nick Charney delivered a very interesting talk about injecting creative thought and action into the public service. Between them, Kelli Catana delivered an uninspiring “Twitter self-promotion 101.”

I remember not being able to sleep after the first TEDxOttawa. My head was spinning with ideas from people I hadn’t met before (Danny Brown, Nick Desbarats, Najeeb Mirza, Tracey VibertRay Zahab and Bob LeDrew) who inspired members of the audience to think differently about our own pursuits. By the time Nick Charney provided hope about the program today, I didn’t feel like taking a gamble on my afternoon. I understand I may have missed a small number of shining moments.

As an experienced conference organizer, I offer the following seven suggestions to anyone planning their own event:

  1. Pick a theme people can get behind and plan your program around that theme.
  2. Put together a program worth attending (speaking sessions and sequence); worth paying money for.
  3. Screen your speakers and make sure they can hook your audience early and keep their attention locked.
  4. Ensure session length is appropriate for the idea/content (sessions can often be more powerful when short).
  5. Make sure your program starts strong, stays strong and ends strong.
  6. Formalize your program and make it public.
  7. Give the audience plenty of time to digest the ideas.