Yes, Jews love books, people of the book, a nation of priests and writers, all that. Yes. But as the tractates of the Talmud can attest, Jews also love to talk. So it's no surprise that when TED Talks took off, spawning conferences - of the regular TED and the TEDx brand - all over the world, today's Jewish world had a "why didn't we think of that?" moment.
Except that's not exactly what happened. Because so many of us had thought of it - we just couldn't get it done.
A number of organizations - both from the "institutional" side and from the "innovation ecosystem" - made early pitches to foundations, RFPs and networks about creating a series like this. I wasn't involved in any of the pitches directly (although I did name one program element at the LA Jewish Federation's Day of Learning "FED Talks"), but a number of them came into my orbit, and while there was no shortage of enthusiasm or there were several challenges, most of them posed by the fact that the TED Talks, while wildly popular and covering innovative perspectives from speakers who were rulebreakers and disruptors, were also organized and filmed using strict guidelines toward ensuring a high - and mostly highly structured - production value.
While I was gathering info for this post, I saw on CNN (who are we kidding, I saw it in my Facebook feed, where I get all my news, as quoted by EJPhil) that the Jewish Week had published a piece about ELI (Engagement, Literacy, Identity) Talks, a Jewish version of TED that was launched by the Avi Chai Foundation at the National Association of Jewish Day Schools conference in January. (The subtitle for the talks, "Inspired Jewish Ideas," also a clear echo of TED's "Ideas Worth Spreading.") The production value on the talks seems high, the visual style of the videos definitely echoes TED, and the speakers are - for the most part - exactly the kinds of names I'd expect to see featured in these presentations. The Avi Chai Foundation certainly has the type of communal respect, visibility and funding (even probably now as it spends-down through its sunset years) to create something of quality moving forward, but the community may need to sustain it, both financially and in terms of content.
Beating ELI on the scene by a hair is DOV. JDOV, to be precise - a series recorded live at Limmud in the UK and organized by JHubUK: "JDOV invites interesting and creative thinkers to give 'the Jewish talk of their life.' We seek to create a community inspired by what the Jewish people have to offer the world."
Before that there was Leadel.net, whose fancy, fluid website recalled the dynamic of TED, even though their content - while still impressive and skewing toward innovative and creative leadership - was more profile- instead of presentation-based.
And undoubtedly there are conferences that post elements of their content online (check out Rachel Dratch at March's TribeFest conference, run by JFNA) for posterity, or to reach people who couldn't make it to the event itself. But the format is often a little looser, often the video quality isn't that good, or the speakers aren't that compelling.
Plus, other TED-derivative formats, including the shorter, Ignite/Pecha Kucha style of talk, which uses timed slides and enforces strict time limits, have also found a home in the Jewish world. In LA alone, the Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California recently hosted JIST (Jewish Innovation Success Talks - photos here), and BINA has been running salons and talks for over a year. On the international scene, ROI Community uses this format to have participants present their projects efficiently to the group. I have coordinated and hosted Ignite-style events for the 2011 General Assembly and in February 2012 for LimmudLA, and I'll be the first to admit that while - modesty aside - the content was great, the video quality was not.
And those are just the ones I know about.
So, how can Jewish TED-style talks create and maintain the kind of fan base that TED Talks have? Here are some suggestions - feel free to add others in the comments section:
1) Feature good, diverse and disruptive content. Don't take the safe route - feature the folks with opinions and ideas that have the potential to create disruptive change, not for the sake of controversy alone, but towards illustrating the breadth of opinion and creativity in our larger Jewish community. Challenge the speakers themselves to take innovative thinking one step forward, beyond the "stump speeches" they're used to giving, and applying their particular creativity and experience toward a communal challenge or opportunity. Ask them to import learnings from outside Jewish communal life and look for applications to strengthen Jewish community. Ask them to adhere to time limits (18 minutes seems to have a nice "chai" resonance, but my gut vote is for 10-12 minutes). And since we're in the internet age, this content should represent varied opinions, feature global influencers, and highlight stories from our increasingly diverse Jewish experience.
2) Insist on good and standardized quality. Good video can be expensive. Hiring a director instead of just mounting a point-and-shoot on a tripod takes some additional funds. But if the product is more compelling, the investment is worth it. And the value of creating a visible brand that carries across the video series is also significant. If you can't hear the content, it doesn't matter how good it is.
3) Have realistic expectations about "virality." As amazing, dynamic and creative a speaker like Amichai Lau-Lavie is, an ELI or JDOV talk that he gives - even if the quality is top-notch - probably has a limited audience, and therefore will likely not get a million views. (Sorry, Amichai.) With 7.4 million views, the Maccabeats established a definition of Jewish video virality with "Candlelight" that even they have been unable to attain since. "Purim Song" got to 1.7 million; "Miracle" got 1.07 million; "Book of Good Life" reached "only" 630,000 views. But even the lowest of those numbers - barring some sort of Black Swan event that propels an idea or meme into the mainstream - is probably higher than most Jewish-themed videos can expect to reach.
4) Involve your viewers. From proposing speakers to circulating videos; from identifying hashtags for those on-site viewers to use to announcing that these talks are happening to people outside the room; from commenting on video content to using that content to launch conversations in other arenas, the value of your viewers/consumers/fans cannot be underemphasized. Ask their help, request their input, watch their social media activity and be responsive (and receptive) to their comments and criticisms.
5) Use TED-style talks to transform Jewish conferences and conversations. Create the model, figure out what it costs, find sponsors, find a pool of qualified, talented filmmakers, and offer a production package to conferences that ensures a certain level of audio and video quality. The package can include suggested speakers, depending on the conference's content, theme, budget and needs, or be production-only. Brainstorm on how to turn each year's Jewish conferences into anticipated events; create cache around the speakers; enable conversations to happen around the Talks: in-person, through facilitated-but-open modalities like Open Space, and online, through livestreaming, hosted post-stream commentary and panel conversation that can inspire beyond the numbers of conferencegoers that can be contained in a single auditorium.
These talks can be a module for presenting radical ideas to inspire change and creative reimaginings of our tradition and culture. That's the kind of change TED is trying to make - with the added imperative for Jews to repair the world, that's the kind of change we should also have as our goal, to walk the walk, as we keep talking the Talk.