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Speaking frankly: with TED’s Katherine McCartney

As co-director of Vancouver-based events agency PDW Inc Katherine McCartney produced the main TED Conference for 18 years before stepping aside last year to play a more consultative role….

I met Chris Anderson, the owner of TED Conferences, in 1999 when I project-managed a seven-night millennium celebration programme for him in Whistler BC. We stayed in touch and two years later, when he purchased TED from the original owner, I approached him to say I was interested in producing the conferences. Right place, right time.  Under the company PDW, Inc. we produced all the main TED Conferences from the first in 2003 to April 2018.

The curation team at TED has worked over the years to build a finely tuned process which is meant to help the speaker deliver their best talk possible. There are a few touch points prior to confirming a speaker and several after their confirmation. Talks are reviewed and fact -checking and due diligence are part of the process.  At least two rehearsals are built into the schedule, one prior and one on site.  The curation team identifies speakers with good stories to tell – that’s the main focus of their work. They strive to uncover ideas that are worth spreading.

In May 2018 my business partner and I sold our company assets to TED and now I remain involved as a consultant.  After 18 years I still wanted to work on TED, but in a different capacity, which capitalised on my creativity and mentoring while allowing me to explore new horizons. When Chris asked me why I wanted the change, my frank response was, ‘I want more life in my life’.

I get asked about my favourite talks all the time and it’s a difficult question to answer because for 18 years I sat stage-side and saw every rehearsal and talk. There is no one else that can say that. Hundreds of talks later, it’s difficult to say, but for pure magic, storytelling, and inspiration, here are a few I would recommend: Wade Davis –Dreams of endangered cultures, Bryan Stevenson – We need to talk about an injustice, Susan Cain -The Power of Introverts, Rutger Bregman – Poverty isn’t a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – The Danger of a Single Story, Adam Foss – A vision for a better justice, Simon Sinek – How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

It has been a dream job.  And that’s coming from someone who had two previous positions that were also ‘dream jobs’ – which means I have been very lucky in my career.  I love being part of the TED Community and getting to know the attendees. In the day to day work designing the spaces in the venue, stage design, and simulcast social spaces for each conference allowed me to exploit my creativity.  Venue selection and negotiation is something I am quite skilled at and gives me personal satisfaction.  There are too many aspects of the role to mention that I also enjoy, but I will say I am a planner by nature – I’m always thinking 18 months ahead.

The fact that it’s a dream job is one of the reasons why I decided to move over and let others take lead roles.  It’s part of leadership – to know when to make room for a new generation to dig in and learn.  Overall our lives are made up of these mini episodes if you will, lived in decade long segments (at least mine have been) and in order to grow and develop we have to force ourselves to keep moving and be our own change agents. I’m far more comfortable making that choice, stepping off a cliff, taking a risk, than not taking one at all and then being the victim of change.  Therefore, the world I wake up to right now is rich with the unknown and unseen, teetering on the brink of the next big adventure while also continuing to work with TED.  Amazing, right?