The Woman Behind Who’s Talking at TED

By now, just about everyone has stumbled upon one of the TED Talks - the rousing, inspirational videos recorded at the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conferences. These talks have become the stuff of legend, where for about 15 to 20 minutes entrepreneurs, experts, inventors, authors and artists have an opportunity to touch millions via the organization’s philosophy, “ideas worth sharing.”

By now, viewers of these popular videos know that if a person gets invited to speak on that stage, that individual has already accomplished something great. And if it takes a certain level of greatness to even be asked to address the expectant TED audience and subsequent home viewers, it’s probably fair to say the person responsible for selecting those speakers has a bit of moxie, too.

As director of TED content, Kelly Stoetzel develops the renowned speaker program, literally scouting the world for thinkers, creators and personalities who have brilliant concepts to share with the rest of us. Stoetzel, 43, also directs and co-hosts TEDActive, an intimate annual conference where attendees come to innovate, work and play.

“I give people a platform for doing the things that they want to do,” Stoetzel says.

The Texas native also has a keen sense of recognizing what it is the world wants to hear.

A quick perusal through the TED website’s most popular talks, and you get a sense of just how good Stoetzel is at her job. Research scientist Jill Bolte Taylor moved audiences (and Oprah) with her telling of how a devastating stroke gave her an unexpected spiritual insight to living life. Sir Ken Robinson built his talk on the notion that we send our children to schools that actually kill their creativity, offering up new ways that we can cultivate their genius. And Stoetzel’s search continues.

“We want to get the freshest ideas from people who are uniquely qualified to share them from that stage,” she says. “I think about it as programming a live event [the TED conference], not what talks might go viral later. There is a narrative that needs to happen over the four days of the event. You take people on a journey. What will people be most excited to hear on that journey?”

Stoetzel understands what the audience experience is like, as she was an attendee herself before coming to work for TED. Her father began going to the conference in the late 1980s and introduced his daughter to the special learning experience.

“He was a geek at heart,” Stoetzel recalls. “He would come home so passionate about it. It’s tough to describe because at that time, you couldn’t watch a video of the talks online, so I had a hard time wrapping my head around it. But he’d come back so excited by what he’d heard.”

Stoetzel wanted in, and her dad took her to her first conference in 1999. But it was hearing surgeon Sherwin Nuland a couple of years later that gave Stoetzel a sense of what these talks could accomplish.

“[Nuland] made himself really vulnerable on the stage. He talked about something that his colleagues didn’t know about — that he had suffered from depression so severe that he became catatonic and had undergone electroshock therapy to heal. It made me cry. I thought, ‘This is the weirdest thing, I’m at a conference and I’m crying — I don’t know if I love that or hate that!’ There was a really emotional talk dropped into these other talks that were more about knowledge and ideas. I realized the spectrum of content. Having that happen just opened me up to what I was hearing. I love that way of taking in stories and information. And ideas.”

This is the mindset Stoetzel maintains, city by city, on the TED Worldwide Talent Search. In preparation for TED 2013, Stoetzel and her team spent two-and-a-half months looking for what she calls a “radical openness” in the speaker program.

“We don’t just want people who’ve been written about,” she says, of booking the 50 speakers needed for the conference. “It should be open — a platform for ideas, curiosity, imagination, a love for learning.”

Between April and June, local TEDx organizers facilitated speaking events in Amsterdam, Bangalore, Doha, Johannesburg, London, Nairobi, New York, São Paulo, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney, Tokyo, Tunis and Vancouver. The talks will be uploaded to the TED website where viewers can vote on their favorite presenters, helping Stoetzel and her team shape the 2013 program. Stoetzel has trouble defining an average day because every day — every event — is a wholly new experience, but she had good training for that kind of unpredictability early on. Stoetzel attended, then worked at Camp Longhorn in Texas, a summer camp for 10-year-old girls. She took on the role of camp counselor as a teenager all the way up to her junior year of college.

“I did a lot of internships and didn't learn close to what I did as a camp counselor! Managing people, keeping them engaged — that is really a thing. In a way, you've got a tough audience — a lot of thinking on your feet to solve problems. It just became a core foundation element [for me]. It taught me that anything is possible, and you can always figure something out.”

Stoetzel’s career arc is a testament to just that — figuring things out, digging deeper for the next idea. Before TED, she worked at a contemporary art gallery, but the fit wasn’t perfect.

“I didn't want to go on to be an art dealer or work at a museum. I’m not talented enough to be an artist. I thought, ‘What if I go through life and never find out what my thing is supposed to be?’ In between art jobs I produced multimedia content for demonstrative evidence for courtroom trials. I didn’t love that either, but I liked becoming an expert on something for a short period of time, then moving on. Going to TED made me realize being a generalist was my own specialty. This is my thing — helping others share their work.”

For Stoetzel, her job consists of putting many different elements together — planning the live production, executing it, considering how content can be used online. And still, she has to be inspired by that speaker.

“I’m an audience member, too,” she says.

Perhaps that is comforting — even people who select the ideas worth sharing, can be blown away by the concepts speakers bring up. Stoetzel remembers the talk by Susan Cain on the power of introverts.

“She talked about how the world rewards extroverts. I think most people who know me would say I’m an extrovert, but there are things that have always been challenging for me. If there's a meeting and everybody is really vocal, I'll be really quiet. Just realizing that about myself has given me a tool,” Stoetzel explains. 

Stoetzel described a new ability to navigate that part of her personality more effectively, just since hearing Cain’s talk and reading her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”

“It’s given me permission to be myself. It’s resulted in more confidence – not the confidence that's loud. I realized that I don't need to do that, so my head space isn’t wasted on thinking about what I should be doing. Sometimes the best work is going to come out of me later,” says Stoetzel.

Check out these ladies who have presented Ted Talks and have been featured on our site:

Susan Cain was invited to talk about her research on being an introvert in a society that prefers extroverts. Learn more about her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Liza Donnelly was invited to present for TED on how she’s using her experiences as a cartoonist to fight for freedom of speech, world peace and other global issues. See why this funny lady believes cartooning can be used for more than just laughs.

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