The Magic Behind TEDx

Salah-Eddine Benzakour at TEDxAlsace
Photo by Michel Caumes / Photo-graphisme.fr

Salah-Eddine Benzakour is the founder of the events TEDxAlsace and TEDxAlsace Salon in the Alsace region of France. An expert trainer in web marketing and innovation, Salah manages Puissance E, an organization specializing in e-business training for executives and managers. He is also the founder and CEO of MediaHeroes, a start-up that creates content marketing. Following the TEDxAlsace 2013 conference, he graciously agreed to be interviewed by Lourdes Gutierrez and Marco Frediani. Here are some excerpts of their exchange.

What was your motivation, your dream, in bringing TEDx to Alsace?

I adored, and I still adore, watching TED videos. It’s something that has inspired me very much. In 2010 I found out that TED was launching the TEDx program. What’s TEDx? It’s a program that allows independents to organize an event that’s similar to TED, with the TED licence, but in their own community and their own region. At that time in France, there was only TEDxParis. I contacted the organizer of TEDxParis and talked to him about my interest in organizing a TEDx in Alsace, and he gave me some suggestions. Afterward, I contacted the TED foundation with my request. I explained that I had already organized other events and things had gone well. They accepted, and that’s how it all began. But really, the starting point was the desire to organize something I was passionate about in a place where I live, and where I live well, and I wanted to bring this source of “passion” to my community. 

What excites you aboutTEDx? 

Outside of TEDx, I’m passionate about helping people by inspiring them. For me, inspiration is two things:  (1) a better vision of yourself in the future, and (2) a level of motivation sufficient to take the first action. TED inspired me tremendously because it gave me a lot of new ideas, which also gave me motivation to create new things. I view the TED videos and the TEDx conferences as a tool, as something extraordinary that can help people take action by inspiring them through examples and models.

With all this passion, magic, and inspiration, how do you choose the different themes each year? 

I choose themes that speak to me. All of the themes are linked to something I love, the spirit of entrepreneurship:  entrepreneurship in the sense of taking action, in the sense of not accepting the status quo, in the sense of doing something, taking charge of your life and saying that you’re not going to suffer, that you have the ability to decide to act. The choice of theme is linked to a questioning for which I haven’t found an answer, and so I ask experts and speakers to share their experiences and ideas with me and the audience. The people I try to invite are people who have experienced first-hand the solutions they’re recommending.

How do you do such an extraordinary job of choosing a range of speakers with completely different experiences?

I start with a list of about 50 speakers. I look up information about them and try to identify 30 who really seem interesting to me. I send those 30 an email explaining the project. Usually between 15 and 20 people will say yes, I’m interested. After that, I explain the requirements and the fact that it demands time for preparation, and I generally end up with a list of 12-15 speakers. Through my exchanges with the speakers, strong messages appear. What I try to do is read those messages and see a link between them. For example, I’ll have an issue in mind and a desire to lead the speakers in a certain direction. At the same time, there’s a willingness to let go in the sense that I don’t know what content the speakers will present, I don’t know them, and I don’t know the magical phrases that are the key to what they will share. The idea is to inspire the audience. That’s why we do all of this:  so the audience will be inspired.

What’s most gratifying for you in organizing this event?

Seeing people’s eyes sparkle. Hearing people tell me that thanks to TEDx, I understood this; thanks to TEDx, I’m going to do that. And what brings me an enormous, truly an enormous amount of pleasure is when someone who attended TEDx comes back and brings his children. For me, that’s the most gratifying thing. Someone has trusted me, this organization, this event, enough to bring what is most precious to him–his child–so he can be inspired. This year I had several people bring children perhaps 12 or 13 years old; someone told me that he knew his child wouldn’t understand everything, but he wanted to bring him anyway because he’d be watching sources of inspiration. That’s the spirit I want to bring to this event here in Alsace, so it becomes a family event. The first year we had 100 attendees, the second year 250, the third year 500, and this year 800 people attended. But next year, we’re going to try to limit it to 300 people, even if we can accommodate more. Why? To maintain a certain intimacy and keep this family mindset.

What was one of the pleasant surprises for you in the feedback you received for TEDx Alsace 2013?

Every year I ask the attendees to name the three speakers who touched them the most. In the past, out of three speakers, there were invariably two names that would keep coming up and then the third speaker varied, depending upon the people responding. But this year, the three speakers were different for everyone who responded. That tells me the speakers were good and succeeded in touching the audience in different ways. And that’s an ingredient of a successful TEDx.

What was your greatest challenge in organizing this event?

The most substantial challenge is the human organization, and the greatest challenge I had this year was having teams made up of people who were strictly volunteers. These are people who work and also donate their free time. They invest time in this event, and we can’t demand extraordinary things from them  or rather, they do extraordinary things but we can’t ask them to stop working to come work on TEDx. My personal satisfaction is having succeeded in solving the problem of human organization this year thanks to wonderful people making an extraordinary commitment. These are people who believed in the project and who truly gave body and soul for its success.

Succeeding in getting all these people to give their time for others and for the success of the event says that you’ve really inspired them.

Throughout my association with TEDx, I understood my mission for the upcoming events. I understood that my only job was to reassure, inspire, and get people in touch and that they have the energy and resources inside them. My only job was that of a “leader,” a leader in the sense of inspiring them and supporting them.

In these cases you’re surpassing yourself for others and practicing the entrepreneurship you mentioned at the beginning of this interview. What’s next in stretching your limits and what’s your next dream for you?

Perhaps my next stretch will be having the right tools to better accompany talent. My dream today, I might say on a scale of 2-50, is to have all the necessar
y resources to be a coach, to coach executives and managers, but as a personal coach, not as a business strategy. I love training, I love innovation, web marketing, and new technologies–these are part of my passions and I’d like to stick with them–but when there are people who request it, when there are challenges and a need to help someone surpass himself, I’d like to have the necessary resources and tools to be able to accompany him. That’s a dream.

If you had a metaphor or an image to describe what’s emerging for you, what would it be?

The image that comes to mind is growth. I think in each person’s evolution, there’s the beginning where we’re children and want to play. There’s a moment where we begin to learn. There’s a moment where we start experiencing what we’ve learned. There’s a moment where we specialize in something, we have an expertise and start to make a profit from that expertise, and we begin helping others through our expertise, but I think the next step, which is also very interesting, inspiring, and educational, is the transmission of knowledge and experience. I feel like I’m in the midst of trying to professionalize this idea of transmission. I don’t know why, but here, too, you need to let yourself be guided by the evolution of these things, and I feel that I’m being called toward this path. Thus, the image is growth.   

Thank you very much for this moment of inspiration.

Thank you, too.