Talking to TED

Nishat Ruiter, general counsel of TED Conferences, shares her unique and intuitive take on compliance training.

Picture the scene. A darkened theatre. An expectant hush. The stage empty but for the waiting red spot.

But you’re not a professional speaker. You’re not a household name, ready to entertain with tidbits from your new book.

You’re a GC. And it’s compliance training time.

For Nishat Ruiter, this scene is not a million miles from reality. General counsel of TED, an organisation that has reinvented the conference, packaging mind-expanding ideas into pithy, spreadable talks perfect for both live enjoyment and the internet age, she is tasked with delivering legal concepts to an organisation whose stock-in-trade is communication.

‘People here love ideas. They are insatiable, curious people. It really feels that people who are at TED are there because they really feel driven to be there. I walk to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee and I’ll be so enlightened in two minutes by the person I bump into because we’re talking about an issue or an idea or a solution that they found, and that becomes super compelling,’ she explains.

The compliance training bar is set unusually high, but rather than be daunted, Ruiter is inspired by the challenge.

‘The people at TED are working toward bringing ideas to as wide and as broad an audience as possible, but also focusing on the quality of the ideas. So then how does compliance match that? What do I do?’

She adds: ‘I would love for them… after hearing the calibre of speakers that are typically on stage at TED, including Bono, Sir Ken Robinson, Mellody Hobson and others, to hear something worth remembering and I realise the legal concepts should also represent great ideas – where possible’.

Any GC worth their salt has their finger on the regulatory pulse to spot compliance topics that will resonate with the legal and other issues facing their organisation. But the question of delivery takes something more than legal knowhow.

‘When you bring everyone on board and you share the same vision, a lot of amazing things can happen.’

Ruiter created a bespoke compliance approach for TED staff, capitalising on the organisation’s open and collaborative culture to deliver a bold, fresh, and evolving suite of training events, based around three words: relevant, compelling and empowering.


‘If you have a picture of compliance as a living, breathing, dynamic culture, you’re learning with your organisation, you’re in constant contact with your client, and you’re learning about how to best bring relevant information to them,’ says Ruiter.

‘I also value non-legal input to frame my compliance examples. Since I view things through a legal lens, it’s helpful to hear from non-legal colleagues how to use examples based on their day to day versus my own. This helps me fit into their frame of reference so when compliance examples are brought up, I tie it to real-life scenarios that they deal with every day to ensure it fits and sounds relevant to what they go through.’

For Ruiter, it is important to customise the presentation to the audience, leveraging the trademark TED informal style of presentation and using examples drawn from a similar industry sector, so that the message lands. And that message should be a positive, practical one.

‘I don’t agree with the compliance training style of: “You cannot, you shall not”. I don’t believe that that’s as meaningful as: this is why we have to do this. This is why it’s important that we don’t fall into these traps. Here are ways to help you. Here are tools to remember. Here are some implications and cases that have arisen because someone didn’t learn how to do this. Here are examples of what you can look out for.’

But she is particularly careful to go easy on the level of detail.

‘If you ever look at a TED talk, the slides are typically used to amplify the idea that is being shared by the speaker. In legal presentations, the slides can comprise “all” of the ideas and typically fill up the frame, it’s designed with small font, and contains so much detail it is easy to lose the audience. Instead, I like to use animation and the use of simple graphics to illustrate brief points that summarise the lessons learned, hitting home with examples that are brief and to the point.’


In Ruiter’s approach to compliance, the devil is not in the detail, but in finding a compelling format that can hold the crowd long enough to absorb the necessary points. This has led her to experiment with novel ways of delivering content.

‘To communicate an example of harassment, I created an audio podcast exercise, recording a couple of volunteers from TED in our studios. The idea was: what if two people were socialising after work, there was an interesting after-party, something happened, someone did something to someone. Rather than describing the scenario, we play the actual role-play in the podcast. We take the victim’s perspective first. Then I give them the opposite scenario. What’s the other person’s perspective? Because in every investigation that I’ve done in many years of doing compliance, there’s always two sides to the story. They hear the situation. We pause. I ask them what they thought,’ she explains.

‘I made this very personalised. I only had up to 25 people in the room. We served doughnuts. We allowed for questions. We made it intimate and we allowed for this in-person training because that is what I know will impact them. They are so creative that I needed to hold their attention with something that’s authentic and real.’

On another occasion, she ordered custom-made cookies to get the message across.

What you do must be steeped in the culture of the organisation.

‘When I first got to TED, we updated the privacy policy and needed to explain the use of cookies and consent. So, at the staff retreat, we ordered specially baked cookies that had the word “Privacy” written across them (in red of course). On stage, I had about five minutes to present the concept and explain privacy, consent and why we updated our policy. So to demonstrate, before I passed out the cookies, we made sure everyone had to “accept” them first. It made a “tasty” impression and, while I don’t know for sure, my sense is that everyone walked away understanding cookies and consent in a way they never expected,’ she recalls.


‘One of the biggest opportunities I believe lawyers have is to move away from the “us” and “them” concept, especially for in-house counsel. Using phrases like “They would never get it” or “They don’t care about legal” or acting as if legal is better than their clients misses a great opportunity of learning for everyone,’ says Ruiter.

‘Unless you make it a “we” situation, I don’t think they’re ever going to really take you seriously and I think that it’s not going to be as compelling and as effective as if you make it an “us”. We’re all here together. We all work for the same company.’

TED has an anonymous reporting system to address internal code of conduct issues, which staff are encouraged to use. The reporting system allows for a more transparent process where anyone can raise topics of concern without fear of retaliation, a protection that Ruiter believes is very important to retain when dealing with compliance.

‘Another way to address empowerment is to ask them to help with spotting red flags. This is a concept that seems obvious but can be lost when planning training in the field. In some ways, I feel like I have 250 staff members that play part of a legal role in their day to day, because they are looking and noticing issues before they arise and that helps me address them proactively. Training should be geared to tap into their sense of what is right and how to spot a “red flag” so they can get used to identifying concerns before they become a problem. Using case studies and examples, we explore together during the training questions such as: What could they have done? Why did the person choose the wrong direction? How could they have prevented the issue from happening? When you ask questions like this, and promote an open and honest discussion, there is a different level of involvement and engagement. Honestly, it reminds me of the challenges of being a parent. You can always tell your child “not” to do something, but in my experience it is more effective to show them why it is important, present an example that is compelling and help empower them to make the right decision.’

After internal training events, Ruiter sends out a survey of open questions to uncover what resonated and what didn’t among attendees, which can then form the basis for future improvement.

She explains: ‘I wanted to be transparent. We’re always learning and it’s important to always get better. Survey questions have been: What parts did you think were interesting? Was there a part that you really enjoyed? Was there any area that was confusing? Do you have any questions? Is there anything you’d like to learn more about? Is there something that bothers you? Why or why not?’

Fundamentally, Ruiter believes it is important to employ tools that empower non-legal colleagues to take ownership of the compliance training process, rather than passively complete off-the-shelf packages that, no matter how ‘interesting’, fail to strike a chord because they are too generic to speak the language of the organisation.

‘Assume that the people in the room can actually help – if you could ask them to help do something, what is it that you’d want them to do? Then frame the compliance training around that to give them real practical tools, and go back and be your advocate. That really reframes everything. It takes away from the us-them dynamic, it hopefully will make the presentation interesting and it will hopefully make it relevant, because you’re asking them to do something and be part of the process with you. I find that when you bring everyone on board and you share the same vision, a lot of amazing things can happen.’

On the road

TED compliance has an outreach element, as the organisation also retains a code of conduct for attendees at its annual conferences. TED conferences have always been organised to present ideas to attendees in an atmosphere of respect, professionalism and open curiosity to share ideas. However, at times, individuals that attend could lose sight of this important aspect of TED, and thus the code of conduct and reporting system is set up for all attendees, vendors and staff at the conference.

‘Try to be authentic with your clients, and learn about what is relevant to them.’

‘They have always been organised with the intent of maintaining an atmosphere of open curiosity, and you can’t do that if people are trying to oversell their stuff, or bothering you because they want to take a selfie because you’re famous, or harassing you, or discriminating against you and treating you wrongfully,’ says Ruiter.

‘The way we address our code of conduct at our conference is three fold: we publish our code of conduct in our programme, we have provided an anonymous reporting mechanism to allow for reporting in a safe environment, and we provide assistance with trained advocates to help attendees, if needed, in filling out the form or addressing their concerns. We created this system to help prevent issues and address them head on if and when they occur at the conference. By doing so, it adds a level of transparency and meaning behind our code of conduct that is of fundamental importance.’

Ruiter has trained a team of TED employees who act as advocates and assist attendees, if needed, as issues arise. If an investigation arises, then TED addresses each violation on site, either resulting in a warning, loss of badge privileges from a session or event, or it could result in sending the attendee home without a refund.

‘If we don’t know about the issue then things can fester and make the experience unfortunate or uncomfortable. When you’re in an employee organisation, you have managers and you have peers and you have colleagues, and you’re hopefully in a very friendly area where you will feel comfortable and you have resources like HR and legal to help you. When you’re an attendee, while you are not at a place of work, we still wanted to provide a resource that is simple and accessible for everyone.’

‘We have a process that shows to our employees the level of care and meaning behind the words that we give, and by having a dynamic level of code of conduct for conferences, it also reflects that we care deeply about the experiences even at our external events – and we’re there to help.’

Into the future

Right now, Ruiter is at the stage of refreshing her code of conduct training to reflect this year’s legislative and regulatory changes, and is developing new ideas to keep it fresh. In addition, TED has worked with an illustrator-designer to create a simple, brightly coloured employee handbook that matches the tone of the training.

Above all, she believes, what you do must be steeped in the culture of the organisation – which means that, ideally, you should be too.

‘Try to be authentic with your clients, and learn about what is relevant to them. By doing so, it changes perspectives from “them” to “we”, and from “I” to “us”… setting a better standard and approach that ultimately is more effective overall and can hopefully drive better impact.’

Photographs by Dian Lofton/TED