Thursday, September 10, 2015

Talking TED Talk

We can properly speak of social and political institutions evolving in a more or less 'rational' manner, only if we consider the detailed ways in which such institutions develop - or fail to develop - in response to the specific requirements of changing historical situations. 
- Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding

One-hundred and thirty or so years ago you might have gone to a pitched tent or rented hall to see such a thing. The Chautauqua would have come to town and arrayed before you would have been the wisdom, wit, and wow of the age. Two-hundred or so years ago, you might have attended a Lyceum event and taken in a similar array. Both movements moved through the 19th and the early 20th centuries. A few Chautauquas persist today and claim an unbroken continuity reaching back a dozen decades.

Chautauquas and Lyceums were popular and sometimes populist venues. Both developed circuits with touring orators and notables seeking to educate, enlighten, entertain, push product, promote a cause or cure, and make a dollar or two. Apparently there is something to the appeal to this sort of traveling show that persists. For the last thirty years, this abiding appeal has manifested as TED.
TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.
TED would not be the first to believe that ideas matter - or to believe so passionately. Nor, as the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements before it make evident, TED would also not be the first to bring to its zeal for ideas a bit of show business - in roughly equal parts.

TED manages to stay shiny even after three decades, but not without some dings. TED has drawn criticism on several fronts (see here and here and here and here and here), but the one that I think sticks is that it is elitist. TED seems not to notice it confirms the elitist critique- or "myth" as they prefer to call it -even as it claims to "debunk" it.
In one sense, yes — we curate our speaker list and our TED Talks lineup very carefully. And we "curate" our audience at conferences to make sure we have a balanced, diverse group that can support our mission of bringing great ideas to the world for free. 
"Curating" the audience means you apply to sit in a TED conference seat and provide two references. If selected (assuming your references check out), you also need to fork over several thousand dollars. "But," TED wants us to know, they "also work hard not to be elitist in ways that matter."

Apart from the elitism critique, other complaints about TED tend to come from samplings of the curated subjects of the thousands of TED Talks now available or specific talks deemed by TED as especially egregious (notably, Graham Hancock, Rupert Sheldrake, and Rick Hanauer - curated, by others, here; and, notoriously Sarah Silverman).

Well, some difference of opinion is to be expected I suppose. Even the TED tagline "Ideas worth spreading*" includes an asterisk.

For a while posting videos of TED Talks, i.e., recordings of the right people talking to the right people, was one way TED sought to counter the elitist charge and try to accommodate "just folks" in ways that mattered. Then they began to spread the ideas worth spreading by allowing for "local TED-like experiences." Just as the Mother Chautauqua spawned daughter Chautauquas and tent Chautauquas, so too has TED spawned TEDx. 

These TEDx TED-like experiences were launched in 2008. Spring 2016 will see one come to Rochester as TEDxZumbroRiver. What can we expect? A curated event. What does that mean? Here's a clue:
Look for ideas, not speakers 
It’s actually not the person you should be searching for, but the person’s idea or innovation. This is a great way to decipher between a TEDx speaker, and an interesting person with an “okay” idea. What will the audience walk away knowing – that this person exists, or a new idea?
For example, if you were to describe a potential talk to a stranger and say more about the speaker (“this lady who runs that local charity,” “this guy who made this film”) than a specific idea, that's a clue that you need to go back to that speaker and find their idea, not their identity. 
So, what ideas are you looking for?
  • Look for new ideas that originate in your community but are widely relatable
  • Look for ideas that need to be defended – not something self-evident, but an interesting argument, perhaps with an antagonist.
  • Look for an idea the TED world hasn't heard before. (In other words, not a copy of a TED Talk you like!)
  • Look for ideas that change perceptions. (e.g., a scientific discovery that changes how you think about frogs, a philosophical argument that reshapes your notions of friendship.)
TEDx Speaker Checklist
Is this speaker...
  • a local voice that few people have heard before?
  • someone who can present their field in a new light?
  • someone with a perspective to which the global TED community may not have access?
  • diverse by demographic, ethnicity, background, and/or topic? 
TEDxZumbroRiver is taking speaker applications and nominations. Have at it.

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