Dispatches from TEDActive: Veteran TEDx organizers share advice on preparing speakers for the big day

imageTEDx’ers brainstorm at TEDActive. (Photo by Kris Krug)

This week, hundreds of new and veteran TEDx organizers have assembled at TEDActive for a week of collaboration, insight, and ideas worth spreading.

With all these TEDx’ers in one place, there’s an abundance of advice for new and prospective organizers being thrown around.

In an effort to share these insights with the world outside TEDActive, we’ve asked three experienced organizers one question: “What are the most important steps to preparing TEDx speakers for the stage?”

Below, key points from their advice:

From Mike Lungren of TEDxKC:

  • Tell your speakers from the get-go that they can’t give their usual, canned talk.
  • Never let them prepare like they’re giving a talk. Instead, make them think about it like they’re at a dinner party and telling the one story of the night that makes the whole table pause.
  • Tell them that when they step on stage they should feel comfortable to let a beat or two go by, take a breath, and anchor their feet before beginning.
  • Force your speakers to break from linear narratives. Just because their story starts in one place, doesn’t mean their talk should.

From Wardah Jamil of TEDxPhoenix:

  • Set key milestones for each speaker.
  • Ask for their full stories first, then push them to focus on the one or two most salient points.
  • Hold several rehearsals through video conference.
  • Get them on stage to rehearse at least once the day before the show.
  • Give every speaker a personal liaison dedicated to boosting their ego and calming their nerves.
  • Provide a green room with snacks, drinks, and access to their liaison. In other words, make them feel like real rock stars — confident and special.

From Ruth Milligan of TEDxColumbus:

  • Set a high standard for yourself. The event is ultimately your product and you should feel proud of the talks that you’re putting out.
  • From the beginning, establish that it’s going to be a fluid process — your speakers first draft will not be their last.
  • Use polite persistence. Stand for the quality that you expect from your speakers.
  • Get tough when you need to. Don’t be afraid of big egos. And be honest when you smell failure. If you feel that you need to cut a speaker, do it.
  • Record, transcribe, edit, repeat. Few people write like they speak and speakers that start by scripting will likely end up sounding unnatural on stage.
  • Go to where they are. In other words, guide speakers to their own deep insights. Don’t force them in a box of your design. Sometimes you’re a speaker coach and sometimes you’re a personal therapist.
  • When a speaker sounds too rehearsed, they’re not done rehearsing. Make them let go of their strict plan and rely on the fact that they understand their idea better than anyone else. And if they still don’t feel confident, make them fake it ‘til they make it.
  • Remember that no artist (or artist-type) will ever feel that their talk is done. You can only make them feel comfortable with an unfinished product.

I scream; you scream; we all scream for TEDx ice cream: To help promote TEDxOxford in the famed English university town, local ice cream shop G&D’s collaborated with the team on a very special concoction: TEDx ice cream. Offered as a limited release in the store, the raspberry white chocolate creation boasted a sign that invited dessert-eaters to visit the event’s website and find out more about the local celebration of ideas.

"The idea came about very simply," said organizer Chris Toumazis. "All of us in the team love ice cream, and [G&D’s] really knocks our socks off. G&D’s is a great local business that has a very loyal student and local following - they have a customer turnover in the high thousands every semester. Our first event (in 2011) was in the tail-end of summer, so we thought that in the summer term preceding it a great way to promote ticket applications was to sell TEDxOxford ice cream. We also always try to collaborate with local businesses that we really like, so we were pretty excited about the idea.

We approached G&D’s, who were delighted to get involved. We went in, played around with flavours in accordance with the TED colours (this was probably the best part for me), and landed upon raspberry sorbet with white chocolate bits. It tasted out of this world. They said that they would put it on for a trial-run to see how it sold. It turned out to be a huge hit, and sold out within the week - very rare for new flavours.”

5 tips from a TEDxWomen organizer on becoming a better leader

Below, a post from Henna Inam, organizer of TEDxCentennialParkWomen, part of this year’s TEDxWomen initiative:


TEDxCentennialParkWomen — Photo by lorikay Photography

In the last two years, I have learned more about leadership through leading groups of volunteers than during my entire 20-year corporate career. Leading volunteer teams is a humbling experience from which any leader can benefit. As the workplaces of the future move from command and control hierarchies to networks of alliances within and outside organizations, these sort of experiences help us develop the traits each of us need to learn to lead in the future.

On Dec 1, I was part of an all-volunteer team that pulled off a TEDxWomen event called TEDxCentennialParkWomen. Within three months, we did our legal set-up, curated nine amazing speakers, found sponsors, venue, created a website, brand identity, marketing, PR, social media platforms, concluding with our inaugural event launch with about 100 people participating. We didn’t charge for tickets. Team members had not worked together before. They had full-time jobs, businesses, families. Most of our meetings were virtual. No one was paid to do anything. Were we all on drugs? If so, I’ll bet some companies want that prescription!

Here are the 5 leadership lessons I learned from this experience:

1)  Organizations must serve individuals – For true engagement to happen, leaders must find a way to help people achieve their personal goals through the organization.  Some volunteers jumped in because they saw the opportunity to express their own beliefs through our mission (“to educate, inspire, and empower women in all aspects of their lives”). Some jumped in because they saw this as a way to learn new skills, to express their strengths, to get exposure, to make new friends, connections, and contacts. Not everyone’s motivation was the same. I needed to understand each individual’s motivation and find a way for the organization to fulfill it. This is a flip of the assumption I had in corporate America: People (including me) are here to serve the organization.  We need both for engagement to happen.

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TEDxKrakow hackers code into the night

The night before TEDxKrakow's 2012 event, four groups of hackers  — web developers, app developers, graphic designers and computer programmers — greeted the morning with four brand new platforms for civic engagement in their city.

This was TEDxKrakow’s Hackathon, an all-night coding session designed to create solutions for the local community.

"Here in Krakow we’re blessed with a thriving community of developers and programmers, so when one of our partners (the Krakow branch of the Sii Group) wanted to meet them as part of their involvement with the event, we came up with the idea of organizing a hackathon," said organizer Ewa Spohn.

"In Krakow, hackathons aren’t anything new and they happen regularly, but they tend to focus on commercial applications," she said. As TEDxKrakow is a non-profit, and our goal is to make a difference in this enchanting and sometimes surprising city, we wanted to do something a little more interesting."

Inspired by Jennifer Pahlka’s TEDTalk, “Coding a better a government," the team of TEDxKrakow decided that ideas worth spreading needed to become actions worth doing in groups of 1s and 0s.

They went to the regional governor’s office to ask for a partner in the state, knowing that developments can’t happen without data.

"I had little hope of a positive answer as Polish government agencies are still reeling from decades of communist rule and release public data reluctantly, but to my surprise he loved our idea. In fact, he said he’s been waiting for years for a grassroots initiative to find him, and added that he’d give us access to anything we want," said Ewa.

“Everyone from the police to health service, education, social care, environmental protection, immigration and major infrastructure investments report to him,” she said, “so the potential was giant.”

Thanks to the governor, the TEDxKrakow team soon had pools of valuable community data, ready to be mined for service to the city.

"Much to our amazement," said Ewa, "it all came together the night before TEDxKrakow (and the night that TEDxKids@Krakow was happening). About 40 developers and graphic designers gathered together in a co-working space in the district of Kazimierz, and over the obligatory beer and pizza, they got to work."

Programmers divided into four groups, each group dedicated to a different system: .net, Java, Android and iOS. “There was also a team who managed the extraction of data from the city’s database,” said Ewa. “Each group came up with an idea for an app based on the data provided, and we chose one that won a small prize at the end of the evening — around 1 a.m.”

Screenshot from Shrank

The winning project, Shrank, allows potential home buyers and renters to determine which districts of Krakow best fit their requirements for a neighborhood, taking into account city data on parks, crime, market prices, number of families, and options for public transportation.

Another app that caught the judges’ interest was aimed at tourists, said Ewa. Krakow is a city of 800,000 that receives over 9 million visitors a year, she said, so assistance to this overflow of tourists is necessary. The app, something new for the city, provides directions to various historical monuments in and around the city.

A crowd favorite created a challenge for users — a quiz on Krakow based on population data in an app that allows users to pit their knowledge against their friends.

"All in all, the TEDxKrakow Hackathon was a resounding success," said Ewa. "Our sponsor got to know local tech leaders, our programmers had fun, met each other, and some even found employment."

Though what was most important to the team at TEDxKrakow was the bond created between government and citizen, a bond they will hope will encourage innovations to come. “Our [governor] saw that a lot can be achieved in a very short period of time,” said Ewa. “If you just give people the data, things happen. It doesn’t require a huge IT budget and years of life-sapping project management to make something happen.”

TEDxKrakow team members hope a Krakow API will be next, but for now another Hackathon will take place in December.

Unsurprisingly, this second edition of the TEDxKrakow Hackathon is already creating buzz in the city. “We’ve already got a lot of interest from potential partners and government institutions,” said Ewa, and she’s quite convinced things won’t stop there.

"If there are any other Polish coders out there who want to come and play, contact us api@tedxkrakow.com," she said.