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Five things I learned from my first TEDx

Wait... so what is it?

There's something about proper British diction that causes even the most off hand statements to evoke interest in the listener. A simple request for a glass of water [or "weoah • tah" for my friends across the pond] becomes a sophisticated means for slaking one's thirst. When this is added to thought provoking ideas and near impeccable timing the speaker is sure to have the audience's rapt attention. Like many, my first exposure to "TED Talks" came from Sir Ken Robinson's 2006 presentation entitled, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?". His poise on stage, his insight into education, and well his delightful accent all worked together to keep my attention for a full 20 minutes.

Roughly a decade ago TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] burst onto the social media landscape as a bit of an anomaly. The talks were highly informative but didn't feel like presentations, they were embedded within stories and yet remained substantial; above all they were "ideas worth spreading". To date there are close to 3,000 TED videos on the official website featuring talks from politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, students, activists, and even EMTs. In an effort to make the TED experience more accessible TedX was launched in 2009, allowing independently organized events to take place around the globe. 15,000 events and 1 billion views later, you're likely to find an event within driving distance.

In June of 2017, our school's Director of Curriculum, Liz Cho [meet Liz here], threw a crazy idea out to a handful of colleagues... "Why not host a TEDx @ GSIS?". She had looked into it and not only was a license available but there was also a workshop in August to support would be organizers. A small cadre of us were immediately on board and in short order a license was acquired, a location determined, and an organizing team was established. We arrived at the name TEDx YeongHeungForest as it was the name of the forrest directly behind our campus. I was slated to be the "Speaker Trainer" for the event but those holding organizer roles were not allowed to speak so I sheepishly asked to be taken off the team so that I could apply to speak. Liz... I owe you:)

So here's the five most important things I learned from my speaking at my first TEDx.

#1 Believe in the organizer's vision.

Since TEDx talks are often viewed in isolation from the actual event the public tends to be unaware of the unifying theme that ties everything together. Yet it's this unifying theme that provides scope for the range of experiences the guests will have and it's the very thing that should frame your talk. For #TEDxYHForest the theme was a question: Where do you belong? Like many international hubs the global community of South Korea is highly mobile and diverse. Belonging carries a huge array of connotations for all attendees.

When speaker applications were posted I set aside some undisturbed time to reflect on what belonging means to me and how I might be able to articulate that meaning in a compelling fashion. This is how I arrived at my talk "The Perfect Tortilla" (I'll post it soon). If you're considering to apply to speak at a TEDx make sure that you can get behind the organizer's vision and seek out his or her input so that your contribution dovetails it.

Which leads me to the next thing I learned...

#2 A TEDx talk is just one of many stories to be told.

While on stage, that time was mine alone. The lights cast their warm glow on me alone. The eyes, ears, and [hopefully] the minds, of the attendees are fixed on me alone. But my time was merely a fraction of what transpired during the entire event. TEDxYHForest had 12 speakers, multiple interactive elements, 100 attendees, and 40+ volunteers. Each contributed their own unique hue to the great kaleidoscope that was our event.

Any speaker who stops to consider the scope of the experiences in the room should feel a distinct sense of gratitude. We were honored with the gift of someone else's time. The attendees each brought their own stories with them: stories that deserve to be on stage as much as anyone else's. The few moments I took to learn those stories were some of the most enriching of the day.

While preparing for a talk that would later be made available online was a sizable task, it paled in comparison to what the volunteer team had to accomplish. For months they endured a steady barrage of concerns ranging from ticket prices, set design, promotional materials, people's dietary needs, tech complications, and so forth. Their tireless and exemplary efforts are a story in their own right.


Speaking of being exemplary...

#3 Carry yourself as a professional.

If you are considering becoming an organizer, volunteer, or speaker for a TEDx event be sure to bring your "A game". Bottom line once you apply to do any of those things and are accepted you have no excuse for a sub-par effort. Forget that you're not getting paid to do this. You're representing a global organization, a local community, and yourself. Whether you're speaking on the stage, handing out name tags, or painting those blasted red letters , put forth quality effort.

For you speakers out there:

If you have a deadline, beat it.

If you have a scheduling conflict with a rehearsal, rearrange it.

If you have a fear of failure or other people's feedback, punch it in the face [the fear not the people!!!].

Before finally stepping on stage I practiced my talk at least 20 times; 3-5 times a day leading up to the event and a handful more the day of. While that might seem obsessive I wanted those who purchased tickets and those who worked to put the event together to know I was grateful for their contributions. I showed my gratitude by being a professional.

Which might make the next point seem like a contradiction...

#4 Don't take yourself too seriously.

So how can you carry yourself as a professional while not taking yourself too seriously? I find this balance is best achieved when we are convinced that what we are doing is important while remembering that we are not that important. If you've ever worked with someone who has an inflated sense of self-importance you'll know how toxic his or her presence can be on others. Inflated self-importance causes a person to diminish the contributions and value of others while they seek to ramp up their own. This of course creates problems when one of the goals of the event is to generate experiences of belonging and empathy.

Be yourself, be authentic, be OK with your idiosyncrasies. The event isn't so much about impressing people as it is about inspiring people. Sincerity makes you more relatable and it goes a long way towards helping people connect with you.


This of course requires humility, which is essential for the next point...

#5 If you didn't learn something from someone else you weren't paying attention.

As a casual observer of my speaking colleagues I learned that: Nudibranchs are wondrous sea creatures whose existence is threatened by marine pollution, Comic-books are a powerful means of social commentary that both respond to and shape popular thought, even a 10 year old girl can discover a life-long passion through dance, and 14,000 Korean Adoptees lack necessary U.S. documentation due to a broken political system. These stories (and all the rest) were compelling not only for their content but for the contours they revealed about the world we live in.

Approach TEDx with an open heart and curious mind. Step into the stories of the other speakers and organizers. This makes the experience more meaningful as it enables everyone to enrich each other. Truly the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Well that's it for now! Once the video of my TEDx talk is ready I'll post it and share some thoughts on how to prepare your own idea worth spreading!

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