Make me care

521247814_7e13273476_mI mentioned last week that I had somehow gotten through the filters and was accepted as part of the audience for last Friday’s TEDx Lausanne conference. I was really excited, because I am a huge TED fan. I’ve listened to lots of TED talks on the internet, and been very inspired. TED’s motto “Ideas worth sharing,” resonates with me. I’m an idea person.

So there I was, nametag around my neck: Self-Employed. I should have put CEO, Gydle Publishing Empire but I didn’t realize I’d get it on a nametag. Oh well, next time. Other people’s nametags also sported words describing things they cared about: virtual reality, world peace, vegetarianism, Internet of Things. I think it was supposed to be a conversation-starter. Since I’d apparently left this bit blank on the registration form, I just roamed around, not conversing. That was okay, because Nespresso co-sponsored the event and so there was plenty of coffee.

Maybe I set myself up for disappointment. Maybe listening to the best TED talks on the internet didn’t prepare me for this reality: very few people know how to give a good talk. Out of a hundred 15-minute talks, you’re lucky to get about ten good ones. On Friday we were lucky, because a few were relatively decent. But nothing really inspired me.  The organizers of the conference probably will blacklist me for this, but when it was over, oddly enough I felt kind of like the girl in the conference’s homepage image (above): disconnected. What was that we just sped past?

During the breaks, I had some interesting conversations with people who weren’t intimidated by my lack of professional affiliation; and after the talks were over I met some of the speakers and talked with them as well. They’re great people who are quite passionate about their work. It must be scary as hell to give a TEDx talk to an audience secretly hoping to hear somebody like Al Gore or Sir Ken Robinson. (I hope none of them read my blog. If you’re reading this, you know who you are, I think you’re great and keep up the good work…).

I’m not going to deconstruct the talks here, or my conversations with other attendees, even though there were some interesting ideas exchanged in both venues. Instead I’m going to share what I thought about during most of the conference, at least when I wasn’t thinking about what I should have put on my nametag or why none of the speakers was talking about gamification, given that the theme of the conference was ostensibly the future. Which was: What makes for a good TED talk?

At about 3:30 pm, I had an epiphany of sorts: In fact, a good TED talk isn’t about the speaker at all. It’s not about the audience, either. It transcends all those individual egos. A good TED talk is really just a novel form of energy transfer.

In a good talk, the passionate idea in the speaker’s head somehow takes hold of the heads and hearts of the audience. In a good talk, the speaker builds a connection with the audience using words, pictures, laughter and silence, until a kind of mental bridge forms between them and energy flows freely through the room. The audience ends up really, truly caring. If you hooked them up to brain wave monitors, I’m guessing their hippocampi would be lighted up like Christmas trees. The idea is shared. It’s emotional, it’s inspiring and above all, it’s uplifting.

In a good talk, the audience doesn’t have to work to follow the talk or to be inspired. No, quite the contrary: it’s practically impossible for them not to be inspired, not to care, to remain indifferent. Unless, of course, they’re psychopaths. But the likelihood of an audience of psychopaths at a TEDx conference is pretty slim – even in California. Certainly not in Lausanne.

So next time you have to give a talk, I challenge you to think about this energy transfer: Why do you care about your idea? Where is its energy coming from? Dig deep and find the source of your passion, the place where it all starts. Tap into that. That’s the story the audience wants to hear. Look into their eyes, work some magic with words, pictures, jokes and pregnant pauses, and then beam it out there, Scotty.

Disclaimer: I am not a public speaking expert. I would probably give a horrible talk, although I’d try hard not to. For some really useful tips on how to give a speech, I do actually know a real public speaking expert, John Zimmer, and he has a blog called Manner of Speaking. I recommend it.

Photo Credit: Ward. via Compfight cc

3 thoughts on “Make me care

  1. Mary, you are so right about the difficulty of speaking and good transfer. As good a lesson for me as for others. I will try to remember and I tend to agree with your comments on TedX

  2. Hello Mary,

    Somehow I discover your blog only now. Having been co-curator of TEDxLausanne 2012 and 2013 I find it interesting to read what you write. Indeed, the most inspiring talks I have seen (live or on video) are the ones that grip your heart and make your brain vibrate in the same frequency as the speaker’s brain.

    For the 2013 edition, we spent a lot more time working with the speakers to get that intensity. Sometimes we are lucky and it comes all by itself. For others we think we get that intensity easily, but then it doesn’t happen.

    And then there is also the fact that we want diversity. And we also want to give visibility to young and inexperienced people, people who may not be great speakers, but who have great ideas. We accept risks on the quality there, intentionally.

    Finding the right speakers, and then preparing them is definitively the most important and most difficult task of organising a TEDx event, even more if it is done – as in our case – entirely by volunteers. And indeed, the expectations of people coming to a TEDx event are generally extraordinary high. A real challenge for us.

    We hope that for future editions, we get even more of that intensity and hope to welcome you again.


    • Hi Simon,
      thanks for stopping by. You’re right that TEDx talks are a challenge to the organizers – an opportunity to get great speakers in front of a good audience, as well as a risk, that your speakers won’t meet that audience’s expectations, given the standards of the TED “brand.” And of course it must be so scary to stand up there in front of all those expectations as a speaker.

      I laud your efforts, particuarly since they’re not compensated financially. I didn’t make the 2013 edition – I did go to the one at EPFL, however, which had, as TEDx Lausanne, a couple great and more less great talks. Keep up the good work and hope to stop by for 2014.

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