TEDx Storytelling Culture

One Lesson from 10 years of TEDxColumbus

We are crazy for our city, which is why Nancy Kramer and I have been at TEDxColumbus for 10 years. Maybe one of a handful of continuous license holders since 2009, we are happy TED doesn’t publish the real “who has survived this long” stats, or we may have quit long ago. Our focus was on celebrating the discoveries, perspectives and innovations from those who lived here. As we pass the baton to a new generation of “staff” (Acacia Duncan and Meagan Buren on my articulation team, thankfully) Nancy and I will migrate to board roles to work on a bigger sustainability plan for sharing ideas.

We celebrated the 10th annual TEDxColumbus on Friday. In the meantime, I am obviously in a reflective state about how we got here and what we’ve learned. For today’s blog, I want to memorialize the culture of support that TEDxColumbus has created for the speakers to deliver such consequential and memorable talks. If I had to narrow down the learnings of the last decade to one lesson, it would be this. Coaching and speaker support are the secrets to the event’s and speakers’ success.

I’ll start with the words of Larry Smith, a transplant from Brooklyn to Columbus in 2015 and the author of the popular Six-Word memoir books. He gave a talk at TEDxColumbusWomen in May 2015. He said:

“I wasn’t expecting Columbus to blow away the talks I’d seen in California or New York at their local TEDx events. But they did. And having delivered one myself, I can personally attest it comes down to how they organized support and coaching.”

With that, my five insights from what unpacks that “culture of support” include:

1. Supporting the speakers individually with coaching.

This is repeatedly our greatest praise point, and it’s because no one has ever supported them before inside their content with iterative coaching. Each speaker gets a dedicated coach. Period.

2. Having the time to be iterative.

We know that TED starts coaching their talks pretty far out, but we found that eight weeks is the sweet spot. It’s enough time to visit with the speakers four times individually and still let them have some group and peer reviews. It’s enough inertia to get them focused, but not too early to let them think “too much” about it.

3. Speaking of peer reviews…

The last few years our speakers have raved about their opportunity to practice with each other. Mind you, when their journey started, they usually had never heard of each other. But the TEDx peers represented the audience; this is different from their own academic, research or business peers who were deep in their space. We always warn folks to be careful about practicing with your own labs or work peers, because the result is more inaccessible language that alienates smart and curious audiences with no background or context for science and data terms.

4. Setting the right expectations.

This probably could be No. 1, but there are a few non-negotiables about being in TEDxColumbus

#1: speakers will get a coach.

#2.  speakers will show up for coaching.

#3.  speakers will show up for rehearsal.

When we realized that getting some compliance to be coached and show up for rehearsals started with the first invitation email, things got so much easier. In the 500 or so talks we’ve coached in the TED or TEDx style, we’ve had three really oppositional speakers who refused coaching. (On other stages, not ours!) You can guess how their talks turned out.

5. Time, as in minutes in the idea.  

The parameters around a TEDx talk are a given less than 18 minutes, one idea, no notes, no podium. But the narrowing of the idea is not. The hardest part of getting people to their best talk is to understand that after the idea is established, in the boxing match that is time vs content, time ALWAYS wins. In the words of Acacia after a speaker that I coached completed his talk: “Your talk was really good at 16 minutes, but it was great at 12.” Eliminating the fluff needs tons of careful coaching and support for even the best of content organizers and thinkers.

And lastly, a point which should be a given. But we are enthusiastic to, for and about our speakers. Our feedback is fair and balanced with a better talk in mind. They appreciate the candor and the knowledge that this continuum of touches – from the invite to submit an idea to the invite to talk to the talk itself- are with the whole speaker in mind. The one who has to travel for work, has kids in busy activities, is working through their “idea” while trying to write a talk about it.

The bottom line: this process is not linear and requires many cranks to the wheel. Sometimes the speakers crank the wheel and other times we take a few turns. But in the end, we know that this culture of support will help each TEDxColumbus speaker deliver the talk of their lives.

If you missed the 2018 TEDxColumbus, watch for speaker videos to be posted online soon. In the meantime, brush up on your own speaking skills at our Dec. 7 Content Framing and Storytelling class. Register now.